VENTNOR — The basement windows are frosted and thick, meant to deter the prying eyes of law-abiding citizens.
Those windows once were necessary at 24 N. Cornwall Ave., a bay-block, wood-paneled house near the Dorset Avenue bridge. Now, the windows are a restoration project, a piece of yesterday.
Same with the basement's Prohibition-era bar, covered in dust and shadows and candy-apple-red paint. A wooden sign hangs at the bar's entrance, its letters etched a lifetime ago in thin cursive.
Yes, Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson, Atlantic City's beloved political boss, lived in the home. So did a lawyer connected to a failed whiskey raid, a burlesque dancer's debtor, a renowned inventor, a noted artist and now an actress, Keren Perilman, who is trying to make the house look like it did when illegal booze flowed through the basement.
That happened between 1920 and 1933 — the Prohibition era. During the national liquor ban, the ocean and back bays surrounding the resort teemed with rum-running boats, carrying illegal liquor along the coast.
One landing port for those boats was located along the bay in Ventnor, a couple hundred feet from the home's front step.
"When I was having the home inspected, the inspector called his mother and asked her if the address was familiar to her," Perilman said. "‘24 North Cornwall? Yes,' she told him. ‘I used to help carry booze from the rum boats, across the street to that house.'"
Johnson's former home — built between 1903 and 1905 — has endured a century of rain and floods and wind atop its sandy base.
While the house did not fall, the sand is causing problems for Perilman. She had the floorboards in the room adjacent to the basement bar removed, after moisture from the sand turned the floor into a rotted mess.
Perilman wants to pour a base of concrete on top of the exposed sand, then replace the wooden boards so the room looks like it did during the 1920s, when it served as a gambling parlor.
"This was their place, and it will be a place again," she said. "It just won't be on the sand, so it won't get moldy-oldie."
When workers pulled up the floorboards, they found dozens of crumpled wine and whiskey labels, reminders of the house's role in storing and distributing alcohol, during a time when such activity was against the law.
The early owners
During its first 20 years, the house was — well, a house. Average, ordinary people lived there, including a Russian widow named Reba Plotka.
It began to earn its notoriety in 1925, when Plotka sold the house to lawyer W. Lindley Jeffers. Jeffers, Johnson's personal attorney and a District Court judge, was connected to the rum-running industry.
A Sept. 23, 1922, New York Times article states that one of Johnson's Republican right-hand men, William "Whitey" Brinton, was arrested on a federal warrant, charged with planning to steal seized alcohol from a government warehouse. At the time, Brinton was a "dry agent" — serving as South Jersey's Federal Prohibition Group Captain. Four other men were arrested in the plot.
Newspaper reports show Jeffers furnished $17,500 in bonds to free the men from custody and later represented the accused. The case was dropped with no explanation three weeks later.
Jeffers lived in the Ventnor home for two years, selling the property to Richard and Helen Goggin in 1927.
Somehow, in the year that followed, the Goggins got mixed up with an opportunistic, raven-haired burlesque dancer.
Goggins out, Nucky in
Evan-Burrows Fontaine, a personal friend of Johnson's, is best known for salacious headlines and semi-nude photographs.
A Ziegfeld Follies performer and silent film actress in the 1910s and '20s, Fontaine was an expert in scantily-clad cabaret dances. Her media exposure peaked in 1922, when she unsuccessfully sued Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney — socialite, eventual airplane pioneer, movie financier and horse racing enthusiast — for $1 million, accusing him of reneging on his promise to marry her, and charging that he was the father of her child.
Five years after the failed lawsuit, Fontaine tried to wring money from somebody new: the Goggins.
Atlantic County deed records show Fontaine and her mother, Florence E. Fontaine, as well as the dancer's friend, Johnson, emerged as defendants after the Goggins could no longer afford the house.
Claire Fields, title searcher at the Atlantic County Clerk's Office, said the three claimed that Richard and Helen Goggin owed them money.
"Maybe he borrowed something from her," Fields said, when asked why a burlesque dancer appears on the deed. "Or he didn't pay."
The time frame in which the debt was incurred — late 1927 or early 1928 — matches the period in which Fontaine performed in Atlantic City, appearing in what The New York Times called a "beach-front cabaret."
So Richard and Helen Goggin lost the house. Sheriff James Cimino organized a public sale for the property.
And in August 1928, the home became one of Nucky's places.
Nucky's main place was the ninth floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel along Atlantic City's Boardwalk, but he owned other properties, too. For 14 months, during the height of his power, the house on North Cornwall Avenue was "Nucky's Place."
During the time he owned the home, Johnson invited Al Capone, Charles "Lucky" Luciano and dozens of other gangsters to Atlantic City to participate in the country's first-known underworld conference.
House lore suggests that Johnson made the home's basement what it is today. According to a 1970s or 1980s house history provided by Perilman, the basement bar "was originally in the old Ritz-Carlton and cut down to fit what is now the barroom."
That's when the basement's frosted-glass window panes were installed — to keep police and passers-by from seeing inside.
"Nucky's Place" remained a hub of activity in the years following Johnson's departure from the house.
On Halloween 1929, two days after the stock market crashed, Johnson sold the home to Frank Lewis Dyer. Dyer, longtime patent attorney and general manager to inventor Thomas A. Edison, was best known for inventing a talking book for the blind, revolutionizing the way people listened to recorded works. At 24 N. Cornwall Ave., Dyer maintained a library of 10,000 books.
Popular regional artist Marian D. Harris followed with her family in 1947. A former president of the League of South Jersey Artists, Harris' paintings continue to surface at regional art auctions, more than two decades after her death. Many of those paintings were created when she lived on North Cornwall. Harris converted a section of the property, a carriage house, into her studio.
She enjoyed depicting the property in her artwork, such as in a block print titled "Our House." The print shows the front of the house, with two bare shade trees standing guard near the street, and a row of firs blocking the view into the basement.
She illustrated the roof with a series of cross-hatches; a row of bushes, black ink; the porch, two thin white slivers.
Concentric curves, thin as a record's grooves, represent clouds.
What to do
In Nucky's Place, Perilman sees the opportunity to undo years of neglect.
"The previous owners stored paint cans downstairs and trashed the basement," she said. "I was appalled."
The place is being transformed into the beach home Perilman envisioned four years ago when she was in the market for a property near Atlantic City. She visited the resort frequently as a child, watching Don Rickles at the 500 Club and Smokey Robinson on the Steel Pier.
A copy of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky's "Squares with Concentric Circles," vibrant and bold, greets visitors from atop the house's living room fireplace. The circles are tire-thick, blue, green, red — matching the cushy crimson wraparound settee located across the room.
While Kandinsky's circles are appealing, Perilman wishes the home sported another painting: a portrait of Nucky. One was hanging when she toured the home, Perilman said. By the time the sale was complete, the painting was gone.
Despite the missing painting, the political boss' aura and flair remain. So Perilman scrubs the basement bar's copper sink, a sink Nucky used. Her flip-flops walk across the marble floor, a floor Nucky walked across.
The place should continue to keep Perilman busy - restoring the frosted windows, touching up the candy-apple red paint, replacing the floorboards in the room where all the wine and whiskey labels were discovered.
Perilman left recently for an extended stay in Tel Aviv, Israel, and the trip has her wondering what to do next with the house. She may sell the property someday. She's not sure.
"I keep going back and forth on that," she said.
When Perilman decides to sell, she will become a part of 105 years of history that includes a beloved political boss, a lawyer connected to a failed whiskey raid, a burlesque dancer's debtor, a renowned inventor and a noted artist.
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