2004-04-16 / Columnists

Historical Views of the Rockaways

From The Rockaway Museum
by Emil Lucev, Curator
Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke

Historical Views
of the Rockaways
by Emil Lucev, Curator
Dedicated To The Memory Of Leon S. Locke

Bye! Bye! Bungalows! - Buy! Buy! A New House!

The years before war clouds began to appear in Europe, the Rockaways of 1911, as a summer resort – and always a threat to the city’s favorite – Coney Island – began to build up local beachfront amusement areas. Many hotels, roadhouses, restaurants, amusements, were being built, and others were in the stage of new plans. Our two amusement parks (L.A. Thompson Park, the Future Playland, and Steeplechase Park with its famous gravity horse ride built by George C. Tilyou (of that other place in Brooklyn) were adding new attractions while improving the old ones.

The City of New York now had complete control of Jamaica Bay (given by the state) and was planning to make a great seaport of the body of water to the north of the Rockaway peninsula. The Rockaway leadership, since 1902 (when the city started to administrate the bay marshes and waterways) asked for a roadway over the bay to the Rockaways. The City was more interested in constructing an oceanfront boulevard and a bayfront boulevard along the entire peninsula. The administration was disappointed to learn that it was losing all the court cases, in which the city claimed ownership of the peninsula, from Belle Harbor to the then point. The City appealed all cases, and the appeals were also lost. The Queensborough or 59th Street Bridge was opened, and Rockaway leadership saw that the improvement planned for the new Queens Boulevard would make a nice feeder for a road over the bay to the Oceanside resort and amusement place called Rockaway Beach.

The City, however, had already made plans to build up the subway system to Coney Island in Brooklyn, as these would provide revenues for the city coffers. Brooklyn Rapid Transit was running their trains to the Rockaway resort area over the Long Island bay trestle, and showed that a subway line to the Rockaways could be profitable. A call was made for rapid transit to the Rockaways, by the city, but no one in City Hall was listening! The rapid transit lines, running eastward through Queens, were built solely for the real estate interests in later years. But the sidewheel steamers and railroads still brought people here by the thousands in summer.

In 1906, the Seaside Improvement Company, owned by Charles A. Schilling and his sons, Edwin and Henry, bought the P.V. Meyers property, which was then between Steeplechase Park and his property line just east of Henry Street (now Beach 102 Street) between the Boulevard and the ocean. Hollywood Avenue (now Beach 101 Street) was macadamized and sidewalked. At the beach end some old buildings were torn down, one moved up to the southwest corner at the Boulevard, and became the Ivy House (destroyed by a fire many years ago.) The Seaside Bowery, or Ocean Avenue, which contained the bulk of the seaside amusements, was extended eastward from Schilling’s Atlas Hotel, to Beach 100 Street (then Wolcott Avenue) where an inclined walk connected the Bowery to the boardwalk fronting Steeplechase Park and running eastward to Beach 92 Street.

On this new end strip, the Ferris Amusement Company, formed by Nels Rasmussen (who also founded Thunderbolt Park in Savannah, Georgia, which is known as the Six Flags Park in Georgia today) built a small fun park which contained a Ferris wheel, carousel, the whip ride, games of chance and refreshment stands. The Ferris wheel stood at 100 feet high. Also in this new park was a one story airdrome theatre, 85’ x 145’, known as the hippodrome, managed by the great retired baseball umpire – Tim Hurst. Next to Schilling’s place, the Holly Hall Hotel went up, which featured furnished rooms. Vaudeville and moving pictures were featured in the Hurst Palace, as well as a large shooting gallery. On the bayside of Hollywood Avenue, a 500’ pier was built out into the bay, which made #3 for Seaside bound steamers. C.N. Grant’s small Automatic Toboggan Switchback, an early roller coaster on Henry Street at the at the beach had just added a second track, so groups of cars could now ride side by side, the Mammoth Restaurant opened on the second floor of Steeplechase Park’s boardwalk frontage, and a rumor was circulating that the large tent city between Seaside and Rockaway Park was to be replaced by an amusement center equivalent to Luna Park and Dreamland at Coney Island, Brooklyn. Such was the condition of the Seaside section of the Rockaway Beach amusement area in the year 1911.

Also at this time, the new fangled wooden bungalow had begun to replace the canvas tent city camps (as they were called) from Far Rockaway to Rockaway Park. The Seaside Improvement Company built two rows of small bungalows between Beach 101 Street and Steeplechase Park (now the St. Camillus property south of Rockaway Beach Boulevard.)

Each row contained 14 bungalows, in the 4-6-4 fashion, for about a length of 350’ towards the new portion of Seaside’s Bowery Walk, now of concrete, 20 feet in width. Altogether there were 56 single units, each with a front porch, and I believe that large families were accommodated with a double unit. The entire construction was known as the Hollywood cottages, and many trees were planted. The rest of the landscaping was done by the occupants with seashells, rocks, flowerpots and plants. Wooden railings adorned the inner courtyards and many flagpoles were put up. The units front on Beach 101 Street had a sidewalk, trees planted in the walk, and later on….ugly utility poles! Roll-up screening on the porches kept the mosquitoes out.

