Monday, October 1, 2012

The Bellevue Hotel and the Ocean City of My Youth


Fire at the Bellevue Hotel, Ocean City, NJ, 28 September 2012
(photo by Dale Gerhard @pressofatlanticcity.com)


The Jersey Shore has always held a place very close to my heart.  And by the "Jersey Shore," I don't mean Bruce Springsteen's Asbury Park  as worthy as the Stone Pony may be for a pilgrimage  let alone the Seaside Heights of the wretched "Jersey Shore" "reality" show.  For me, as it is for hundreds of thousands of other Philadelphians hailing from conservative, often teetotaling families, the "Jersey Shore" means one place: Ocean City.  Indeed, it has ever since I was lucky enough to spend the summers of 1965 and 1966 there, living in a home on Brighton Place while my dad was doing summer ministry with a dozen or so college students likewise boarding there.

My memories of those summers are uniformly positive.  And what was there for a boy of 8 and 9 not to like?  Mornings playing wiffle ball in the generous side yard or basketball in the back alley; going to the beach every afternoon at Park Place  sometimes by myself! a different era indeed   to swim and play quoits; walking to the store on the boardwalk over the sea to buy baseball cards (I still remember getting the 1965 Willie Stargell in a pack there); walking the boardwalk in the evenings when not attending services at Ocean City Baptist Church some blocks away; getting an ice cream cone with square scoops and a sourball in the bottom of the sugar cone at the incomparable Johnson's on the boardwalk at the end of the street.  The memories I have of those summers are vivid all these years later, as are the pictures of the old town which remain engraved as on granite in the recesses of my mind.  In my mind, I know what a "shore town" is supposed to look like, viz., the Ocean City of the mid-60s.


Ocean City's uniqueness stems from its founding, in 1879, by four Methodist ministers, to be a Christian family resort.  Even today its heritage remains front and center.  It officially bills itself as "America's Greatest Family Resort," and just this year its citizens defeated a proposal to allow BYOB at city restaurants.  The human-built environment likewise reflects its unique character.  It has always lacked the ostentatiously grand hotels that used to line Atlantic City's boardwalk a mere 10 miles to the northeast (for my reflections on Atlantic City's faded glory, see here).  Its Victorian buildings always were more chaste than their incomparable, flamboyant counterparts in Cape May 32 miles to the southwest.  Most importantly, its famous, 2 1/2 mile long boardwalk has always been spared the tawdry tackiness that mars that of Wildwood 30 miles down the Garden State Parkway.  To me, Ocean City's beach homes and hotels struck the right balance between modesty and elegance (similar, in a sense, to those of Philadelphia when compared to New York, for instance).


But, alas, time marches forward and things, for better or for worse, change.  And so it has been with Ocean City's built environment.  Many things remain: the boardwalk, of course; the Flanders Hotel (though its marvelous, gigantic salt-water pools have been replaced with an amusement arcade); the Music Pier; the old Chatterbox Restaurant; even my old dwelling on Brighton Place.  But many more don't, victims of the real estate booms of the 1980s and 2000s and America's ugly preference for profit over aesthetics and history.  Hundreds of old homes outside the listed "historic district" have been lost, replaced by faceless behemoths with all the modern amenities demanded by a largely philistine clientele, but utterly lacking in charm or contextual appropriateness.  The situation is getting better but, as they say, "They can't build them the way they used to."  The old hotels I remember so vividly have likewise gone by the wayside: the Delaware Hotel at 3rd Street and the Boardwalk, The Breakers at 4th and the Boardwalk, The Biscayne at Ocean and Moorlyn Terrace, the Lincoln at 9th and Wesley, and the Oceanic on Wesley between 11th and 12th, whose flashing neon rooftop sign I used to see out the balcony window while daydreaming during nighttime sermons at Ocean City Baptist.  The city's three great seafood restaurants  Simms, Hogates, and Chris' (along with Chris's converted PT speed boat "the Flying Saucer")  all gone.  Most egregious of all: the leveling of Watson's restaurant at 9th and Ocean Avenue back in the 1980s to build the Watson Regency Suites. 



