Mar 13, 2019, 06:27AM

Memories of Coney Island

Nuts to the Wonder Wheel.

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Elevated lines approaching the Coney Island station serving D, F, N and Q trains have a great view of the current Coney landscape, provided you’re looking out the south side of the train. Seen here are two of Coney Island’s famous attractions, the Wonder Wheel and the lesser-known Grashorn Building, the brown building on the left with the “space available” sign.

The Wonder Wheel is the oldest amusement at Coney and still among the most popular. It was recently announced that it won’t be dethroned as NYC’s biggest permanent Ferris Wheel with the collapse of a project that would’ve brought a 600-foot-tall wheel to Staten Island, taller even than the 443-foot-tall London Eye. Built in 1918-1920 by the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company using 100 percent Bethlehem Steel forged on the premises, the 150-foot-tall Wheel opened on Memorial Day in 1920. It has been owned and operated by the Vouderis family since 1983.

A recent demolition permit has been issued for the Grashorn Building. As early as 1898 and continuing for at least a half-century, the building was the home of Henry Grashorn’s hardware store, which served the amusement industry. Coney Island in the late-19th and early-20th centuries was so dense with mechanical attractions that easily accessible hardware stores like Grashorn’s were a necessity. For the past few decades, it has sat empty except for serving as a location for several movie shoots. With its loss, the Herman Popper building, built as a distillery and tavern in 1904, and Nathan’s itself will be the oldest buildings remaining on Surf Ave. in the amusement area.

Like most other Brooklyn kids, my memories of Coney Island are rich. My parents and I did nearly the full amusement park experience, though I was too chicken to attempt either the Cyclone or Thunderbolt roller coasters (I never rode a roller coaster until the large one in the Mall of America in Minnesota in 1993; I continue to avoid near-death experiences as far as my amusement tastes are concerned). I didn’t ride the Wonder Wheel until about 2001 or 2002; I liked the expansive views, but will avoid the rocking car next time.

While one of my more vivid memories is the singing cowboy who stood on the bar, playing his guitar at the old Atlantis nightclub, when I think of Coney Island I remember the bus ride. In the 1960s the B64 bus was a direct connection from bay Ridge to Coney Island, running past the Dyker Park golf course and then through Bath Beach, glancing past the old West End elevated train on Stillwell and then over the rickety truss Stillwell Avenue Bridge over Coney Island Creek (replaced with a more substantial, but also more boring, bridge in the 1980s). I loved the Mack buses (better than the old General Motor the other routes used) and, of course, I’d notice what old streetlamps were still hanging on against the onslaught of the new ones.

I thought it’d be fun to wander about in Coney Island the day after a snowstorm, getting photos of my old favorites. 

A ride at the new Luna Park in Coney Island features scenes from days of old, including Charles Feltman’s Surf Ave. restaurant. Feltman, the purported inventor of the hot dog (it was originally a sausage served on a roll; the roll’s distinctive shape and the hot dog’s mild recipe evolved later on) operated a food wagon in Coney Island beginning in 1867, and by 1874 the profits enabled him to build his Ocean Pavilion. By 1946, when the restaurant finally closed, billions of frankfurters (also called since the sausage on roll treat had also arisen in Frankfurt, Germany as early as the 1500s) had been sold.

In 1916, a Feltman’s employee, Nathan Handwerker, struck out on his own, renting a shack at Surf and Stillwell Aves. and sold hot dogs for a nickel. In the early years business was slow. Handwerker hit on the gimmick of dressing some local layabouts in white smocks, set them up behind the counter selling franks, and advertising his hot dogs approved by “doctors.” With the arrival of the BMT subway in 1920, his location proved advantageous and he was soon selling thousands, then millions, of hot dogs. Seafood items and other food were added to the menu and Nathan’s became the familiar institution it is today. And, word comes that there will be a new hot dog place opening soon in Coney Island that’ll revive the old Feltman’s name.

Lunch at Nathan’s, if you have two dogs, medium fries and a drink, will set you back about $16. The hot dogs have that familiar snap casing that sets them apart but the real draw is the French fries, which are a little like deep fried baked potato slices, fashioned with crinkles. None of this stuff is any good for you, but life is short even if you eat nothing but bran, green leaves and drink rainwater.

The Bischoff and Brienstein (B&B) Carousel (or Carousell, as it is misspelled on the signs) had been a mainstay on Surf Ave. and West 12th St. since 1934. It was one of Coney's attractions, along with Nathan's, that was open all year and its familiar pipe organ could be heard on winter weekends. Its artwork shows WWI-era airplanes and, according to Charles Denson, it was built in 1919 by William Mangels, whose workshop was nearby, on W. 5th St. And yes, you could grab for a brass ring as you went around. After its operators closed, the city was going to auction it, but the Economic Development Corporation stepped in, acquiring it, completely restoring it and placing it on the boardwalk next to the Parachute Jump.

The Parachute Jump, originally constructed as a training device for paratroopers and featured as a passenger ride at the 1939-40 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, later moved to the Coney Island boardwalk. I’m not sure if its old conceit of dropping riders from great heights without seatbelts or other protections would be attempted today. The unused ride is probably Coney Island’s most recognizable artifact and can be seen from as far away as Bay Ridge, the Rockaway Peninsula and Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island.

I do eat seafood. Thing is, though, I mask it as much as possible. The more it’s sheathed in bread crumbs, butter, lemon, tartar sauce the better, to remove as much as the fish taste as possible. I’m a big fish and chips guy. Which brings me to the magnificent Child’s ruin on the boardwalk and W. 22nd St. in Coney Island. Child’s was the first chain restaurant, or restaurant franchise, in America, in business from 1889 to the mid-1960s. The chain wasn’t especially renowned for seafood—indeed, one of the two Child brothers went on a health binge and unsuccessfully tried to make Child’s a vegetarian restaurant in the late-1920s—but its many locations around town are still discernible by two entwined seahorses on their facades.

