Lucy the Elephant - Century 3
Margate, New Jersey
"People were smaller in the 1800s. As we've gotten older as a society, we've gotten taller."
This is one of the many interesting facts you can learn when you take the 20 minute guided tour of Lucy, the Victorian-era elephant of Margate. The doorways leading to the compartments within Lucy are low, and the stairways cramped, but anyone who's walked through a Kennedy-era giant fish or a Clinton-era human body part can tell you that this is more a result of making-things-fit than human physiology. Will tour guides in the 22nd century think that we were shrimps, too? Anyway, even as modern medium-to-tall bipeds, we enjoy this cozyphobic elephant walk.
We have kept track of Lucy's ups and downs over the last 20 years, and traced her history as neglect or over-development threatened. Her fortunes again appear to be rising, although not without some sacrifice. The repair of her innards, which has kept them off-limits to the public for a year, are complete, and tourists once again experience "the only elephant you can go into and come out of alive." Some of the fun has been lost in this newest remodeling, but now you're less likely to get hurt.
Lucy has, in fact, been given an inner hull, so a visit is akin to being inside an supertanker or submarine made out of wood. There are poster boards with vintage photos, but where are the old artifacts? Most -- including Lucy's original wooden tongue -- have been arranged in the crawlspace between where you are and Lucy's outer skin, visible through new inner windows. "The displays would have been a fire hazard in this new interior," the tour guide tells us, although it's difficult to make out some of what she says, a combination of Lucy interior acoustics and squawking kids on the tour.
In the church-like vaulted chamber, the current focal point is a 21-inch TV, its screen glowing an eerie blue. "Watch the video," we're told, and we do, learning how the structure survived killer storms in '29, '48, and '62. "Lucy stood the test of time...standing proud, bringing joy and amazement."
Lucy, for all her modern improvements, is still a bringer of amazement, and a visit to her "howdah" atop her back gives one a nice view of the Atlantic from five stories up. Inside, you can peer out her right eye window, or see what lies below the floor (air ducts) through a cutaway window along the spiral staircase in one of her legs.
The tour guide admits that keeping Lucy ship-shape (and fireproof) is necessary if the attraction is to keep its National Historic Landmark status, and the funding that comes along with it. "They can take it away at any time," she confesses, casting an evil eye at the oyster bar next door. It's not easy keeping a giant elephant in good repair on the Jersey shore. "At night, some people get drunk and think the elephant moves," she tells us. "They throw bottles at her." Still, this is an improvement over the 1970s, when frat boys would steal her tusks.
Lucy was built in the 1880s (said to have been modeled after Jumbo the Elephant) to draw potential property buyers to then-empty Margate. She did her job well, as today the town is packed trunk-to-tail with condos (and oyster bars).
This brought out a final word of caution from our guide. "The ocean level is rising," she said, glancing at the Atlantic. "If we have to move Lucy, where can we put her?" It's a fair point. So we advise carpooling when you visit, to cut down the greenhouse gasses and keep her around a little longer.
June 2003: We're back at Lucy once again, drawn by her telegenic cuteness in a state otherwise bereft of buildings shaped like animals. She's in tip-top form, brightly painted, facing the ocean and a small public events area outfitted with bleachers. Aside from the official gift shop, there is an "I Love Lucy" snack bar where you can grab a cool drink, plunk down at a picnic table, and admire the strange apparition...
Up in the belly of the beast, our tour guide Evelyn points out that Lucy has never been a hotel, as we claimed in an earlier story. Oops.. that "fact" was conjured from an old vellum postcard labeled "The Elephant Hotel" (a gaudy building in the background!). Tempers flare, accusations fly, but we can't quite recall who wrote that one...
[Note: Marie Kobres Bone wrote to us about a journal kept by a young girl tour guide in 1900. Gertzen's Elephant Hotel was housed in Lucy -- so there was a hotel...!]