Belleview Hotel, August 2010
(photo by author)
Belleview Hotel, south front, August 2010
(photo by author)
Until last week there was one survivor among the old, gracious hotels of my childhood: the Bellevue at 8th and Ocean Avenue, built in 1908.  I never once set foot inside the elegant old hotel, though I walked by it dozens of times over the years.  When my wife, my two young daughters, and I visited Ocean City while on holiday away from the Dallas heat back in 1985, the Bellevue was already enough of an anachronism for me to take its picture along with other buildings I had remembered from my past.  Two years ago my wife and I stayed for two nights at the wonderfully decrepit and sparsely furnished Blue Water Inn, directly across Ocean Avenue from the Bellevue, which by that time was clearly showing its age.  When I visited Ocean City this past July and August, the old hotel had closed and been abandoned by its owner, a beached whale in the heart of the city.  There had been talk of converting it into housing for the elderly, but a series of strong storms last month led to a massive puddle on the roof of the hotel's rear addition, which eventually compromised the addition's structural supports.  As a result, the city condemned the building, mandating its demolition by later this month.  Friday, a blowtorch used to remove the exterior fire escape from the rear of the hotel sparked a massive blaze that destroyed the rear addition and will hasten the demise of the historic original part of the building as well.  I wish I could say I was surprised to hear the news.  But I was not.



Postcard of the Bellevue in its youth


In the grand scheme of things, the loss of this building provokes more nostalgia than genuine ire in me.  It is certainly no Marlborough-Blenheim, the majestic Atlantic City Hotel leveled back in the '70s in order for Bally's to erect a copper glass-clad box in its place.  Even less is it a monument like the old Pennsylvania Railroad's Broad Street Station in Philadelphia and Penn Station in Manhattan, both unceremoniously demolished in favor of monstrosities brought about by the Modernist scourge of the mid-20th century.  Nevertheless, I am not optimistic about any potential replacement for the Bellevue.  As always, I wonder why somebody in the booming resort hadn't stepped to the plate in recent years with plans to renovate the hotel.  If for nothing else, such a renovation would have aided in the always-desirable effort to maintain a historic town's historic character.  Whenever I wonder such things, however, the nasty realities of American life force themselves upon me: old buildings like the Bellevue simply can't make money like larger modern replacement structures.  And money matters more than anything else in our culture.  That is why I am singular pessimistic about any potential building that will eventually be built on the lot.  I am confident it will make a lot of money.  But, like all the structures that have replaced the lost buildings mentioned above, it will, at least to my sensibilities, prove to be a metaphorical carbuncle scarring the face of this most gracious of the Jersey Shore's old dames.  And, if so, it will conform to the pattern noticeable to anyone looking at "Then and Now" pictures of any American city.  As I have often said, looking at such photographs is the perfect antidote to buying into the myth of "progress" to which so many are still unaccountably beholden.

I leave you with a few pictures of some of the other lost buildings I remember so well.




The Hotel Biscayne as originally built
(photo @westjerseyhistory.org)

The Hotel Biscayne after remodeling, as I remember it
(photo @rivertonhistory.com)


(photo @westjerseyhistory.org)



(photo @westjerseyhistory.org)


Oceanic Hotel with its original turret
(photo @westjerseyhistory.com)


Watson's Restaurant.  I had many a great meal here, though I never ordered prime rib or lobster
(photo @rivertonhistory.com)
One of the first things you saw when you crossed the causeway bridge into town.
Note the "Flying Saucer," which reached speeds of up to 90 MPH
(photo @ocnjthrutheyears.blogspot.com)

9 comments:

  1. Hi Jim- I remember staying with you and Dan sometime in the early 70's when your dad was preaching at the tabernacle...those were fun times!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sure were, Andy. And I remember Dan and I staying with your family in the southern end of the island for a week back in '75. I remember staying out on the boardwalk while you guys went to see "Jaws."

      Delete
  2. I saw The Bellevue in late August and thought it looked nice.

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