The Elephantine Colossus, also known by its function as the Elephant Hotel, was a beguiling tourist attraction which once took centre stage on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York. The hotel, built in the shape of an elephant, is a marvellous example of novelty architecture. The seven-story structure designed by James V. Lafferty stood above Surf Avenue and West 12th Street from 1885 until 1896. During its lifespan, the thirty-one room building acted as a concert hall and amusement bazaar, among other functions. It was the second of three elephant buildings built by Lafferty, preceded by the extant Lucy the Elephant near Atlantic City and followed by The Light of Asia in Cape May.
Between 1880 and World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement area in the United States, attracting several million visitors per year, earning the name, the People’s Playground. At its height, it contained three competing major amusement parks — Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park — as well as many independent attractions, such as the Elephantine Colossus. Built during Coney Island’s first tourism boom, the 200-foot-tall elephant-shaped hotel had a howdah on its back, and was topped with a gilded crescent. This monument of kitsch had a fleeting and extraordinary life. Shortly after it’s construction, the hotel was turned into a brothel, only to burn down within just over a decade of its creation.
Built two years prior to the Statue of Liberty, the Elephant Hotel was, for a rather brief moment, the first structure visible to incoming immigrants. Humbly dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World” by its architect, the Elephant Hotel exemplified all of Coney Island’s colourful and unapologetically ostentatious charm. The building’s original design housed a concert hall and events bazaar in the creature’s belly, and a museum in what would have been its left lung. Its head was an observatory and its eyes were telescopes, from which visitors and guests alike could climb up and look out at the ever-evolving cityscape that surrounded them.
The animal’s front legs held a cigar shop and diorama, and its hind legs had spiral staircases leading to the rooms contained above. The excitement surrounding the curious structure waned sooner than expected, and once the tourists stopped coming, Coney Island’s flourishing community of sex workers started to move in. The hotel transformed into an elephant-shaped brothel, and the phrase, “Seeing the elephant,” became local parlance for picking up prostitutes, as the New York Historical Society notes. By the 1890s, the prostitutes had left the Elephantine Colossus behind, and ultimately, following a mysterious incident, the derelict building went up in flames on 27 September 1896, never to be rebuilt.
Feature image: The Elephantine Colossus (via Pinterest)