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.
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.
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.
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.
You can catch a glimpse of the ocean waves through her eyes.
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.
9200 Atlantic Ave, Margate City, NJ 08402