Abandoned Coney Island – Last Chance To See?

Note: Most of this has since been torn down.

When I heard the rumors that Satan’s real estate division, Thor Equities, was allegedly planning to tear down some of the last remaining historic buildings in Coney Island in fear they might acquire landmark status (including the old Coney Island Bank below), I actually felt a chill run through me.

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For anyone that has ever visited Coney Island, I’m willing to bet that half of your memories are of the wonderful buildings that somehow still exist from bygone days. For example, the awesome Shore Hotel, whose balcony I someday hope to someday stand on…

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Seeing its iconic sign when I exit the subway station is always the first indication I’m in Coney Island:

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Across the way is the old Surf Hotel/Henderson Building, which now houses various fast food places, game booths, and stores:

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However, for those who look closely, remnants of its former days still remain:

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Hidden above a side entrance:

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And of course, Nathan’s, which dates back to 1916 when it started as a hot dog cart:

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Nathan’s back in the day:

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Over the years, Coney Island has suffered through a tremendous amount of destruction, losing incredible buildings, pavilions, and rides. One such building was the expansive Steeplechase Pavilion (formerly on the site of the Coney Island Cyclones baseball field), which was purchased in 1965 by Fred Trump, father of Donald.

Over the next ten years, Trump sought unsuccessfully to rezone the entire park for residential use. When word came of an impending Landmarking of the property, he quickly held a press conference announcing the demolition of the pavilion, after which girls in bikinis handed out rocks to reporters to be thrown through the windows.


(picture courtesy The Flat Joint)

Shortly after, bulldozers came in and tore it all down. Ultimately his residential plan never succeeded, and the whole thing wound up a vacant lot. The loss is tragic:

Though much of the golden age of Coney Island has vanished, incredibly, a number of buildings have managed to survive into the 21st century. Below is the current wishlist for a proposed Coney Island Historic District:

map

Naturally, Thor Equities and its CEO, Joseph Sitt, do not like the idea of an historic district or landmarking, as it means they would no longer be allowed to gut the soul of Coney Island at whim. Last year, they succeeded in pushing a rezoning of both the bank lot and the Henderson building lot for the construction of hotels of up to 27 floors.

However, if landmarking were to go through, they’d find themselves with a harder sell on their hands. Thus, according to rumors reported on AmusingTheZillion.com, they’ve approached a demolition company, who was asked for a quote to take down the bank building immediately, with others scheduled to be razed by October.

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I’ve never been in the bank building, but I know some scouts who have, and I asked them for pictures to show you what will be lost if Thor gets its way. Before we go inside, I warn you, the interior is not in pretty shape…

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…But were it to be refurbished, it would redoubtably become the gem of Coney Island.

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(pan – click for larger view)

According to this in-depth article on AmusingTheZillion.com, the Bank of Coney Island was founded by William J. Ward in 1923, whose descendants still own land in the area dating back to 1870’s.

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The bank ended operations in the early 1990’s, and a sideshow moved in for a short time (literally – the troupe lived in the upper rooms and performed downstairs). Word is, they didn’t treat the place so well, and after they vacated, owner Mike Weiss hired a salvage company to rip out everything, from doors to copper pipes. Amazingly, the building remains structurally sound.

I’m curious what this would have been, located in the front right area of the bank. A guard’s booth? An office? A teller window? Or perhaps a safe built around the outer drop box?

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This is the rear of the bank. You can see the vault doorway in the back…

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The vault doorway…

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…and the vault door itself, lying on the ground. I can’t imagine how they’re going to move this thing without a forklift.

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Inside the vault:

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I think it’s a safe bet that you won’t find any glass remaining in the windows, yet the frames remain:

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The bank has an open second level, with a beautiful balcony:

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The view from the second floor. Note the chain hanging from the ceiling – a chandelier? Also note the clock:

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A view looking north. Note the rooms on the back left corner…

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I have no idea if this is original, but I love the beach wallpaper – exactly what I’d want to find in a Coney Island bank.

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A closer view of the wallpaper:

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The wallpaper continues into a neighboring room.

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Looking down the balcony:

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Toward the front of the bank:

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A forgotten hallway:

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A column:

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A rear room:

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Another room. Note the small hatch above the door, which can be opened to let in a breeze:

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Yet another small office:

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Hallway to the bathrooms:

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A former bathroom? They even took the stalls:

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The bank has an outdoor balcony…

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…Offering some great views of the area:

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Toward the cyclone:

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This could all go away with a phone call to the wrecking company.

Look, there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who look at the above pictures and see something priceless that should be preserved at all costs; and those who see a potential vacant lot waiting to be sold to the highest bidder. It’s funny, because the latter types often tend to have the characteristics of the villains in just about every movie I’ve worked on. I always wonder if guys like Joseph Sitt sit in the theater rooting for or against the bad guys.

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One last note. I know it’s easy to be cynical about the possibility of saving these priceless buildings, especially when you factor in the large amounts of money and powerful figures involved.

