The sordid, surreal, and spectacular history of Coney Island’s Elephant Hotel
“Elephant Bazar Coney Island,” NYPL Wallach Division Picture Collection via NYPL Digital Collections
When Coney Island burst on the scene in the 1880s as “the People’s Playground,” becoming the last word in bawdy beachfront pleasure, every attraction was larger than life. But no attraction was as large as the “Elephantine Colossus,” a 12-story, 31-room, elephant-shaped hotel, stationed at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street. The elephant was a tin-clad wooden structure rising 150 feet high, and it was unlike any other elephant in the world: The animal’s forelegs featured a tobacco shop, its left lung was home to a museum, and visitors to the “cheek room” could look out of the elephant eyes to the ocean beyond.
“The Colossal Elephant of Coney Island,” 1885, NYPL Wallach Division Picture Collection Via NYPL Digital Collection
Visitors got lost in the colossal creature’s extensive innards. In fact, the New York Times reported in 1885 that one Eliza Hemerman, who decided to slide down the elephant’s trunk from the inside, “landed on her feet in a little house called the trough. It was locked, and she was in there until someone heard her knocking.”
Such mishaps notwithstanding, hotel manager C.A. Bradenbergh billed the elephant as “the 8th Wonder of the World” when the hotel opened in 1885. In fact, he told the New York Times, looking out from the elephant, one could see clear around the world. He rhapsodized:
You see that little puff of foam off a little to the north of west there, along by that pool? That is the spray above Niagra Falls. That tiny silver thread further to the west is the Mississippi River, and if I had a telescope here I would show you the jetties. That clump of trees clear over on the other side of the continent is the Yellowstone Park, and if you look hard the south, you will discover a little cluster of houses. That is Rio Janeiro, in Brazil. Over to the east you can catch sight of Queenstown, and of the little villages along the bay of Biscay, and even of the steeples of London and Paris – if your eyesight is clear enough. Remarkable, isn’t it. All for 10 cents, too.
And that’s not all you could see from the elephant, or get for 10 cents at Coney Island. In fact, “seeing the elephant” became local slang for picking up a prostitute, and the elephant hotel was widely considered a brothel.
If such hot times contributed to the elephant hotel’s decline, it was a fire that did it in for good. The hotel was destroyed in a blaze in 1896. The conflagration of the Elephantine Colossus was so immense, it was reported the flames could be seen from Sandy Hook.