Building an Atlantic City institution

Steel Pier is being renovated in an effort to restore some of its luster with a $100 million construction project slated for completion in 2015. 

When its builders first erected the labyrinth of pilings and cross-beams that supported Steel Pier for more than a century, they probably didn't figure locals kids such as Allen "Boo" Pergament would use them to gain illicit access to the "Megastructure of Entertainment."

"Sneaking into the pier was my favorite thing to do when I got older," said Pergament, now 79, of Margate.

More courageous boys would shimmy out across one of the beams to the edge of the promenade, he said. After scanning the horizon for pier employees, they would climb under the railing and lose themselves in the crowd. But Boo, like most of the children who snuck onto the pier, would climb the pier's superstructure to a place just beneath the fun houses, the "basement" of the pier full of dark recesses and frightened visitors.

"Underneath the pier there were a few loose boards, maybe made loose by kids prying at them," Pergament said. "You'd move those boards so it let you into the darkened area where people were winding through."

Then, one at a time, Boo and his friends trailed older couples out of the funhouse. The guards, who assumed they were family, were none the wiser.

Steel Pier may not have been the first amusement pier in Atlantic City, but it was one of the sturdiest and longest lived - loose floor boards aside.

The piers that preceded it were extensions of a growing Boardwalk, which by 1884 was 20 feet wide and two miles long. Often made of wood, they were vulnerable to fire and the forces of nature. The 650-foot Howard's Pier, erected off Kentucky Avenue in 1882, was twice destroyed by storms in 1882 and 1884, according to newspaper reports.

But Steel Pier was different. Construction began in 1897 when iron pilings were sunk 40 feet into the sand off Virginia Avenue. Steel girders supported the pier along its 1,600-foot length, supporting an open-air casino, a cavernous music hall and a long observation deck. It was billed as the "world's largest amusement pier" in hand bills.

According to newspaper reports, the pier sported 3,500 electric lights when it opened on June 18, 1898. Its electricity was furnished by the Atlantic City Steel Pier Company's own power plant located nearby on Virginia Avenue, reportedly with a duplicate power station to carry the load in an emergency.

The $200,000 pier was designed by a rising Philadelphia architect, John T. Windrim. Later in his career, he was responsible for part of The Franklin Institute, as well as the Chester Generating Station, now operated by Exelon Corporation along the Delaware River.

Pergament said the early pier, like its smaller competitors and the English piers it was modeled on, was mostly a concert venue. It attracted famous opera singers and popular bands, but there was little else to do. Still, many people paid money to sit and be seen.

"Bands performed there several times a day," he said. "In between that, most of the time was spent sitting in chairs at the edges of the pier, stretched out talking to people. People would sit there, relax and watch the bathers and the boaters."

That atmosphere started to change in 1925 when the pier purchased by Frank P. Gravatt, a local real estate investor and automobile dealer, for more than $2 million after a 1924 fire caused extensive damage to the pier's auditorium and entrance.

Gravatt instigated major renovation projects, building and remodeling a succession of theaters that could accommodate thousands of visitors at one time. The Casino Hall had 2,000 seats; the newly renovated Music Hall, which traded Victorian for Art Deco decor, had 2,250; Ocean Hall had 1,500; and the kids playhouse Children's Theater had 1,100. An outdoor stadium, which would soon be transformed into the "Water Circus," could seat 5,000. Finally, he expanded the Marine Ballroom, which became a popular venue for big bands in the 1940s, almost a third of a mile out to sea.

The applause was so loud in those large theaters, Pergament said it was a thrill just being in the crowd and even waiting in line, listening to the previous show.

"When you're sitting with 2,000 people, it's almost like you're a family," he said. "Everyone was happy, enjoying themselves."

Despite having to crane his neck through many films at Music Hall, Pergament said he always sat in the vacant front row. After the movie, he would have a front row seat for the vaudeville show.

"I saw many people that way, like (singer) Johnny Ray and (comedian) Henny Youngman, up close," he said.

By 1950, the pier could accommodate more than 12,000 people. According to newspaper reports from the time - which Pergament said were likely inflated, but not entirely unreasonable - nearly 80,000, people visited the pier on Labor Day, the busiest day of the summer season.

Expansion wasn't Gravatt's only concern.

The former policeman and successful businessman was an "idea man" and natural-born showman, Pergament said.

While the original pier had just five modest electric signs along the entranceway, Gravatt eventually covered the entire facade with signs advertising both the pier and various sponsors. He also put up signs for the pier throughout the city and South Jersey, including a ship docked along the Black Horse Pike.

"He covered every inch of space on that building," he said. "Thousands of people were walking back and forth on the Boardwalk every day - you can't buy that publicity."

In the mid-1930s, Gravatt rented space to General Motors to display their latest models on the pier. And when GM pulled out, Ford filled their place for several years.

But Gravatt's pier wasn't all about consumerism.

"He wasn't afraid to spend money to make money," Pergament said. "He wanted to give his people more than they could see in a day."

The pier became one of the first local venues with the technology to show talkies. Visitors could see three as many as three different first-run movies a day with the price of admission, in addition to concerts, dance hall and vaudeville acts.

In 1932, Gravatt hired engineers to provide additional structural supports to a portion of the end of the pier. For several years, a Steel Pier cruise ship docked there took visitors on daily excursions up the coast and weekend trips to New York City.

Starting in the 1937, the Music Hall became one of the few places in Atlantic City where visitors could enjoy air conditioning. According to "Steel Pier Parade," the pier's weekly publication, the system was run by what would today is known as a geothermal well, bringing cool water up through pipes from beneath the sea floor.

And Gravatt knew how to keep his audience coming back. In addition to the overwhelming number of attractions, the headliners and films typically changed every Saturday, rather than the middle of the week.

"A lot of people came just for the weekend," Pergament said. "If everything was the same from Saturday, people might not choose to go there again; he was pretty innovative with handling people and giving people what they wanted."

The pier was in a near-constant state of renovation and expansion for decades, as new styles came and went and situations necessitated it. A wayward barge slammed through the middle of the pier during a March 1962 storm. A December 1969 fire, believed to have started from a malfunctioning neon sign, destroyed part of the ocean end of the pier.

But a changing audience ultimately proved to be the pier's downfall.

Pergament said attendance started to flag in the 1970s as airplanes allowed people to travel farther. Along with the rest of Atlantic City, the pier became an antiquated curio. And then it had to compete with the onset of casino gaming.

The pier closed in 1978 and, in December 1982, a fire severely damaged the last remaining original sections of the pier, the casino and arcade areas. By 1988, the rest of the pier was demolished.

In 1992, the Steel Pier - now resting on concrete pilings - reopened as part of Trump Taj Mahal. Last year, the pier was purchased by the Catanoso family, who operated the pier for Trump for more than a decade, for nearly $4.3 million.

A $102 million construction project, slated to be completed in three phases through 2015, promises to restore some of the old pier's luster. The plan includes a reconstructed Marine Ballroom, retail shopping, a Steel Pier museum and a 250-foot-tall enclosed gondola Ferris wheel.

Steel Pier Associates President Anthony Catanoso, who first came to the pier in 1968 to see The Supremes perform, said he hopes to recapture some of the magic of the old pier.

"You're going to get a nice blend of what used to be, with the Marine Ballroom especially," said Catanoso, 53. "It's going to play to the decor of the '40s with fixtures and architecture, yet be a thoroughly modern building."

Contact Wallace McKelvey:


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