I went to a trade show in Atlantic City this week so of course I stopped by to visit Lucy the Elephant on my way home. I didn’t know she existed until a few years ago. My husband and I found her on a day we decided to do some sightseeing in our new state. We were driving through Margate, New Jersey about 2 miles south of Atlantic City when we saw her nestled among the houses in this quiet beach town. Six story elephant buildings are hard to miss.
Built in 1881 by 25 year-old Philadelphia real estate developer James Lafferty, Lucy is the nation’s only National Historic Elephant Landmark. It took a million pieces of wood, 12,000 square feet of tin, 200 kegs of nails, and 20 windows to make the 64-foot high structure. Originally this little pachyderm was built to try to get the good people of Atlantic City buy land at the Jersey shore. Today, visitors can climb through her spiral staircase, look through her porthole eyes and enjoy incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Lucy is a survivor. She’s been a real estate office, a restaurant, a summer home and a tavern (which was closed due to prohibition). She was almost burned down by some drunks during her tavern days, came dangerously close to being torn down in the 1970s and has survived countless storms and hurricanes (oh sure a few of them battered her but a little bit of fixing up by the people who love her and she was as good as new). Lucy may also be the only female elephant in the world to have tusks. In nature, tusks are reserved for the boys.
Lucy was built in the Victorian era when over-the-top architecture was fairly common. Still, I wonder how real estate developer James Lafferty made the leap from “what can I do to get visitors from Atlantic City to come a few miles south to buy some land filled with sand dunes and eel grass and only accessible during low tide because of the deep tidal pool” to “I know, I’ll create an elephant structure that is so large that it can be seen from 8 miles out at sea.”
I can’t imagine that everyone was on board with this plan. There had to be a lot of raised eyebrows and funny looks. Maybe even someone like a stuffed-shirt banker, his second cousin (the one he only sees at weddings and funerals) or his old high school chum told him to his face that his idea was crazy. Yet nothing stopped Mr. Lafferty from turning his vision into a reality. He had such faith in his plans that he even applied for a patent—which he was granted in 1882.
I am not normally impressed with zoomorphic wooden sculptures, but I love Lucy. She defies everything that is practical and sensible in this world. I dare you to drive by her and not smile. She is a constant reminder to all of us that even the most outrageous ideas can be turned into something spectacular. Think of Lucy and dream big!