The Strange History of Old Coney Island’s Elephant Hotel-Turned-Brothel

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As the Coney Island boardwalk risks Times Square-ification at the hands of costumed Hello Kitty and SpongeBob characters, we’re having a nostalgia-fest for a far stranger Coney Island of Olde. In the 1880s, during its first tourism boom, the People’s Playground was home to Elephantine Colossus, a 200-foot-tall elephant-shaped hotel had a howdah on its back, topped with a gilded crescent. As Ephemeral New York points out, this architectural gimmick had a brief, wondrous life: Built in 1885 on a seedy stretch of Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, it soon turned into a brothel, only to burn down in 1896. Built two years before the Statue of Liberty, this elephant was, for a hot second, the first structure visible to incoming immigrants. 

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Dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World” by its designer, James Lafferty, the Elephant Hotel embodied all of Coney Island’s tacky, carnivalesque charm. It housed a concert hall and events bazaar in its belly, a museum in what would be its left lung. Its head was an observatory and its eyes were telescopes; you could climb up and peer out at the surrounding city. With 31 rooms and 12 stories, its front legs housed a cigar store and diorama, and its hind legs had spiral staircases leading to the rooms contained above. Soon, though, tourists got tired of the gimmick, and prostitutes started moving in. It became a giant elephant-shaped brothel. “Seeing the elephant” became local parlance for picking up prostitutes, as the New York Historical Society reveals.

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By the 1890s, even the prostitutes had abandoned the Elephantine Colossus. The sad pachyderm went up in flames on September 27, 1896, and has never been rebuilt–a tragedy we’re belatedly mourning now.

 

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[via Ephemeral New York; photos via Wikipedia Commons and the New York Historical Society.]

Follow Carey Dunne on Twitter @CareyDunne

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