I grew up in a house dating back to the late 1700’s, in a neighborhood where you’d be hard-pressed to find a home built in the last 100 years. When my parents bought the house in the 1970’s, it was a wreck, as were the surrounding homes, and there were plenty of developers who would’ve been happy to bulldoze everything in favor of another generic suburb and some quick bucks. Guys like Joseph Sitt.

However, a group of locals fought hard to create an historic district, which ultimately saved dozens and dozens of properties. In the ensuing years, the neighborhood went through a major rejuvenation, and today, is the largest concentration of notable pre-1900’s domestic residences in the United States. And I promise you, Joseph Sitt, the homes are worth far more than anything you could have replaced them with.

Special thanks to my scout friends for making this post possible.

-SCOUT

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50 comments

  1. The Bank of Coney Island looks so similar to some scenes in Blade Runner!

  2. Thank you for posting more photos of the interior of the Bank of Coney. I’m afraid the bank as well as the Henderson Building are doomed for demolition because both are on parcels rezoned for high rise hotels. But as long as these buildings are still standing, there is a shred of hope.

    Only four of the buildings on the list for a proposed historic district are owned by Thor Equities and rumored to be demolished in the near future: Bank of Coney Island, Shore Hotel, Henderson and Grashorn.

    The good news is the Landmarks Preservation Commission recently held hearings on landmark designation for the Childs Bldg, owned by CIUSA, and the Shore Theater, owned by Horace Bullard. It’s likely that both will be landmarked. And the Astrotower is being repurposed as part of the new Luna Park.

  3. The Thor Equities wikipedia page is total PR BS:

    “a real estate development and investment firm founded by Joseph Sitt based in New York City that specializes in revitalizing and adding value to urban properties in high density areas.”

    I doubt that “value” is added to the community.

  4. i know this is the second compliment i have sent, however, you’re
    incredible talent and sharing of these photos are mindblowing!
    totally love this site!

  5. Gosh, that balcony level is stunning! Only a sack o’ Sitt would want to tear that down. If they really want the site to hold a hotel, there ought to be a way to incorporate a restored bank into the base. But that would actually add “value to urban properties.”

  6. thanks for the commentary and the amazing pictures. In all my years going to Coney I never knew what that building was, or what existed behind the faded boards. Sad to hear comments below from ATZ that the bank, and the Shore Hotel are slated for demolition. I’ve been going to Coney since I first came to NY in the late 80’s, I wonder if I’ll be going after the developers are through with it.

    Tim

  7. Please note the handsome building with the balcony across from the station is the Shore Theater NOT the Shore Hotel. The former Loews Theater does look like a hotel and has been vacant for over 35 years so this mix-up happens fairly often. LPC held a landmark hearing last month and its prospects are good. The Thor owned “Shore Hotel” is a much smaller building, more of a rooming house really, on Surf next to the Henderson

  8. Another terrific report. Thanks.
    .
    Loved hearing about the house and neighborhood you grew up in. Mind my asking where you’re from? I’m a New Orleanian living in New York. Protecting our architectural heritage is something I feel really strongly about.
    .
    Somewhat off-topic, I recently re-watched “Coney Island”, the Ric Burns documentary that originally aired on “American Experience.” If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor. It’s stunning.

  9. Some really gorgeous shots here. Even if it’s all doomed you’ve done history a service by archiving it.

  10. What a fabulous view = thanks so much for sharing. Such a pity that real estate prices dictate history!

  11. Thank you, another excellent post, and I admire your restraint re Thor/$itt

  12. I can’t believe that Popeye’s building is now for lease! This is truly disappointing, I’m sad to see Coney Island falling to developers. The interior of the bank is lovely, though, and I’m glad there is a glimpse inside and a look at the former glory.
    Thanks for all the awesome scouting you do, your blog is always a joy to read and flip back through over and over.

  13. I hate to sound naive, but is there anything we commonfolk can do?

  14. That building is gorgeous! I can imagine how grand it would look with some love and hard work (okay a lot!). This beats a steel brick any day. It would be such a shame to see that balcony go, so I’ll hold onto a small shred of hope!

  15. “When I heard the rumors that Satan’s real estate division, Thor Equities, was allegedly planning to tear down…”

    This is one of the most dryly funny lines I’ve read in a long time. Great post, great photos, as usual.

  16. Please Scout, do yourself a favor right now and google “Weegee Coney Island”. Even if you’re famliar with these, they’re worth another look in the context of your excellent post. http://english.mart.trento.it/UploadImgs/2410_Weegee___Coney_Island.jpg there’s just one. Awesome, right?
    Also, in case you don’t know about Hog Island, formerly off the Rockaways, check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hog_Island_(New_York)

  17. I’ve been lurking around here for some time now, and have to say this is one of my favorite posts. I live in a small (old) town outside of San Antonio, and have often entertained the thought of doing something similar to what you do, just at a much smaller scale, of the surrounding area.

