Featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Older than the city on which she stands, Lucy the Elephant has spent the last 138 years of her life as many different facades. In 1881, Philadelphia real estate speculator James V. Lafferty began his legacy of pachyderm-patented buildings. The hope behind these uniquely-shaped observatories was that property buyers would visit and choose to invest in available real estate.
The Trunkated History
With the help of Philadelphia architect William Free, Lafferty began drawing up blueprints and designs; the elephant began to take shape. At a reported cost somewhere between $25,000 and $38,000—a considerable amount of money at this time—contractors starting building “Elephant Bazaar,” the original name of Lafferty’s creation.
Lafferty felt so confident in his animal-shaped creations that the U.S. Patent Office granted him a 17-year patent, No. 268,503. This designation gave him the exclusive right to make, use, or sell animal-shaped buildings.
Upon completion, Elephant Bazaar was placed in southern Atlantic City in hopes of luring investors to the empty marshland. For six years, Lafferty publicized his creations all over neighboring New Jersey towns and Philadelphia. Advertisements and newspapers were plastered with real estate and building lots for sale in “fast booming South Atlantic City.”
Unfortunately, Elephant Bazaar’s fame was short-lived. Lafferty seemed to extend himself a bit too far and in 1887, he opted for selling his creations and land to willing buyer Anton Gertzen. Anton’s daughter-in-law, Sophia Gertzen, is responsible for changing Elephant Bazaar to Lucy the Elephant in 1902.
Under this new management, Lucy lived on as a gambling place, a summer home to an English doctor, a tavern, a 40-tent tourist camp, and—until the Volstead Act of 1920—a speakeasy. Following the business’ lawful shutdown, Sophia, the only remaining family member with a connection to the elephant, was left to financially support her family and keep Lucy’s legacy alive.
Sophia decided to change the famed elephant into a rooming house for which she charged a 10-cent admission fee. The registry shows that in 1916, President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, Vincent and John Jacob Astor, the duPonts of Delaware, Henry Ford, and even the Rajah of Bhong and wives from Singapore were all guests of Lucy the Elephant.
After many years of continually changing identities, the hotel, attraction, refreshment stand, bathhouse, and rental cottage was eventually donated to the City of Margate and her land was sold to developers.
In a very rugged and decaying state, Lucy was slated to be demolished until a group of concerned Margate citizens established the Save Lucy Committee. From door-to-door canvassing and donations, they raised enough money to move the 90-ton Lucy. She was loaded onto the back of a truck-pulled trailer and took a leisurely drive to her forever home on South Decatur Avenue.
Building a Name for Herself
Modeled after P.T. Barnum’s “Jumbo the Elephant,” Lucy was not a simple project. It’s said that a million pieces of timber, 8,560 arches, 200 kegs of nails, and four tons of bolts and bars were utilized in her complex construction, in addition to being covered with 12,000 square feet of tin.
Her body is 38 feet long and 80 feet in circumference, and her head: 16 feet long and 48 feet in circumference. Her massive ears measure in at 17 feet long and 10 feet wide. Believe It or Not! it is estimated that each ear weighs 2,000 pounds. Lucy can be seen—without the use of binoculars—from approximately up to eight miles away!
Last Woman Standing
Putting his patent to good use, Lafferty produced three pachyderm projects in his time. Elephant Bazaar, or Lucy, was second in line among Lafferty’s elephant parade. However, she’s the only one still intact and standing on all fours.
Lafferty’s first masterpiece was known as Light of Asia. This 40-foot wooden elephant was built on land near the beach of what is now known as the Borough of South Cape May. Despite the floods of visitors, the structure was never a financial success. By the spring of 1900, the light had burned out on this property. The elephant deteriorated past the point of return and was torn down.
Elephantine Colossus was Lucy’s second relative in the neighboring state of New York, living as an attraction for the popular, Coney Island. While at first business was booming, the structure’s worth as an attraction faded as new hot-spots grew up around it, competing for visitors’ dollars. Unfortunately, following its slow demise, the building caught fire in September of 1896 and crumbled to the sand.
Lucy’s Living Legacy
Through the financial support and affection of her visitors, Lucy the Elephant continues to tower over the town of Margate City. After 138 years of identity crises, hurricanes, floods, and lightning strikes, she remained a fighter and has been officially deemed as a National Historic Landmark.
Today, visitors can tour the six-story elephant during their visit to Margate, New Jersey. Upon entry of Lucy the Elephant, guests ascend a spiral staircase to the main level of her figure and eventually end at the tip-top: the howdah on her back. Providing a 360-degree view of the shore, it’s the perfect end to a full-scope experience.
From real estate marketing stunt to America’s Oldest Surviving Roadside attraction, Lucy has proven to be an elephant who’s hard to forget.