The gaudy elephant hotel of 1880s Coney Island

When Coney Island went from remote sandbar resort to the city’s biggest beachfront playground in the 1880s, tawdry amusement attractions began to pop up on the West End: beer halls, roller coasters, and freak shows.


But perhaps the gaudiest addition was the Elephantine Colossus, a nearly 200-foot tall hotel sheathed in blue tin and with a gilded howdah on top.

Encircled by the Shaw Channel Chute roller coaster, the hotel looked like a bizarro version of one of the live pachyderms on exhibit at Coney Island’s amusement parks at the turn of the century.


Completed in 1885 at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, the 12-story elephant was divided into 31 rooms. Visitors could also climb to the observatory and pay 10 cents to get an incredible aerial view of New York City by looking through the elephant’s eyes, which were actually telescopes.

Elephanthotelrollercoaster“The forelegs contained a cigar store and diorama and the hind legs held circular stairways leading to the rooms contained above,” wrote Michael Immerso in Coney Island: The People’s Playground.

The developer called the elephant hotel the eighth wonder of the world. Locals soon began calling it a brothel; apparently it wasn’t too popular with regular tourists, so prostitutes took over.

ElephanthoteladIn fact, “seeing the elephant” became a slang term for visiting the hotel and hiring a hooker, according to this clip from the New-York Historical Society.

As a gimmick, the elephant hotel gripped the imagination. But as a business, it lost money, and by the 1890s, the structure had been abandoned.

ElephanthotelfireIts ultimate demise was spectacular. The hotel burned down in 1896 in a blaze so fiery, it reportedly could be seen from Sandy Hook in New Jersey.

The Elephantine Colossus isn’t the only pachyderm to come to a gruesome end at Coney Island.

Topsy the elephant, a temperamental creature brought to Luna Park so park-goers could ride on her back, was put to death by electrocution there in 1903 under the direction of Thomas Edison, who wanted to test his new direct current.

[Photos: top, New-York Historical Society; second, fourth, and fifth:]

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14 Responses to “The gaudy elephant hotel of 1880s Coney Island”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    A ‘trunk’ full of trivia about ‘The Elephant Hotel.’

    Today, these remarkable structures are referenced under the colloquial term: ‘ Big Duck Architecture.’ There are books dedicated to ‘gigantic creature structures’ that are mostly vintage buildings. Vacationers take special tours to see and photograph these places! We had a hamburger inside the hoop-skirt of a gigantic 1930s era ‘Mammy’ building in Mississippi…gobbled hot dogs cooked inside a monster hotdog on a bun place called: ‘The Tail O’ The Pup’ in California. We even visited a gas station that resembled a huge teapot along with several others oddities in our travels including a former ice cream shop shaped to resemble an iceberg in hot, hot Atchison, Kansas. (We get a kick outta these!!!)

    Margate, N.J. is known for two females – the late-Jessica Savitch of NBC news; plus, ‘Lucy, The Elephant’ – a beloved structure very similar to the Coney Island pychderm building. This restored structure has been featured in TV shows, books, cartoons and was the theme for the erotic quarters of a female character in the recent film, ‘Moulin Rouge.’ The N.J. elephant building made national headlines not too many years back. It was reported bad weather on the East coast caused lightening to strike it. Mother Nature’s bolt of power left the ends of the elephant building’s ‘tusks’ smoke’n (much like government officials do with siezed, illegal, genuine ivory tusks!)!

    The phrase: ‘I’VE SEEN THE ELEPHANT’ – as all Civil War buffs know, stands for a far, farrrr more horrific, nightmare meaning. Simply stated, it has nothing to do with a funny-looking building; Rather, it means a person or soldier has witnessed the slaughter and destruction of a battlefield during war.

    I hope these tidbits enlighten and enhance your presentation.

  2. Lady G. Says:

    Reblogged this on The Realm Of Olde Brooklyn and commented:
    I love finding articles on old Coney Island, and it’s the perfect time of year for it. The over-a-century old Brooklyn hotspot is constantly being reinvented, despite catastrophic fire damages in the past, and the economy turning on a dime. And recent natural disasters like hurricane Sandy.
    With the way the crowds are packing in this summer, it’s experiencing yet another Renaissance.

  3. Vintage: Check Out Coney Island’s Elephant Hotel [LOOK] – UpOut Blog Says:

    […] not even beach-frolicking in the world to banish that image from a kid’s mind. In fact, as Ephemeral New York points out, Coney Island is a place you want to give a wide berth altogether if you’re a […]

  4. Ashley Says:

    There is a nod to Lucy inside the lobby of Disney’s Boardwalk Resort in Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida. The resort itself is themed to the boardwalk amusements of the early 20th century.
    A statue of Lucy can be found above a mantle in the lobby.
    You can see a photo here:

    And read an article about Lucy and the other hidden gems in the lobby here:

  5. Herb Moskovitz Says:

    There were quite a number of these elephant hotels and one survives in Margate, New Jersey. She is dubbed “Lucy” although she has tusks and only male elephants have tusks. You can read about her here… or on Wikipedia…

    • Beth G Says:

      Both male and female African elephants have tusks. Both genders are being killed by the thousands in Africa due to the illegal ivory trade.

  6. Brad Eichmann Says:

    Haha, the elephant hotel is new to me! So funny.

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I think a miniature replica in your backyard would make your house the coolest in all of Brooklyn!

  8. jrutter1 Says:

    A small point regarding the actual elephant that was electrocuted. I believe that Edison applied Alternating Current to kill the beast as his hoal was to raise fear of AC among the public since the system directly competed with his DC ststem. Later Edison even built the first electric chair to operate on AC as part of this negative publicity campaign.

  9. Dave Alexander (formerly ukuleledave) Says:

    jrutter is correct: George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison competed in the “War of Currents” according to Wikipedia:

    Edison actually lost the battle as AC is the standard for long distance distribution of electricity. Of course many of our low power appliances actually run on DC. One of your articles gets this 100% correct.

  10. Charlene Moudy Says:

    Wow!!!!!!!!!I I have a GLASS plate (Positive) of this Elephant!!!!!!

  11. Herb Moskovitz Says:

    There is a similar elephant building still standing in Margate, New Jersey. It was built in 1881 and is lovingly called ”Lucy.”

  12. An Impressionist paints Brooklyn by the water | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Near Coney Island,” one icon of Sodom by the Sea can be seen in the background: Coney’s elephant-shaped hotel, made famous when it went up in the […]

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