Over the years changes took place, and in 2004 only 29 units are left. As was the practice, bungalows were only open during the summer, and cold showers were greatly appreciated on hot days after the beach. Before mechanical refrigeration, the icebox and the iceman ruled. There were lots of pretty girls in the bungalows and the iceman had his pick.

Yours truly delivered ice to bungalows, and the busiest days were Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day, with the latter the end of summer and see-you-next-year parties. As a young lad approaching his teens, I remember the sentimental women of the bungalows taking me to their bosoms and giving me a big bear hug, saying, "Sonny, I am going to miss you. You’re such a nice boy. Here is a (cash) present for you." That was like heaven!

Now, just seven years shy of a century, another piece of old Rockaway becomes a victim of the wrecking ball. Maybe they weren’t a king’s palace, especially to those who never experienced bungalow life in the old Rockaway, but they were home – a home away from home – and a stabilizing force in someone’s life; as something to work for and look forward to after a long hard winter. Coming down for the summer was like having a reunion with old friends and sweethearts. We are all creatures of habit, and habits are hard to break. I sincerely hope that the bungalow persons overcome, adapt and live with the memories, which are better than the monetary dreams of others. It would be a great thing for the Rockaway Museum if the disposed renters would donate photographs and written memories, or perhaps a taped memory or interview, for the Museum.

To some persons, a loss similar to this can be traumatic. I remember when refrigerators began to replace the icebox in the bungalows. This is what ended my grandfather’s (and my) ice business on our route in Edgemere.

The biggest insult was when the family purchased our first General Electric refrigerator. Grandpa looked it over, opened the door, and began to feel around inside. Lastly, he opened the freezer, did the same, and then in a fit of anger he slammed the door….kicked the base….and exclaimed for all of us loud and clear – "son of a bitch put me out of business!"

The first bungalows were prefabricated, made in Michigan, and put up on the east side of Beach 108 Street between the Boulevard and the railroad tracks of the LIRR (on the ground.) This was in 1905, and the original twenty soon wound up in a group of ninety three in Seaside. By 1911 the bungalow fever got higher, and it wasn’t long before the entire peninsula was inundated with bungalows. The tent cities or camp era was now closing, in lieu of the bungalow craze. Edgemere still had some tents in the early 1950’s.

The bungalows were set up in rows known as courts, and each court had a specific name. Our newest loss on Beach 101 Street was known as Hollywood Court, after the street name (Hollywood Avenue.) At the same time that Hollywood Court went up, a couple of hundred bungalows were built at Rockaway Point (along with many tents also. When Fort Tilden was built (nee Funston), a Wave sub-head stated that until the fort barracks were finished, soldiers would be billeted in nearby bungalows. Exactly where was not given, but the closest bungalows were at the Point, with the rest near the Seaside/Rockaway Park border. But military secrets and disinformation abounded, and it was given out that 64 aliens lived here, and a Belle Harbor resident was taken and arrested as a German spy, a lieutenant in Wehrmacht, and knew previously arrested saboteurs here in New York. Exact locations are still being sought for the record, as bad memories and hearsay are not acceptable in the search for historical facts, but can be mentioned for research study.

Many times in Historical Views, we have viewed some buildings and other types of structures, which have survived to this day, and look like they have been built recently. Some look like they came out of a western ghost town! The difference is how the owner treated his income producing property and not treating it like a cash cow; take the money and run, while not maintaining a paint up, clean up, and fix up program.

Real estate bedlam that causes escalating prices doesn’t help either. When the land is worth more than what it holds, developers begin to feed. This happened on a grand scale back in 1925 and many local people got burned by developers and speculators. What came and stayed was a higher tax rate.

The Irish Circle on Beach 102 Street was built in 1893 as Schilling’s Roadhouse and two hi-rise apartment towers replaced Marsell’s bungalow colony on Beach 98 Street.

Winterization of bungalows in Edgemere was started by the late and not so great Robert Moses, the Commissioner of everything for New York City. All he wanted was to supply living quarters for his displaced persons from whatever he knocked down to put up his projects.

All this did was to increase the frequency of fires, which caused insurance companies to redline a district on the peninsula where year rounders resided.

Anyway, one place that the bungalow persons will miss is the 101 Deli just across the Boulevard. Of course they will miss the beach and boardwalk, as well as a place you can ride a bike without getting killed by a car!

But most of all, they will miss each other, and the quality time spent together, here in summer and during the winter months….where no doubt they talked about the coming season at the beach.

There are many bungalow homes (converted) left on the peninsula, as well as summer rentals still available, but these are on the endangered species list due to the increased demand for housing here. Belle Harbor and Neponsit did not want bungalows in the old days, but a few were built before the big gong struck the builder (so to speak.)

The two Historical Views appeared back in 1911. View #1 shows Hollywood Avenue (Beach 101 Street) and the row of bungalows on the east side, looking towards the Boulevard.

View $2 shows the two rows of bungalows looking towards the beach from Rockaway Beach Boulevard. The Historical Views from January 16, 2004 shows the beachfront of old Hollywood Avenue in 1900. R.I.P.

Addenda: on the north side of the Boulevard were Wolcott and Louise Courts, and north of the railroad were Marie, Ida and Constance Courts.

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