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Lucy the Elephant: Fake Elephant, True Story


I hate to start this article off with a cliché, but the phrase “life is stranger than fiction” has never been more true than in the story of Lucy the Elephant –  a six-story, elephant-shaped building.

The year is 1881. Atlantic City is beginning to boom with tourists coming for the healing powers of the sea breeze and the spectacular scenery. Real estate in AC, as you can imagine, was getting snatched up quick by opportunistic business men. Enter our hero, James V. Lafferty.

At only 25 years old, Lafferty arrived in Margate, a stretch of land five miles outside of AC, with plans to make a fortune on real estate.  So, to get customers to come and check out the surrounding area, Lafferty had to come up with something big. And he did. Literally.

Construction quickly began on the elephant-shaped building (not yet known as Lucy) and became the talk of the town. The purpose of the building was to be Lafferty’s office where potential clients could come up and actually look out on the land and see the opportunity. The only windows out to the land were through the elephant’s eyes which was just the cherry on top of this wild idea. Word quickly spread since it sat near the beach in the view of sailors coming in to the ports. People would show up out of curiosity and Lafferty would try and sell them. So, everybody came to see it and Lafferty got rich. The end, right?

Nope.

The truth is that Lafferty’s business fell apart. In addition to some of his other properties, Lafferty was forced to sell the building in 1887. It wasn’t until 1900 that the Margate elephant became known as Lucy the Elephant, and over the years, it had been used as a tavern, hotel, restaurant and even a party venue. Owners came and went, the community grew and grew and history changed all around as Lucy sat on the beach, not getting the kind of attention that was originally intended. By the 1960s, Lucy was a mess and was scheduled for demolition. The end.

Again, nope.

Enter Edwin T. Carpenter and a group of citizens called the Margate Civic Association, our new heroes. They were told to either move Lucy or it would be torn down. Oh, and they only had 30 days to move it. This rag-tag group of concerned community members went door-to-door and held fund-raising events, eventually raising enough money to move Lucy. Then, in 1970, the Margate elephant was moved to where it is today. Lucy also got refurbished since the original wooden frame was falling apart. To make matters even better, Lucy was designated a National Historic Landmark.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of AC and surrounding areas pretty hard. Many are still putting their lives back together after significant damage to their homes and businesses. Margate was right in Sandy’s warpath, however – here comes the best part of the story – Lucy the Elephant went unharmed. This only adds to (let’s get emotional here for a minute) Lucy’s symbolic status of the strength and spirit of Atlantic City. What started as just a business venture has turned into a reminder of what really makes AC a fantastic vacation spot: imagination.