2007-11-16 / Community

Not Another Rockaway Condominium! - Whoa! - It's the Damn Big Hotel

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

Contained in the title box are a few of the remarks made by family and a few friends, upon being shown an actual photograph of the "big hotel" built in Rockaway Park in 1880. But my first exclamation, upon opening the mail in which it arrived, contained the "B" word, which is in limbo at the present time of political and journalistic Neanderthalism! Views readership can now add their own utterance to the above list. My second act was to stand and yell "Yahoo"!

Special events and occasions plus the appearance of what was thought to be non-existent - must be treated in an extraordinary manner, to celebrate what happened, took place, or was discovered!

My dream of finding a photograph of that damn big hotel, built in the Rockaway Park section of our peninsula more than a century ago, has finally come true, after more than a quarter century of looking.

This priceless historical view was sent to yours truly by an old-time Rockaway historian, namely Edward Gloeggler, who was on the scene many years before I arrived, writing a historical column in the Rockaway Journal, a newspaper published in Far Rockaway. The image is here for us to see (at last) from the Gloeggler collection!

I would have loved this picture to be reproduced on a double truck, or printed across two facing pages. But at times space is at a premium.

Gloeggler stated to me in his letter, that after he purchased and read my new book ("The Rockaways", available from ArcadiaPublishing.com) he thought that it was great and full of dates and information, and that I should have a copy of the picture of the century. Thank you, Ed! And a "Tony the Tiger" to you!

The Hotel Imperial, as it was named, was built on the Rockaway Park beachfront by the Rockaway Beach Improvement Company in 1880. Henry Y. Attrill, a New York banker and businessman, was President of the hotel company. He was backed by western capitalists who were frowned upon on the east coast of America, and not wanted there! Abraham Lincoln, when a young lawyer, ran into difficulty when he represented western capitalists on the east coast.

It has been written that at a Brooklyn meeting of capitalists, hotel men, and investors (from the east) proposals for big hotels at Coney Island, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Long Beach were displayed and talked over. Attrill boldly stated that what he was going to build in the Rockaways would make their hotels look like bungalows!

All the hotels mentioned were built and successfully opened for business at the places mentioned, excepting the big hotel at Rockaway. Attrill's "slur" (if you will) to the others at the Brooklyn meeting, sort of took the lid off Pandora's Box (so to speak) for the Rockaway Beach project. The Imperial was built but remained unopened, and was described as being tied up in the blackest of legal knots, in the newspapers.

Imperial was finally torn down in 1889, after all attempts to get the grand hotel open for business failed. The big white elephant at Rockaway was taken down piece-by-piece and sold for second-hand building materials. The large brick building next to the Blackwater Pub in Rockaway Park was built using the bricks from the Imperial.

In that same year, the Rockaway Park Improvement Company, as the new landowner, began the development of Rockaway Park as a new section on the peninsula. More on this later!

The photo was taken in the spring of 1883. Snow still appears on some of the hotel's high roof sections, and two horse-drawn touring coaches are parked in front of the main stairway entrance. Drivers are standing by. It is not known if any sightseers are inside the hotel on a very guided tour; to avoid hazards from discarded cigars or cigarettes special police were watching the place now owned by the great financier J.P. Morgan. The hotel had been painted after Morgan took over.

Two visitors are happily posing in this photograph of unknown origin, and the dress and pose are "classic" to say the least!

On the right (eastern) extreme, the bay road can just be seen coming down to the surf. On the bay side, lies the fire wreck of the old Neptune House Hotel and Apartments. This fire in early 1883 really caused the special police and owners and creditors of the Hotel Imperial to sit up and take notice.

It was said that if Imperial ever caught fire, all the water in the ocean couldn't put it out. (Unpaid workers did at one time threaten to torch the Imperial for not being paid.) Special police were very strict with any and all who did enter the hotel for whatever reason.

The present Beach 108 Street is on the right, and at the opposite end is the present Beach 116 Street, once Grand Avenue - beach to bay. The hotel's Jamaica Bay dock, the railroad station, gas works, and water works are all behind the "E" shaped hotel, with its three wings facing toward the bay. Rockaway Beach Boulevard ended at Beach 105 Street when it opened in this same year of 1883.

The beach is full of flotsam & jetsam, with portions of a bulkhead and the hotel's wrap-around piazza visible above collecting windblown sands. The building appears to have a lot of windows missing.

Indeed, the Hotel Imperial is a sight to behold, and the lithographs of the building do it no justice, as it appears lower and longer! Had the hotel been opened for business, the history of our west end would have been different, but only up to the years before World War One began to cloud up Europe. The ending of horse racing tracks in south Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau caused the decline of big hotels built near these gambling meccas, and a race track was planned for Rockaway Beach, also. By 1911, all but one of the great hotels of the past were gone. The Oriental in Coney Island became an apartment house until later years.

The hotel company's property, as of 1880, ran from the western portion of Seaside to as far as present Roxbury, at the point. Many attractions and special features were proposed or planned for the site, and even a few more railroads were being put down on paper by engineers and draftsmen. Being that the Imperial was lost (if you will), so was the New York & Woodhaven & Rockaway Beach railroad. It had been built specifically to bring patrons to the massive hotel.

The latter was absorbed into the LIRR system owned by President Austin C. Corbin, a principal connected to all the other hotels mentioned previously, and the president of the Rockaway Park Improvement Company, which developed the present Rockaway Park section after the Imperial was demolished and the land cleared. So now you know the rest of the story…

There were many reports that sections of the hotel were purchased and moved about, for that made good copy for eager reporters and their newspapers.

No verification was ever found by document, deed, or photographs. All company deeds stated - "to be built" - not moved to!

However, a massive building boom took place in the Rockaways after the Imperial was demolished, as there were massive amounts of second-hand building material available. On a cold early spring day in 1889, the massive brick chimneys of the Imperial were dynamited down…the last thing to be done to erase the existence of the damn big hotel.

I solved a great puzzle about the Imperial. The architect of the hotel was Napoleon Lebrun, who built the first skyscraper in New York City. The American Institute of Architects in Washington, D.C. and New York City had no information on his connection with the hotel, but sent me lots of information and pictures of all the skyscrapers and other structures that Lebrun & Son built in many cities of America. Indeed the AIAwas surprised by the photo of the hotel and Lebrun's connection, but in reality, Lebrun did not want to be connected to an architectural failure in any way! That makes sense, but by today's standards, Lebrun's design was outstanding, and looks a lot better than any condominium around. If you look closely at the top floors and roof configurations you will see what I mean.

In the photo, the great porch around the Imperial is unfinished. Railings and decorations are missing, but if all were there…a good name for the old hotel would be… "The Rockaway Muse!"
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