‘Lucy the Elephant’ celebrating 133 years of tusk love

    On Monday, July 14, five days before her 133rd birthday party, Lucy the Elephant, the symbol of Margate, New Jersey, will get her toenails painted: 10 in front, eight in back. Commercial painters have volunteered to embellish this year’s colors — patriotic red, white, and blue — chosen, as usual, by the staff. They’ll start at 10 a.m. (Snow date Tuesday.)

    I love Lucy. You will, too, as soon as you meet her — assuming you haven’t already. She has more than 16,100 “likes” on Facebook.

    Lucy is the world’s largest elephant — at six stories tall, weighing 90 tons, and covered with 12,000 square feet of sheet metal — and the only one designated a National Historic Landmark. On a clear day, ships eight miles out to sea can see her.

    In 1881, James V. Lafferty, Jr., a real estate developer from Philadelphia with a knack for promotion, hired a contractor to construct an elephant-shaped building to enhance the value of his land holdings. He even secured a U.S. patent (No. 268, 503) in 1882 to protect the idea. Prevailing over crises like lightning strikes, devastating hurricanes and drunken teens, Lucy has outlasted two siblings designed by Lafferty — one much larger in Coney Island, Brooklyn, which burned down in 1896, and one much smaller in Cape May, torn down and cremated in 1900.

    A popular ‘folly’

    Lucy is an example of an architectural “folly,” an architectural term for a building constructed primarily for decoration, transcending common garden ornaments. Think Sphinx. Other follies in Pennsylvania are the Shoe House and the Coffee Pot.

    And for the record, Lucy is male. Female Asian elephants don’t have tusks. (But don’t tell her that!)

    Because a real estate developer didn’t love Lucy (but a committee to save her did), she was transported two blocks, very slowly, on rollers, to land at her current beachfront site. Since being restored, she’s alive and well two miles south of Atlantic City and as popular as ever. Lucy gets 130,000 visitors each summer,a nd of those, more than 30,000 pay for a tour. She had 266,000 fans check on her fate after Hurricane Sandy. (Her painted toes got wet.)

    Visitors to the belly of this beast pay $8 for a guided tour. COO Jeremy Bingamin says the three favorite interior spots are the views out on the Atlantic Ocean through Lucy’s eyes, the case holding her original tongue and the tub and sink remaining from when she housed overnight guests.

    Lucy has staircases in her rear legs. Lucy’s innards display maritime artifacts and her personal history. The tour climaxes in the howdah, the ornate Indian riding carriage on her back. 

    A pachydermic icon

    Lucy is important on many levels, says Richard I. Ortega, engineer, architect and a fellow of the Association for Preservation Technology. “She’s a cultural icon from a period before billboards, when people did crazy things to attract attention. How wonderful to have her here at the shore.

    “She is an iconic structure, an artifact from an earlier period, built as an advertisement to draw people in,” he says. “As Americans became used to driving, diners, tire stores and other kinds of buildings created huge attractions, usually on major roads.” 

    Two years ago, Lucy developed a dank, musty odor, usually associated with wet basements, not with structures up on four legs. Ortega and other specialists determined why Lucy was decaying: Abundant rot and rust, due to high humidity and condensation, had turned her into a terrarium. Lucy’s friends and family later paid for complete repairs.

    The short-lived TV series “Weird USA” declared Lucy the oldest roadside attraction in the country, and CEO Richard Helfant confirms the fact. The Travel Channel recently featured Lucy in the season 2 premiere of “Monumental Mysteries.”

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