And then there’s that magnificent Spanish Colonial pile on the boardwalk. It was built in 1923 and was a Child’s until 1947, when it was sold and spent more time as a candy factory (1947-2003) than it had as a restaurant. It was, until recently, a shell since, except for a couple of years when Coney boardwalk entrepreneur Lola Star (or Lola Staar, depending on mood, apparently) made it into a roller skating rink. The restaurant did save much of the boardwalk in 1932 when its fireproof construction acted as a firebreak.

The old restaurant was rehabilitated in 2015-2016 as part of the construction of the new Ford Amphitheater, a concert venue bringing the likes of Sting and the Beach Boys to summer concerts. The restaurant currently operating in the interior is Kitchen 21.

Sea Gate is a heavily-guarded community at the western end of the Coney Island peninsula, known as Nortons Point. In stark contrast to the Coney Island Houses, Gravesend Houses and O’Dwyer Gardens, all high-rise apartments, Sea Gate has an out-of-time aura, a slice of Victoriana with mansions at the edge of the sea. Other seaside Victorian areas in NYC, like Far Rockaway, have fallen into disarray, but Sea Gate has survived intact, at pain of creating its own isolated compound.

I’d always thought that Sea Gate’s isolation was part of the rest of the peninsula’s gradual deterioration in the mid-20th century, but it’s been behind a gate almost since the region was developed. In 1892, developer and president of the Sea Beach Railroad Aldrick Man laid out Sea Gate, installing streets and sewers and planting trees, and by the turn of the 20th century the beaches had been privatized and the fence along W. 37th St. had been erected. The community has its own private police force.

Immediately inside the gate at W. 37th St. and Surf Ave. is Sea Gate Chapel, constructed in 1900 by the Parfitt Bros. architectural firm, inspired by the work of Stanford White. Sea Gate boasted two trolley routes from the subway, remnants of which were still there the only time I was able to enter Sea Gate in 1999, and the last manned lighthouse in NYC; it was automated after the death of keeper Frank Schubert. 

For years I thought it was just a rumor, or if it did exist, it was at the bottom of Davy Jones’ Locker, but Coney does have its own Yellow Submarine, now rusting away in Coney Island Creek near Calvert Vaux Park. The story of the Yellow Submarine begins in 1951, when the jewel of the Italian Line ocean liner fleet, the SS Andrea Doria, was launched in Genoa (she was named for a 16th- century Genoese admiral). The Andrea Doria had a gross tonnage of 29,100 and a capacity of about 1660 passengers and 500 crew, (as well as three outdoor swimming pools) and was a source of considerable national pride for Italy in the post-World War II era. Like the Titanic it was considered the safest passenger vessel of its time, with a double hull, radar, and 11 watertight compartments.

Nevertheless it was saddled with several design flaws, the most noteworthy a tendency to list. The Andrea Doria’s reign lasted just over three years. On the night of July 25, 1956, bound for NYC, it collided with a Swedish liner of comparable size bound for Gotheborg, the SS Stockholm, in extremely foggy weather in the North Atlantic off Nantucket. All but 46 people were rescued, as advances in design since the Titanic era allowed the Andrea Doria to remain partially afloat much longer than the Titanic.

In 1963, a Brooklyn Navy Yard ship fitter named Jerry Bianco hatched a scheme to salvage the treasures of the Andrea Doria, whose holds were believed to be loaded with such diverse items as a $250,000 solid silver statue of a mermaid; thousands of cases of liquor; tons of provolone cheese; 200,000 pieces of mail that the federal government would pay 26 cents a piece for; the ship’s bronze propellers; and property left in vaults.

Bianco believed he could build a vessel strong enough to descend to 240 feet of water, where the liner rests at the bottom off Nantucket, and could raise the sunken vessel by filling it with inflatable dunnage bags; when filled, the bags would lift it off the bottom or to the surface—or so the theory went. Bianco began work in 1966 raising money for the expensive equipment and materials needed by forming a corporation, Deep Sea Techniques, and selling stock over the counter at a dollar a share.

After four years, a 40-foot, 83-ton Yellow Submarine squatted beneath The Burns Bros. Coal silos on the shores of the Coney Island Creek ready to be launched. The Quester I (the submarine’s official moniker) was coated with yellow zinc chromate paint, the most economical Bianco could find. The vessel passed coast guard inspection with flying colors and a $5000 examination by the Navy rated the sub as capable of withstanding pressures at depths of 600 feet. Deep Sea Techniques had $300,000 invested in the 5/8-inch steel-alloy plated Yellow Submarine. Another $600,000 would be needed for a mother ship to which the sub would be tethered for air, electricity, communications and supplies.

On October 19, 1970, the sub was ready to be launched. Bianco’s daughter, Patricia, broke a bottle of champagne across the bow before a giant crane lowered the craft into the creek. Unfortunately that was as far as it went. The crane engineer lowered the sub completely into Coney Island Creek, disregarding Bianco’s instructions. Bianco had removed the ballast from one side of the sub to save money, since the cost of launch was calculated by the pound, and the engineer was told to lower it only partly into the creek. Like the ocean liner it was supposed to help salvage, the Yellow Submarine listed severely in the water and couldn’t be launched. Biano later re-filled the ballast and tethered the sub, but his backers’ enthusiasm waned, and he could never return to the project. Eventually some of the sub’s parts were stolen, and it got loose from its moorings in 1981. It has been in Coney Island Creek ever since.

—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books  Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013). 


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