Lucy the Elephant Has Never Looked Better After a $2.5 Million Restoration

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Lucy the Margate Elephant. Credit: Save Lucy Committee.

Nowadays, a 60-ton elephant-shaped building located five miles south of Atlantic City would hardly seem out of place at the Jersey Shore. Lucy, the Margate Elephant, is quite at home among the kitschy and bizarre attractions that made New Jersey’s coastline so famous. It’s hard to top a street performer playing the piano with her tongue. But Lucy comes close.

What’s special about Lucy is she was actually built nearly a century before Atlantic City’s first casinos were built, making it even more of a novelty. It is considered the oldest roadside attraction in the United States. In 1881, a real estate prospector named James Lafferty was trying to sell lots at a time when much of the south end of Absecon Island was still a gridless expanse known as South Atlantic City.

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Inside Lucy. Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

“There was not much here in 1881 so Lafferty wanted to build something eye-catching to help sell real estate,” said Elizabeth Larkin, one of the tour guides. “And I guess in his head the next logical thing was to build a giant elephant.”

Six years later, Lafferty, who fell on hard times, was forced to sell the elephant to Anton Gertzen, who fortunately wanted to preserve her. His wife, Sophia, gave it the nickname “Lucy” for reasons that elude even historians, because a tusked Asian elephant is anatomically-speaking male.

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The bathroom inside Lucy. Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Lafferty’s money troubles was the first of many crises that Lucy has managed to avert over her drama-packed life. The main problem with being an elephant statue is that her exterior was wrapped in tin, which is prone to rusting, especially in the seaside’s briny, humid air. In the 1960s, she became so rundown that the city condemned her. A group of locals named Save Lucy Committee, which still exists today as a non-profit, began the first restoration. In 1976, Lucy was listed on the National Register.

Since then, the Committee has been tasked with generational repairs. The most recent $2.5 million restoration, completed in 2022, means Lucy has never looked better. If that price seems a bit steep for the restoration, that’s because the entire exterior was refaced with a special, extremely expensive metal called Monel-400 that will save on future restorations, according to Jeremy Bingaman, the committee’s director of education.

“The good news is that she’ll never rust again,” Bingaman said. “In theory, there shouldn’t be any leaks either.”

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One of the narrow staircases leading to the top floor. Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Lucy is a perfect detour for those visiting the shore towns. It also makes a great pit stop on the long trek to Cape May. The entire neighborhood surrounding Lucy is an upscale residential neighborhood with a fountain-lined boulevard and its nearby historic district called Marven Gardens, should ring a bell if you’ve ever played Monopoly. There are a few notable eateries nearby, including Ventura’s Green House with a rooftop deck. But there are a lot more if you feel like circling back to the Atlantic City.

If you’re still on the fence about whether to visit Lucy, know that you’re not alone. Even Bingaman was not completely sold on the hype before he uprooted his life in Pennsylvania to join the team that runs Lucy as a museum. “I had never heard of her,” Bingaman said. “But after being here for a little bit, I realized there’s something magical about her.”

Something indeed fantastical happens when you enter Lucy through the narrow spiraling staircase that begins in one of her rear feet – and I should emphasize for those with mobility concerns how narrow and spiraling it is.

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Lucy’s eyes and a door accessing her trunk, which is used as a garbage chute. Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Once inside, visitors find themselves transported to the innards of a strange Victorian relic that somehow seems much larger than its does from the street. Bingaman repeated something his colleague Larkin, the tour guide, had mentioned during the 20-minute walk-through about Lucy feeling alive to those who spend enough time with her.

“When you work for Lucy, you start talking to her like she’s real – I talk to her about the day as we’re getting ready in the morning,” Larkin said. “Some people get weirded out by that sometimes, but that’s just how it is.”

Lucy the Elephant is located at 9200 Atlantic Ave, Margate City, NJ. From June to October, Lucy is open for tours seven days a week, though the hours change slightly depending on the day. Be mindful of closures during the slow season. See the calendar beforehand.


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