West Atlantic City scarcely resembles a “Venice of the East,” but today’s seedy motels and empty lots belie a more glamorous past.
Crime and flooding vex residents of the narrow strip of Egg Harbor Township between Atlantic City and Pleasantville. But in the 1920s, one pioneering real estate developer saw a fortune to be made in the marshy wasteland outside a booming beach town.
“I predict this will become the Riverside Drive of the resort,” Benjamin Fox said in 1925, referring to the Manhattan thoroughfare that was home to the era’s wealthiest families.
Fox bought up the land south of what is now the Black Horse Pike in 1923, filling the wetland with more than 6 feet of gravel and topsoil to build opulent summer homes. The neighborhood’s routine flooding — it was one of the local areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy — is partially a result of Fox’s work.
“It’s been a historical fact that that area is flood zone. When we have severe northeasters in the fall and early winter of each year, there’s potential for flooding,” said Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough, whose parents lived for a time in West Atlantic City. And parts of the neighborhood are actually below the elevation of Lakes Bay, he said.
Most of the original buildings have been demolished, destroyed or renovated since the Great Depression halted Fox’s development, but a few vestiges remain.
One of them is a dilapidated car dealership at Toulon Avenue and the pike. Not only is it the last structure from Fox’s Mediterranean-style development, it’s one of a few intact dealerships for Studebaker, a car manufacturer that stopped production in 1963.
“There are some other buildings out there, but none as ornate,” said Peter Crisitello, a Rutgers University information technology specialist and Studebaker enthusiast who led an effort to save the building in 2009.
Crisitello had hoped to purchase the building to set it up as a classic-car museum, but he said no bank would finance the project at the height of the recession. A car-repair business eventually bought the building and began restoration, but that business also ran into financial difficulties.
The dealership was built in 1927 as one of several owned by Tuckerton-based Mathis Motors, although it didn’t fit the mold of most car dealerships. Crisitello said many were plain buildings with little ornamentation, such as one surviving Studebaker building in Illinois made of brick.
Because Studebaker dealers were all independently owned, Crisitello said, they tended to be housed in whatever existing building was available. The Spanish Revival-style stucco walls and red tile roof are all unique to the West Atlantic City building. The only sign of the dealership’s affiliation are the terra cotta emblems on the facade.
“In the mid-1920s, the company started a policy of terra cotta logos at almost every (dealership),” he said. “They did it to try to unify things a little more.”
While it’s unclear whether Fox owned the land on which Mathis Motors built its dealership, the style aped the developer’s preferred Mediterranean Revival architecture.
Atlantic County Historian June Sheridan said Fox modeled West Atlantic City on the Mediterranean architecture and atmosphere of Venice, Italy.
“That’s why so many Spanish-style houses were used, and there even used to be a whole bunch of canals in there,” she said.
A similar upscale residential neighborhood, Venice, Calif., was founded in 1905, also based on the Italian city.
Fox’s original homes, including the famed 25-room Bahia Vista, a mansion that later became the Sandcastle restaurant, emulated the architectural and decorative elements of Mediterranean villas.
The Bahia Vista was built in 1928 for Grace Hutton Middleton, the sister of merchandising magnate F.W. Woolworth, on land purchased from Fox. Middleton even hired Addison Mizner, an architect famous for his Spanish Colonial designs.
“Whether there was a stipulation in the deeds or everyone went along with the idea, I don’t know,” Sheridan said. “It’s possible that he had house plans he suggested.”
Upon the Bahia Vista’s demolition in 2002, after a succession of owners allowed it to fall into disrepair, the dealership became the best example of Fox’s imprint on the area.
Meanwhile, street names such as Florence and Toledo evoked the great cities of Italy and Spain. Those street names remain today.
According to his 1948 obituary in The Press of Atlantic City, Fox came to the area in 1907 to get into the real estate business after running a piano business in Philadelphia.
Thomas Fox, whose father was Benjamin’s adopted son, said Benjamin went from being a piano tuner to developing tracts in Ventnor and the inlet area of Atlantic City. West Atlantic City, however, seemed to be a personal endeavor for Fox.
“He said that was one of the prettiest sunsets he’d ever seen,” said Thomas, 69, of Galloway Township.
In 1926, Benjamin Fox built an extravagant home for himself that spanned the bayfront between Granada and Venice avenues at a cost of $150,000, or about $1.9 million when adjusted for inflation.
According to newspaper reports, he was a member of the Philadelphia Bourse, a prominent commodities exchange. Fox also appears in the society pages of Palm Beach, Fla., newspapers from the 1920s.
As a wealthy man, Thomas said, his grandfather invested broadly, but Benjamin also spent lavishly on his family.
“At one point when his children were teenagers, he bought all of them Cadillacs painted different colors,” he said. “He’d go up on the balcony and see where they were at different times.”
In 1928, Fox was sued by the state for damaging Albany Avenue, which once extended out toward Pleasantville, and by a client who claimed his company didn’t hold up its end of a land deal. The stock market crash of 1929 further crippled Fox’s business. By 1940, many of his company’s West Atlantic City properties had ended up in foreclosure.
“The crisis came along, and his plans didn’t come to fruition beside the few homes that were built,” Sheridan said.
Fox’s bayfront home, with its Greek columns and well-manicured garden, became an exclusive boarding school named Oxford Academy in 1934. It was destroyed by fire in 1971, although the school exists today in Connecticut.
After his development unraveled, Fox went on to run a hotel on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City. Eight years after the foreclosures, at 76, Fox died of pneumonia.
Thomas Fox said his grandfather ended life as a pauper living in Fox Manor, the hotel owned by his adopted son.
“He didn’t have a cent when he died,” he said. “It was always said that he couldn’t have lost all that money, but he did.”
Hope still remains for the Studebaker dealership that’s now the last surviving example of Fox’s Mediterranean dream.
In 2011, a group called AC Automotive Services LLC purchased the property for $275,000 — significantly less than the original $1 million asking price — and began restoration.
Merrill Kelem, one of the buyers, said the goal is to transform the old dealership into a maintenance shop, although the recession has slowed those plans. Overgrown vegetation behind the dealership’s repair shop has been cleared, but there’s a lot more work to be done inside, he said.
“We’re in the process now of rewiring everything, and we have to put new windows and doors in there,” he said. “We’re hoping to be in operation by this summer.”
Kelem, 62, a retired Atlantic City police officer, said he remembers driving past the dealership as a young man heading to the beach. A classic-car enthusiast himself — Kelem owns a 1966 Chevrolet Impala — he said he appreciates the building as an important piece of history.
“We want to put the showroom back to what it looked like, with cars in there in front of those big windows,” he said.
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