Historic Structures

Atlatic City Hotel History Marlborough Hotel, Atlantic City New Jersey

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the English taste for ocean bathing and the enjoyment of the sea breezes was already well established in the east coast of the United States. Along the New Jersey shore, at the state's southern tip, Cape May was the resort most accessible by water, then the most comfortable means of transportation from Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. Summer visitors flocked to its inns, rooming houses and hotels. Cape May's half-century transportation monopoly was ended in 1853, when agents of the Pennsylvania Railroad began negotiations with the owners of Absecon Island to build a rail line connecting Philadelphia and Camden to the resort.

The rail connection to the population center had two significant impacts. First and most important, it gave Atlantic City immediate commercial success, with more than a dozen hotels and rooming houses opening in the first two years of the City's existence. Second, the location of the rail terminal at Atlantic and Tennessee Avenues had significant impacts on the form of Atlantic City. The first public buildings were constructed in the same block, and the most intensive development took place at the eastern end of the island. In 1876 the immense success of the island (permanent population alone had increased from 250 to nearly 5,000) brought a second railroad, whose terminal to the southwest of the first, at Arkansas Avenue, turned development to the southwest. On the strand between the two stations were erected the hotels whose gaudy form and splendid comforts gave Atlantic City its reputation as the playground of a gilded age the Luray, the Windsor, the Traymore, the Brighton, the Shelbourne, the Dennis, the Marlborough, the Blenheim and finally the Claridge, crowning the ensemble with its slender spire. These last hotels differed from those of the 1850's and 60's in that with few exceptions, they made the transition from rooming house to hotel. Some, notably the Dennis, Shelbourne, Claridge, Traymore and Marlborough-Blenheim, went on to become grand hotels, designed by nationally important architects and decorated by the leading contemporary artists.

Because they predated the hostelry chains, the buildings themselves were a principal agent of commercial success. In each instance the new hotels were given strong architectural definition. The first characteristic was shape, which was largely determined by the high cost of beach front land. Most lots were long and narrow, best filled by an "I" or "L" plan building. In the early years layers of porches, ornamented with scroll-sawed decoration, gave the hotels an informal, festive air. They were temples to sand, sun, sea and above all, to the ocean breeze. They were homages to the strand, a just tribute rendered to the misery of the Mid-Atlantic summers. Their antecedents, beginning with the severe, barn-like structures of the early resorts, such as those in Cape May, contained cavernous dining rooms, billiard rooms and lobbies. Those public spaces were surmounted by two or three levels of comparatively small guest chambers averaging less than ninety square feet per room.

By mid-century, spurred by popular books on architecture and rising expectations of comfort and luxury, the seashore hotels took on increasingly elaborate forms, which as already noted, served to distinguish one building from another. At Illinois Avenue, Philadelphia architect Frank Furness used Moorish minarets and clustered chimneys to set the Windsor Hotel apart from its neighbors. Three years before, architect Stephen D. Button, designer of many of Cape May's great hotels, had given the Traymore Hotel its characteristic French mansards that ballooned up at the ends of each wing, and the articulating rhythm of segmented pediments that interrupted the roof line. On the next property stood the fashionable Brighton Hotel, designed by Lindley Johnson in 1888 and enlarged by him with a splendid casino, all in the shingle style then popularized by McKim, Mead and White's Newport Casino. And in 1892 the old Dennis Cottage was enlarged by wings stretching toward the ocean, and its essential stylistic reference was to the Chateau style then becoming popular at Asheville, North Carolina and later in Bruce Price's Chateau Frontenac in Quebec. High roofs, clusters of chimneys, and gently projecting bays gave dignity and, like the early Traymore, pointed toward the direction of the architectural decisions of the twentieth century.

Location, and the increasingly luxurious and highly imaginative designs of the larger, centralized hotel dramatized the success of the new hotel district. Then in 1902, the regions to the east which included Josiah White's recently enlarged Luray Hotel burned, thereby opening new regions for development. But the surviving hotel district between Ohio and Illinois Avenues maintained its dominance. The region was at that time an interesting mix of uses, with institutions and private houses interspersed among the hotels. In sequence from east to west, the Windsor and Traymore Hotels confronted each other across Illinois Avenue. Completing the Traymore block was the Brighton Hotel, set well back from the ocean, with lawns leading to a shingle style casino. The land now known as Park Place was given by the owners of the Brighton as a park, thereby securing the beach view for the hotel guests as well as for Frederick Hemsley's (the hotel owner) house that once stood on the site of the Claridge. Behind his house, fronting on Pacific Avenue, were the stately summer houses of Philadelphians, Frederick A. Poth, brewer and land speculator, and Kate Disston, whose family was known for the tool manufactory in the Tacony secton of the Quaker City. To the west, fronting onto the "Brighton Park", was the convent and Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Roman Catholic "academy of high class training" with a "villa" housing convent near the ocean, and the school building (erected in 1889) toward the rear. It remained on the site from November 7, 1885 until it closed and the property was sold in 1900 to Josiah White, owner of the Luray, who proposed to erect a new hotel, the Marlborough. The next property, across Ohio Avenue, was occupied by another institution, the Children's Seashore Home for Invalid Children, whose residential cottages stretched from the beach towards a central administration building. When that property became too valuable, it too was sold for hotel purposes and became the site of the Blenheim addition to the Marlborough. Beyond stood the Dennis Cottage and the Shelbourne, which joined the Traymore and the Marlborough-Blenheim in making this the luxurious hotel district for which Atlantic City was famous.

If the location of the great hotels was determined by the rail terminals, then the urban form of Atlantic City was a consequence of the economics of land cost. As could be anticipated, ocean and beach front properties were at a premium causing the hotel industry to acquire long, narrow beach front properties. A block back from the beach, along Pacific Avenue, were commercial and community buildings, particularly churches, while rail terminals and public buildings stood along the central spine of the island on Atlantic Avenue.

Finally, a word or two about the clientele of the new resort is in order. In Philadelphia, certain architects, notably Frank Furness (Windsor Hotel) and Addison Hutton (Chalfonte and Haddon Hall Hotels) have been linked to establishment clients, but their presence in Atlantic City should not disguise the essential nature of the clientele. Significant houses were owned by two North Philadelphia residents, Charles B. Ellis the traction magnate, and the Disston family, as well as Frederick L. Poth of Powelton. They were nouveau riche who owned houses in the fashionable sections of Philadelphia and were no doubt attracted to the social fluidity of Atlantic City. These men brought architects from Philadelphia who were accustomed to designing great houses for the City's industrial and commercial elite. This accounted for the presence in Atlantic City of Stephen D. Button (Traymore), William Decker (Windsor) and Frank Watson (Brighton). But Atlantic City's developers also included members of the old families of Philadelphia whose genteel reserve in no way limited their interest in real estate speculation, particularly when allied with the railroads. Their involvement assured the activity of an alternative circle of architects such as Quakers Addison Hutton, William L. Price, Walter Cope and John Stewardson; Episcopalian George W. Hewitt; and Unitarian Frank Furness. That mixture was largely unmatched in the other resorts of the New Jersey shore, and was rivaled only by the architectural variety of Newport, Rhode Island. Thus, with a few notable exceptions, such as the SheTbourne Hotel designed by the New Yorkers Warren and Wetmore, the bulk of Atlantic City's important buildings are the work of Philadelphians.