  18. Somewhere, I have a bunch of pictures I rushed to take when I heard they were going to tear down the Half Moon Hotel. It just killed me. Not only did the building have all kinds of beautiful detail on the outside, but it had a fabulous history: it was from this hotel that gangster Abe Reles, known as Kid Twist, “jumped or fell” while holed up there, waiting to testify against members of Murder Inc. In fact, there’s a great movie, B&W, late 50s or early 60s, called “Murder Inc.,” where they actually filmed at CI and you can see the Half Moon’s exterior, in all its glory. It’s also notable as one of Peter Falk’s earlier movies.

    And I agree about the Ric Burns documentary, which I’ve probably watched eight or ten times. Even though I rarely went to Coney as a kid (too grubby and the beaches too “public” for my mother’s liking), the place has always had a pull on me that I could not explain and still can’t. I’ve brought out of town friends there and wasn’t sure what they made of it, but I had such a need to share Coney Island. And even though I’m a little old and queasy for some of the rides, I still get on the Wonder Wheel every year or so, still love a hot dog from Nathan’s, cheat on my diet every so often with a frozen custard.

    One more thing: when I stopped drinking in the late 80s, I was told about an area of the beach, about halfway between the Stillwell Avenue subway stop and Seagate, that had been more or less co-opted by AA and NA people, and was known as Serenity Beach. You could always tell you’d found it when you got to an area where people were drinking hot coffee in 90-degree weather, and the beer vendors looked utterly baffled about the lack of business!

    Did I mention the part about how much I love Coney Island?

  19. P.S. I laughed out loud when I read “…Satan’s real estate division, Thor Equities…”

  20. Open the theatre. It seats, what — 2500? Somebody could make some real money.

    Book first class Equity legit shows. Book rock and pop music acts, big names. They’ll play for the hostoy, the prestige, the hipster cred.

    We’ll buy tickets because New Yorkers need a place to have a Night Out again. Coney needs to be the star of the entertainment she usta be, and we need her!

  21. If Coney Island is turned into a Wildwood-type “family destination”, which is completely devoid of any character or guts, I don’t think I could bear to go out and see the changes. Sure, Wildwood has preserved a very small amount of original Doo-Wop motels and neon signs, but the boardwalk is so sterile and all the shops sell the same ugly crap imported from China. The fact of the matter is that in New York, real estate is God. Low-income people keep getting pushed out farther and farther, and history is a mere inconvenience to the developers.

  22. sorry for rambling before…………..
    if Atlantic City could save some buildings…so can Coney Island
    Burt Lancaster made the movie”Atlantic City” in the early 80’s….
    We need Al Pacino to do the movie”Coney Island”
    I remember when that bank was a Chemical Bank branch……..

  23. Lovely article! Enjoyable and sad. When a city looses it’s history it loose a little of it’s soul.

  24. What a shame that the bank is ruined now… I can imagine how glorious it must have been back in the day…
    Anyway, great blog!

  25. KICK ASS POST NICK! You hit every major point on the head. This was a really awesome blog entry.

  26. A Mom who is not in a dream world

    HELLO ALL.
    SORRY TO BURST YOUR SITT BASHING BUBBLE BUT:
    WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME ANY OF YOU TOOK YOUR KIDS TO THE SURROUNDING AREA OF THIS BUILDING? DID YOU FEEL GOOD WALKING WITH THEM AND CROSSING THE STREETS? I HAVE IN FACT PARKED MY CAR IN FRONT OF THIS ONCE BEAUTIFUL BANK LESS THAN A MONTH AGO. IN MY PARENTAL PERSPECTIVE IT WOULD BE WONDERFUL IN A PERFECT AND DREAM WORLD TO REFURBISH THIS OLD STRUCTURE AND MAKE SOMETHING USEFUL OUT OF IT. RIGHT NOW THE POSSIBILTY OF THIS HAPPENING IS ABOUT ZERO. I WELCOME A REVAMPING OF THIS NEIGHBORHOOD INCLUDING THE BUILDINGS ACROSS THE STREET. I WOULD LIKE MY CHILDREN TO FEEL SAFE WALKING DOWN THIS BLOCK AND THE SURROUNDING BLOCKS OF CONEY ISLAND. PUTTING UP NEW HOTELS AND STORE-FRONT BUSINESSES WOULD ADD JOBS AND SAFETY TO THIS HISTORIC AREA. I WONDER IF YOU ANY OF YOU WOULD CHOOSE TO RAISE YOUR CHILDREN IN A NEW CLEAN HOME OR RATHER CHOOSE TO LIVE IN A DECREPIT (YET SAVED) MAUSOLEUM FILLED WITH CRACK COCAINE. I PERSONALLY WOULD RATHER HAVE THIS NEIGHBORHOOD CLEANED UP! GOOD FOR YOU JOE SITT- I AM ONE MOTHER WHO WANTS THIS BLOCK CLEANED UP AND THE CONEY ISLAND EXPERIENCE BACK TO THE CLASS IT ONCE HAD.

  27. Thank you for posting the bank interior photos. It would be a crime to destroy this building. A flat out crime. Sitt and Trump are both sorry, pathetic excuses for humanity. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

  28. Why not do a post/story on the neighbourhood where you grew up, if it has been so well preserved as an historical precinct as you say?

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