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Change Comes Once Again for Coney Island's Thunderbolt

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, Kensinger explores the past, present, and future of Coney Island's Thunderbolt.


[A new Thunderbolt roller coaster will soon open in Coney Island, located in the same block where the original Thunderbolt once stood. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Coney Island's perpetually transforming landscape is undergoing yet another renewal and rebirth, with a series of rides and concessions opening in boardwalk locations unused for decades. This summer, the new main attraction is the Thunderbolt, a $9 million roller coaster which was scheduled to open on Memorial Day. Neighbors and tourists alike are eagerly awaiting the ride, which was built on an empty lot owned by the city. A team of workers is now at the site, completing wiring and inspecting the track. "Give us another week or two to run these tests," a worker on the boardwalk told curious onlookers. "We want to make the ride safe for you." However, as at least one Coney Island resident has noted, "they haven't even run the crash test dummies yet!"

While the anticipation for this new coaster grows, the history of the original Thunderbolt looms in the shadows. A true Coney Island landmark, the first Thunderbolt stood on this same block for over 70 years before being bulldozed by the city. Built in 1925 by George H. Moran for $170,000, this classic wooden coaster was situated above an even older structure from Coney Island's past—the Kensington Hotel, which was built in 1895. Both the coaster and the hotel underneath gained a place in pop culture history after being featured in Woody Allen's film "Annie Hall."

The colorful story of the original Thunderbolt was explored in depth by filmmaker Lila Place for her 2005 documentary "Under The Roller Coaster." The film chronicles the life of Mae Timpano, who lived in the house under the Thunderbolt for many years with its owner Fred Moran. Their six-room home included a grand piano and wall-to-wall carpets, and despite the constant rumble of coaster cars, Timpano compared it to living in the countryside. "The film is very nostalgic," said Lila Place. "It's tinged with this feeling that there were better times that have been lost."

Under The Roller Coaster from Lila Place on Vimeo.

The Thunderbolt was closed down when Fred Moran died in 1982, and it soon fell into disrepair. The house under the coaster was badly damaged by a fire in 1991. But both structures remained standing for another nine years, protected by a caretaker. "That roller coaster was shut down as long as I can remember. It was always such a beautiful decrepit thing to look at," said Brooklyn resident Athena Brown, who now works on the Coney Island boardwalk. "I used to wish I could go inside but there were dogs in there."

In November 2000, the Thunderbolt was destroyed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani "without any legal right," according to the Times. The demolition was "a surprise attack on one of Coney Island's few remaining monuments," according to the Journal of New York Folklore. "The house and coaster were both slated for a secret demolition by the mayor, whose waterfront development plans for a new, more profitable Coney Island will sever all ties to its glamorous past." After the destruction, all that remained on the Thunderbolt lot was the abandoned 1935 Playland Arcade building, which was left to collapse slowly, a haven for raccoons and feral cats, before being demolished in 2013

The lot where this trio of Coney Island landmarks once stood—the Thunderbolt, the Kensington Hotel, and the Playland Arcade—remains empty today. It is owned by the family of Horace Bullard, a real estate investor whose grand dreams for reinventing the neighborhood were never realized before he died in 2013. His family may now be preparing to build a waterpark on the site, which is immediately adjacent to the narrow swath of city land that holds the latest Thunderbolt. For many in the neighborhood, though, these new developments are all part of an old cycle. "Coney Island has been lost and rebuilt so many times. It was this very fancy playground at one time, and then it went down, and then it went up," said Lila Place. "This is just a new chapter."

The new Thunderbolt roller coaster is now being inspected by workers, in preparation for its launch later this summer. The coaster has 2,000 feet of steel track

Facing the Coney Island boardwalk, the coaster is located alongside West 15th street. Its signage was inspired by the original Thunderbolt roller coaster.

The original Thunderbolt and Kensington Hotel, as seen from the Coney Island boardwalk in March 2000, just eight months before they were destroyed.

The majestic ruins of the coaster were surrounded by chain link fences and overgrown weeds and protected by a pack of guard dogs. 

The old signage of the Thunderbolt, fenced off and rusting, near the Playland Arcade building. The coaster had been closed for 18 years before it was destroyed.

The interior of the Playland Arcade, seen here in 2011, was covered in hand painted murals created by artist Larry Millard. The building was abandoned in 1981. Left exposed to the elements, many of the murals had been damaged beyond repair.

The exterior of the old Playland Arcade, which was built in 1935.  The arcade was finally demolished in 2013, after Hurricane Sandy flooded the area.

A construction worker on the site of the old arcade building. A new water park may be constructed on the property and operated by Zamperla, the same company that operates the new Thunderbolt, according to the Brooklyn Paper.

The empty parcels of land that are owned by the Bullard family, situated between the new Thunderbolt and the Brooklyn Cyclones stadium.

The new Thunderbolt rises above the empty land that held its predecessor.  The cyclical nature of change in Coney Island appears to be at a high point.

"Coney Island was reinvented so many times," said Lila Place. "It feels like it's a whole new world."
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Coney Island coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]