From all over the world, people visit the East Coast to see an iconic 19th-century structure. They come from nearly across the globe, as far as the Middle East and India. And while they might swing by the Statue of Liberty while they're in town, it's Lucy, a 6-story-tall elephant, that they've come to see.
A designated U.S. National Historic Landmark and considered America's oldest roadside attraction, Lucy the Elephant draws thousands of visitors to the Jersey Shore. We talked to Richard Helfant, Lucy's executive director, to get the story on why she was built, how she survives today, and where she's going in the future.
Year built: 1881
Location: Margate City, New Jersey
Height and weight: 65 feet tall (roughly six stories) and 90 tons.
View from the top: A panoramic view of Absecon Island, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Atlantic City skyline.
Number of vistors: 100,000+, annually
Her birthday: Celebrated on July 20, which is the date in 1970 when she was moved to her current location.
Guided tours: They're about 20- to 25-minutes long and offered year-round, although hours vary depending on the season. Get up to 33% off a guided tour with our deal.
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Perhaps your first thought when you learn a 137-year old elephant-shaped building exists along the Atlantic Ocean is ... "but why?" The reason: she was designed to sell houses.
"Lucy was built originally as a marketing tool to sell real estate," Helfant explains, telling the story of a Philadelphia developer named James Lafferty, who owned much of the land south of the newly incorporated town of Atlantic City, and believed a giant elephant oddity could lure prospective buyers. "He thought if he built this strange structure, curiosity seekers would come down and see it, and while they were here, he could sell real estate."
For decades afterward, Lucy would take on many roles: a tavern, part of a hotel and cafe, and a tourist attraction (president Woodrow Wilson and Henry Ford are believed to have toured Lucy's interior).
But like many historical structures, Lucy eventually fell into disrepair and neglect. By 1962, inspectors had Lucy condemned and closed down.
"It was pretty decrepit then," Helfant says of his earliest memories of Lucy. "It was derelict and beat up. I remember my mother taking me through it as a 4- or 5-year-old, and then the city condemned it, [because] it was so unsafe. So then we would just break into it, as little kids. And it just continued to deteriorate to a point that it was going to be torn down."
A literal shell of its former self, Lucy needed someone to step in and stop the wrecking ball. That's when three locals stepped up–Josephine Harron, Sylvia Carpenter, and Ed Carpenter–to form the Save Lucy Committee. Through their work, Lucy was moved to her current location, National Landmark status was attained, and money was raised to start the restoration process, which lasted until 2000.
Now in pristine condition, Lucy has a staff of about 40 people who are focused on making sure she never falls into disrepair again.
"It's a labor of love, but everbody who is here is truly dedicate to Lucy's preservation," Helfant says. "This is not the kind of place you come to work just for money, because there is none [laughs]. You really have to love what you do. And you have to love Lucy."
When you tour Lucy today, you start in her left rear leg, which contains circular stairs that lead up to a room tucked inside her belly. There, tourists see an art exhibit inspired by Lucy and a short educational film. The big highlights come afterwards, when you climb into Lucy's head and see through her eyes, and then go up another set of stairs to her riding carriage (called a howdah) for gorgeous views of the ocean. Seemingly everyone finds something to love about the experience.
"Little kids are just enamored and in awe of her size, and her enormity," Helfant says. "Older people are impressed by her history and how good she looks now. We get a lot of repeat visitors, a lot of people who grew up here and remember her being so derelict. Now they see her so vibrant and alive."
Now with a social media presence, Lucy has been able to reach people well outside of New Jersey. Helfant says she has a large following in England, as well as in India, in part because Hindus treat the elephant as sacred.
Lucy has also hosted numerous events: cocktail receptions, wine tastings, cigar tastings, a Valentine's Day dinner, and her carnival-esque annual birthday celebration in July. All of which help fund Lucy's significant maintenance costs ("You gotta just do the math," Helfant says. "She's 137 years old, she's made out of wood, covered with tin. And she's 100 feet from the ocean.")
But no matter the cost, Lucy's future is much brighter than it was 50 years ago. Not only is she in the best condition of her life, people seem to love her more than ever. Helfant puts its best:
"There are many, many important monuments, attractions, museums, and parks throughout our country, but there's only one quite like Lucy."
All images are published with permission of the Save Lucy Committee, Inc.