“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the fun facts only the locals know.
Everyone has a favorite pachyderm—Dumbo, Babar and the spotted Misfit Toy in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” come to mind—but for visitors to the Jersey Shore, Lucy the Elephant stands alone. The six-story wood-and-metal structure in Margate City, N.J., was built in 1881 by James Lafferty, a land speculator. Lafferty hoped to attract real estate buyers to the area that was then known as South Atlantic City and was still a land of scrub pine, dune grass and fishing shacks.
In 1887, Lafferty sold the structure, which he called Elephant Bazaar, to Anton Gertzen. Gertzen’s son, John, charged visitors 10 cents to tour the furnished interior and climb to the howdah, the observatory on the elephant’s back. John’s wife, Sophia, is credited with changing the elephant’s name to Lucy.
Over the years, Lucy survived hurricanes and outlasted Lafferty’s other two structures, the 40-foot-tall Light of Asia elephant in Cape May, N.J., and the 122-foot-tall Elephantine Colossus on Coney Island, N.Y. Sophia Gertzen died in 1963, and seven years later, her children donated the structure to the city of Margate. When a developer bought the land, concerned citizens formed the Save Lucy Committee. Lucy was moved to a donated parcel of land on the beachfront and underwent a restoration. In 1976, the attraction was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Lucy was briefly featured in the opening credits for the 1983 movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Last year, Airbnb offered a one-time opportunity to stay overnight. And in July, the city celebrated Lucy’s 140th birthday with cake, games and the announcement of a nearly $700,000 grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to undergo a massive renovation.
We asked District 2 Assemblymen John Armato (D) and Vince Mazzeo (D) about the significance of Lucy the Elephant.
What does Lucy the Elephant mean for your district?
Armato: Lucy attracts 150,000 visitors from the U.S. and overseas a year to Margate and our district. This is a family destination that parents bring their children to come see, just as their parents brought them. We’re proud to have Lucy here and thankful for the tourism she brings to our local small businesses.
Mazzeo: Lucy is an icon for the families in our district and a source of pride. We’re fortunate to have a landmark attraction that provides tourism for the small businesses that depend on it in Atlantic County.
What is the mission of the Save Lucy Committee?
Armato: The Save Lucy Committee runs and maintains her upkeep for the National Park Service. This year, Lucy is due to have her “skin” replaced to keep her healthy and rust-free.
Mazzeo: Lucy the Elephant was in danger of being condemned and torn down in the 1960s, and the Save Lucy Committee was formed to prevent it. The Gertzen family donated her to the committee.
How did Lucy outlast two other similar elephants?
Armato: The weather conditions along the shore are the biggest issue in maintenance, from lightning strikes to flooding. The committee and the local fans of Lucy are very dedicated to keeping her in perfect condition. The community has never wavered in its support, and we can thank them for protecting Lucy all these years.
Mazzeo: Lucy has been fortunate to have so many dedicated people throughout her history taking care of her. If it weren’t for the dedicated volunteers who have invested their time and energy, Lucy would have met the same fate as the other two elephants.
Have you taken the guided tour? Have you stayed overnight? Do you have a Lucy souvenir?
Armato: I have had the opportunity to go inside Lucy, and I have a few Lucy t-shirts from the times I have volunteered at her birthday parties. I was able to join the Lucy staff and community as we celebrated her 140th birthday. I haven’t had the opportunity to stay inside, and it is no longer available as an Airbnb, although there are quite a few great places to stay in and around Margate.
Mazzeo: My favorite souvenir from Lucy is the shirts we have received over the years after volunteering at her birthday party. It’s always a great summertime event that attracts families from all over to visit Margate. I’ve had the chance to go inside Lucy over the years as well.
What else is great about your district?
Armato: Atlantic City is home to the world’s largest musical instrument, the pipe organ housed within the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall; the third-tallest lighthouse in the country; and our district has the best beaches in the state. From the boardwalk to the farmlands, there are plenty of reasons to visit Atlantic County!
Mazzeo: Atlantic County has so much to offer. Everyone knows about the casinos in Atlantic City, but there are also great family attractions like Lucy and the lighthouse. Plus, you can’t beat our beaches here.
Senator Chris A. Brown (R) also represented the district, but he resigned on July 19.
Nora Caley is a Denver-based freelancer.