A Lost World: the Grand Hotels on the Ocean in Brooklyn

A trio of opulent Gilded Age Hotels existed parallel to Coney Island’s boom

The Oriental Hotel, on the Atlantic a mile from Coney Island’s parks

More than 100 years after Coney Island — offering to the public its competing amusement parks of Steeplechase, Juno, and Dreamland — earned the nickname of “America’s Playground,” it is still a famous place.

Far less well known is the trio of large hotels that rose less than a mile from the amusement park, built in the Victorian age and intended to serve deep-pocketed, discriminating guests in the most elegant manner possible. Many of the hotels’ guests never set foot in Steeplechase or Juno — or Dreamland when it was built in 1904. They existed in a parallel world, sharing the Atlantic Ocean beach with Coney Island but little else.

The era of the three hotels, visited by presidents and European royalty, burned brightly but briefly. The era’s heyday was over by the 1920s.

People today travel to Coney to ride the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel or to devour hotdogs at Nathan’s. The vast hotels, on the other hand, were completely demolished, with houses, synagogues, and a city college atop their foundations today. It is a lost world.

A postcard of the Oriental Hotel, from the collection of the Coney Island Museum

The first of the grand hotels to be built was the Manhattan Beach Hotel. Picking this spot went beyond catering to people’s fondness for an oceanfront resort. In the 19th century, people believed that the region was good for your health, even curative.

Railroad tycoon Austin Corbin spent some weeks at a small oceanfront hotel on the spit of land at the end of Brooklyn, owned by William Engelman, because his son was in poor health. While there, Corbin decided the property was ripe for development, and he formed a syndicate of investors to snap up the property.

The biggest challenge was transportation. But once that was solved — use steamboats and build railroad lines leading right to Coney Island — a vast hotel was designed by architect J. Pickering Putnam. It was all wooden, 400 feet long. President Ulysses Grant attended the opening ceremony for the Manhattan Beach Hotel, which was within a year dubbed “the best hotel on the Atlantic Ocean.” It had 300 guest rooms, a ballroom, a bandstand, and a restaurant that could seat thousands. In its long veranda, it resembled the larger hotels in Saratoga Springs.

A Scribners Magazine correspondent wrote about the hotel:

What a charming view of the sea. A wide esplanade between is green with turf and gay with flowers — geranium, helitrope, lobelia…In the center is a music stand shaped like a scallop shell. The beach below is full of parasols and summer costumes bright against the water.

Businessman James Jordan leaped in to compete with Corbin, building the Brighton Beach Hotel. It’s believed that Corbin was trying to outdo the man who was struggling to outdo him when he built the Oriental Hotel, about 1,000 yards east of the Manhattan Beach Hotel.

The Oriental Hotel was the most opulent of them all, with a “Moorish” motif. It was six stories high, 478 feet long, with eight large circular towers surmounted by a minaret. There were about 480 sleeping rooms, and an elevator.

During the day some guests would swim in the water, using the “bathing pavilions” to change. Hot air balloon rides also beckoned, as well as bicycling and tennis. In the evening, people dressed for dinner, dining on lobster, littleneck clams, lamb and other such dishes. There were fireworks at night, concerts, and spectacles acted out on the lawn.

One year The Brooklyn Eagle said about the Oriental Hotel guests that the descendants of four American presidents were staying there as well as “the usual quota of barons, dukes, counts and foreign attaches.”

Yet all this time Coney Island was exploding nearby as a resort drawing the factory workers and office workers, the middle-class families of New York for day trips. People came to enjoy themselves — and they did.

Women photographed on the beach at Coney Island, 1899

The hotels employed Pinkertons and other guards to keep the Coney crowd out. Worse, Corbin was an anti-Semite who said Jews were unwelcome. Blacks were discriminated against.

After Corbin died in 1896, some of the bigotry eased. But stylish tastes were changing. The richest families in New York preferred Newport or other out-of-town resorts. Still, many men with means continued coming out for the season to follow the horseraces — there were three large racetracks in the region, making Brooklyn the horse-racing capital of America. The Vanderbilts and “Diamond Jim Brady” favored the Coney Island Jockey Club.

As the large hotels began to fade in popularity, the amusement parks of Coney Island reached their peak in the fantastic and the imaginative. People came from all over the world to see them. It was hard to think that hotel guests would be completely satisfied with sea bathing and concerts with these larger-than-life amusements so close at hand.

Luna Park, photo courtesy of Coney Island Museum
Dreamland, photo courtesy of Coney Island Museum

When gambling was banned in the state in 1910, it dealt a fatal blow to the grand hotels. The Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1912; in 1916 the Oriental Hotel fell to the wrecking ball.

The era of the grand hotel in Brooklyn was no more.

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘Dreamland’ www.nancybilyeau.com

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