Monday, 6 February 2012

The Room in the Elephant

There’s a long tradition of eccentric architectural forms, often inspired by the desire to symbolise spiritual or religious beliefs. The Colossal Elephant of Coney Island has more temporal origins being inspired by the need to maximise returns on sums invested. As the Scientific American dated July 11, 1885 expressed it the purpose was “to abstract the unwary dime from the inquisitive sight-seer”. Designed to function as a hotel by architect J Mason Kirby for the developer James V Lafferty, it was constructed in timber clad with sheets of tinplate in 1885, a decade before the railroad arrived and two decades before Luna Park and Dreamland amusement parks set the tone for future development. When complete the Elephant had seven floors of accommodation and a suite of 34 rooms some of which took their names from the creature’s bodily functions. There was a stomach room, thigh room, hip room and brain room – in the interests of public decency the more basic organs went uncelebrated. Surmounting the creature was a howdah that served as an observation platform with spectacular views. Accounts of the actual operation of the hotel are hard to find and it would be interesting to know whether its unusual form rendered it impractical as a working hotel. It seems that decline was early and rapid – some sources claim it became a house of ill-repute, others that it stood vacant for several years before being destroyed by fire in September 1896. Lafferty developed two other less ambitious seaside pachydermal pavilions, one of which, named Lucy, is still in existence in Margate, New Jersey.

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