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Prelude to Lundy's: Manhattan Beach
and the Great Hotels
In the mid-nineteenth century, the section of southern Brooklyn that we know today as Sheepshead Bay was called the Cove, the eastern end of the Gravesend area that was home to a sparse farming community with a small contingent of fisherman. It was an area also popular with duck and snipe hunters. All that changed rapidly with the development of the island across a shallow, narrow inletthe island called Coney. Coney Island was named for the rabbits that seemed to be its original inhabitants and comprises what we now recognize as three disparate entities: its western end, the Coney Island proper; its middle range, Brighton Beach; and its eastern end, Manhattan Beach, the last to be developed. Each has its own character, and their pasts inform the present. At the turn of the century there was also another distinction made between what was called West Brightonthe entertainment site of amusement rides, beer halls, and restaurantsand at that time the least reputable area, the western end, now the gated community of Sea Gate.
Coney Island was always raffish, of a mixed character, where vice and simple pleasures commingled; Brighton was in the late nineteenth century the site of large middle-class hotels and a racetrack; and Manhattan Beach was first developed as a watering hole for the rich. In a subtle way these distinctions hold today, and when you cross Ocean Parkway from Coney to Brighton, or cross Coney Island Avenue from Brighton to Manhattan Beach, you still move from one world to another: from gargantuan high-rises and projects shadowing a depleted amusement area to an enclave ofRussian emigres to a polyglot mix of, among others, newly established Asian-Americans, Hasidim, and old-timers. Depending on where you turn the corner, you will find store signs in English, Russian, Arabic, or Hebrew.
Before 1823, the island could be reached only on foot by crossing a creek when the tide was out, but in that year a toll causeway was constructed by the Coney Island Bridge and Road Company along the route of what is now Ocean Parkway. In 1849, another road was built to the island, its route roughly what is today McDonald Avenue. Ocean Parkway, once called the finest drive in America, running from Prospect Park to the Atlantic Ocean, was completed in 1876. In the same year, Ocean Avenue was marked out with the ultimate intention at its southern end of either bridging or filling in the Bay of Sheepshead to extend the road to Manhattan Beach.
In the 1840s, though Sheepshead Bay had inns and small hotelsTappen's, which was a noted bay restaurant until it closed in 1948, opened as a carriage house serving clam chowder in 1842the explosive transformation of a poor, thinly populated fishing village into a nationally celebrated resort begins with the story of Manhattan Beach and a real estate developer named Austin Corbin. He claimed that it was in 1873 when he vacationed on the eastern beaches of Coney, so his ailing child could reap the benefits of the sea air, that he envisioned an exclusive resort along the lines of his native Newport, Rhode Island. What resulted were two extravagant hotels, the Manhattan Beach and the Oriental, the latter constructed by the Long Island Rail Road. The Oriental was the more select, for it had no dining facilities for day visitors. A promotional brochure published in the mid-1880s, The Story of Manhattan Beach, tells how Corbin decided upon Manhattan Beach for his luxurious hostelries. He "perceived that in ignored, ill reputed Coney Island were all the requisites of a most desirable sea-side resort. He saw that with the elimination of the old class of visitors and the introduction of suitable accommodations for a better class, the island might take the place intended for it by nature." As part of his effort to ensure that there would be what he termed a better class, Corbin made certain that his hotels were restricted. The "objectionable" were excluded: "consequently, at no watering place is the representation of the best social classes larger than at Manhattan Beach." This was probably a knowing slap in the face to the less exclusive hotels of the Jersey shore.
The nearby Coney Island proper belonged to the hoi polloi. The anonymous author of The Story of Manhattan Beach recalls how distasteful the trip to Coney was:
The writer distinctly remembers a visit paid by him to the island some seven years ago. The sail down the bay was made in an antiquated steamer. At the landing there was a barn-like dining room, with a still more barn-like bar-room attached, chops, steaks and chowder, of a very inferior quality, were purveyed at the prices of fashionable city restaurants, and, if in addition to refreshments the visitor desired a bath, he was directed to a dilapidated shanty, where twenty-five cents were charged for a bathing suit, and a similar sum for the deposit of his purse or watch. At the end of a vacuous day the visitor returned to the city, lucky if he escaped robbery or insult, and he did not usually repeat his visit.
Corbin formed the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway Company in 1876 to service future hotel visitors and built the railway, originating at the southern end of Prospect Park, that took travelers to Manhattan Beach and determined the layout of Coney Island Avenue. The track beds supplied the base for the tracks of the Coney Island trolley line. It was Corbin who built the wooden bridge over the bay, joining Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay. It serves the same purpose today. That bridge became a causeway of contention between the local community and Corbin, as he tried to tear it down to restrict access to Manhattan Beach.
The opening of the Manhattan Beach Hotel on May 4, 1877, was presided over by President Ulysses S. Grant, and the Oriental opened in 1880. The dining room at the Manhattan Beach offered the best to be had: "The table is spread with snowy linen and sparkling with crystal ware; the garcon is civilized and intelligent. What shall we order? Some grapes or peaches to begin with, certainly; then some half-shell clams with a bottle of Chablis; then a filet of sole, sauce tartare, or, do you not like smelts, breaded with dry toast and a cup of fragrant Mocha."