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What Happens When A Small-Town Family Visits The "World's Largest"... Whatever!

Lucy the Elephant, Margate, NJ: The World’s Largest Elephant

I suffer an incurable case of volunteerism. It’s a genetic link to my mom, whose hand is always raised to help. So, while visiting Lucy the Elephant in Margate, New Jersey was a treat because she’s such an iconic American roadside attraction, it also offered reaffirming satisfaction to see what sheer dedication can achieve. Lucy, the world’s largest elephant, only stands today because volunteers took action.

I Love Lucy

Lucy the Elephant, Margate, NJ

The United States may not have a long history, comparatively speaking, but it’s still worth preserving. In large part, the task of historic preservation falls on people who donate their time to the cause. Think about the small-town historical societies and the weather-worn historic sites in your area.

And then there are those retro roadside attractions, chock full of quirky charm, of which I’m completely enamored. Aquarama, Cypress Gardens, Cyclorama…we have lost so many. To me, they represent travel in a simpler time. Speed wasn’t a measure of entertainment, and authenticity wasn’t obscured by technology. The claim or status of a “world’s largest” meant a little attention; the potential to lure customers.

That’s how Lucy was born. James V. Lafferty, Jr., a real estate developer, commissioned an architect to build him an elephant-shaped building in 1881 to draw attention to the land he hoped to sell in South Atlantic City, now Margate.

Six stories high, Lucy was built with a 38-foot long body, 17-foot long ears, and 22-foot long tusks. She is the oldest remaining example of “zoomorphic” architecture in the United States.

Despite the novelty of her unique architecture, and the fact that she survived hurricanes, floods, and even a fire, Lucy eventually succumbed to neglect. Or nearly so. The land was sold underneath her, and so in 1969, a huge preservation and fund-raising effort began, allowing her to be moved to her current location and completely renovated.

Historic preservation

Saving Lucy, circa 1969

The “Save Lucy” committee – a small group of local citizens – did it all. And their efforts continue today, more than 40 years and one million dollars later. Lucy has been thoroughly restored to her original splendor – inside and out – and designated a National Historic Landmark.

Lucy the Elephant

On July 20, 1970, all 90 tons of Lucy was towed down Atlantic Avenue. Photo credit: LucyTheElephant.org

Today, the best part about visiting Lucy is the 30-minute tour inside her interior rooms. Lucy isn’t animatronic, or 4-D. There’s no surround sound, moving walkways, or special effect lighting.

And that’s just fine.

The tour starts via a spiral staircase up her leg, to the small museum in her belly.

Lucy the Elephant

The Lucy Museum

You can catch a glimpse of the ocean waves through her eyes.

Lucy

Looking through Lucy’s eye

You can see through the “pane in her butt.” The grand finale is climbing the stairs up to the howdah on her back, where you gaze miles out into the Atlantic Ocean and the shoreline.

All of this thoroughly enchanted our five year old as much as it did me. For different reasons, true, because The Girl doesn’t yet appreciate the ability to literally walk through history. And she doesn’t yet understand the role we all have to play as volunteers when preservation necessitates action. So we’ll keep traveling. And someday, I’m confident she will.

Lucy the Elephant

9200 Atlantic Ave, Margate City, NJ 08402

(609) 823-6473

Lucy the Elephant

Lucy’s Pane

17 comments

  1. Fiona said,
    April 15, 2013 @ 5:53 am

    Tracy while I enjoy all of your postings, this one especially spoke to me. It is so true in today’s technological world it is hard to appreciate (and to get our kids to appreciate) something that doesn’t beep, glow, or get you to the next level.

    The idea of actually walking through history and knowing that a small group made a difference resonates with me. I want my son to be able to experience that too, and maybe a trip to Lucy is just the thing.

    • Traci Suppa said,
      April 17, 2013 @ 9:36 am

      Thanks, Fiona! It may be “tough love,” but I think we have to bring our kids to places like these before they will only accept the high-tech, interactive attractions.

  2. margot peter said,
    April 15, 2013 @ 8:02 am

    This was so beautifully written! We are definitely going to make a trip to visit Lucy next time we go to Atlantic City.

    • Traci Suppa said,
      April 17, 2013 @ 9:35 am

      Yes! Do go! Make sure it’s a nice day, weather-wise. If it’s raining, you won’t be able to go up onto the howdah, because it gets slippery.

  3. Mike said,
    April 15, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    What a fun post. I especially like the “pane in her butt.”

  4. Liam said,
    April 15, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    What an awesome post. I agree with Fiona’s statement about technology and enthusing kids about things that aren’t flashy .. or gadget wise. This is an awesome way of keeping children interested in other things other than the usual play station games. It’s so important to understand that and use it for kids when they are growing up because they will always cherish them in memories of all the fun things they did when they were young. Thanks for a great post.

    • Traci Suppa said,
      April 17, 2013 @ 9:34 am

      Thanks, Liam. It almost surprised me how much my daughter enjoyed the tour…and then I thought, “Isn’t it a shame that this should surprise me?” I just assume that if it’s not high-tech and bells-and-whistles, my kids won’t like it.

  5. April 15, 2013 @ 6:30 pm

    A most excellent post, Traci! Lucy is one of my favorite “wonders”. A toast to the attractions that weren’t saved … and a tip of the hat to everyone over the decades who has cherished Lucy!

    • Traci Suppa said,
      April 17, 2013 @ 9:32 am

      Thanks! She’s truly a success story and a great case study for other endangered historic sites.

  6. April 17, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    Love this post. I am huge proponent of learning while traveling and you are spot on when talking about the value of walking through history.

  7. Virginia S said,
    April 18, 2013 @ 6:14 pm

    Lucy is so cool, one of the best parts of traveling is finding gems like this. Lucy was closed for renovations when i was there, thanks for the tour.

  8. BS5544 said,
    April 19, 2013 @ 9:40 am

    Great writeup on the Elephant! This one is definitely on the bucket-list!

  9. April 21, 2013 @ 3:01 am

    Uh oh. I think I’ve succumbed to “LibertyBell-itis” regarding Lucy. OK. I admit, I made up the name of that particular syndrome to describe what happens when a native Philadelphian has yet to visit the Liberty Bell. We have vacationed at South Jersey beaches for 20 years. We even now own a house in Brigantine. We’ve even driven past Lucy. Have I stopped to visit Lucy yet? Nope. Will I remedy that this summer? Definitely.

    • Traci Suppa said,
      April 21, 2013 @ 9:44 am

      I like that term! We live in the Hudson Valley, and definitely take for granted all there is to do and see in our own backyard!

  10. Gina said,
    May 1, 2013 @ 12:25 am

    cool story

  11. Terrie Exley said,
    May 23, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

    It’s amazing how we forget about the historic pieces in our country. I’m glad to see that Lucy was restored (and that no beeping or mechanical pieces were added ) I definitely plan to keep this one in mind on my next trip to Atlantic City as well. Thanks for sharing :)

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