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The Upper-Class Brooklyn Resorts of the Victorian Era

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Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.

While Coney Island was known for entertaining the masses with its amusements and oddities, further east lie two areas that once catered to a more genteel and refined population. Beginning in the 1870s, two prominent men would develop their respective properties, Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach, creating lavish and grandiose hotels for the city's upper middle class and wealthy elite. At the time, these areas were premiere resort destinations; today they are a distant memory, demolished just a few decades after they were built. Looking at present day Manhattan and Brighton Beaches, communities that are quite distinct from one another, it is difficult to envision their past?which makes it all the more interesting.

An unfortunate circumstance first brought Manhattan Beach's creator, investor and railroad tycoon Austin Corbin, to the area. Under doctor's orders to spend the summer at the seaside for his young son's health, Corbin was a guest at the Ocean Hotel owned by William Engelman, a man who made his fortune selling horses to the government during the Civil War. While there, Corbin set his sights on the uninhabited swampland east of Engelman's property, realizing its potential as a resort destination. He chose the name "Manhattan Beach" in the hope that its cosmopolitan flavor would attract a clientele of the same ilk. Also recognizing that the remote location required transportation access, he used his power as president of the Long Island Railroad to construct the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway, bringing the shore within one hour of uptown New York.

The Manhattan Beach Hotel opened for business in the summer of 1877. Built by architect J. Pickering Putnam, the four-story Queen Anne-style wooden hotel was nearly 700 feet long, featuring distinctive turrets and covered verandas with neatly manicured grounds surrounding the hotel and facing the boardwalk. The hotel had a grand reputation from the moment it opened?former president Ulysses S. Grant presided over its open ceremony on July 4 of that year. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle called it "the best hotel on the Atlantic Ocean." It would have been difficult to disagree: the hotel featured 150 guest rooms as well as an assortment of restaurants, ballrooms, and shops and offered first class entertainment?John Philip Sousa performed here and wrote the musical piece "The Manhattan Beach March" in the hotel's honor in 1893. In addition, exclusive New York clubs such as the University Club, the Union League, the New York Club and the Coney Island Jockey Club used the resort as their summer headquarters. Based on the success of his first hotel, Corbin would build another three years later?the Oriental Hotel. An opulent hotel with a Moorish motif, this hotel catered to the wealthiest of families, offering them suites for extended stays throughout the entire resort season.

Not to be overshadowed by his neighbor, Engelman also decided to create a resort. He named it Brighton Beach after the idyllic British seashore destination and built the Hotel Brighton (later the Brighton Beach Hotel) in 1878. Also made of wood, the hotel was 460 feet long and several stories high, with accommodations for upwards of 5,000 guests. However, ten years later, the beach in front of the hotel would become so badly eroded that the ocean waves would lap up against the hotel's façade. To save it from destruction, the hotel was placed atop 120 railcars and moved inland 500 to 600 feet. This massive job only took three months to complete, meaning the hotel was open for business again in the summer of 1888. Engelman failed to lure Corbin's wealthier clientele, however, because they did not wish to be any closer to Coney Island.

All three resorts catered to the sensibilities and interests of the refined Victorian era. Guests enjoyed evenings filled with concerts and elaborate firework displays. Horse racing, an immensely popular pastime, was first introduced in the area when Engelman opened a track in Brighton Beach in 1879. In subsequent years, other tracks would open up nearby, making the area the race track capital of the country. And as salt water bathing became more popular, the resorts built bathhouses to serve its guests. By 1880, the Manhattan Beach Hotel offered 2,350 single bathhouses and 350 larger rooms for groups of a half-dozen bathers. These accommodations and amenities made these resorts a destination, attracting patrons away from the resorts they would normally frequent in places like Newport, Rhode Island, and Long Branch, New Jersey.

Yet despite the success of these hotels, they were relatively short-lived. Many factors contributed to the decline of the resort area: the amusement parks opening in West Brighton, the suburbanization of parts of Brooklyn, and the Manhattan Beach Improvement Company selling off parcels of land for residential development. But what truly destroyed these areas was the prohibition of gambling, forcing the once very lucrative horse tracks to close, thus causing many patrons to stop coming to these resorts. Between 1910 and 1920, both the Manhattan Beach (1911-2) and Oriental Hotels (1916) were torn down and the land was sold for residential development. Although once considered a negative, the Brighton Beach Hotel's close proximity to Coney Island, which was at its peak during this time, meant that the Brighton Beach Hotel fared a bit better?it stood until 1926. Although these hotels were gone, the area remained popular for its Manhattan Beach Baths, a bungalow and bathhouse community with daily concerts and dance. The baths closed in 1942, marking the end of Manhattan and Brighton beaches as resort destinations.

Today the communities of Manhattan and Brighton beaches, once fairly similar, are now two distinct areas with seemingly no trace of their early past. Brighton Beach is predominantly a Russian immigrant enclave, comprised of small bungalows and a recent proliferation of non-contextual development, in stark opposition to the private and palatial homes that grace the streets of Manhattan Beach. Despite these changes, one unifying link remains?the boardwalk. Although so much has changed for these areas, the boardwalk still stands, offering uninterrupted views of the gulls, seabirds, sand, and ocean, surely as much of a welcome respite today as it would have been in the nineteenth century.
?Lisa Santoro

Further Reading:
· The Coney Island History Web Site [westland.net]
· An Imperfect Paradise in Brooklyn [BPL]
· Brighton and Manhattan Beach, at your leisure [The Bowery Boys]
· The Encyclopedia of New York City
· Curbed Classics archive [Curbed]