MARGATE — After nearly two years on an insurance company’s waiting list for a new tail, Lucy the Elephant has finally gone under the crowbar.
Work began Tuesday with the removal of tin sheathing and cedar planks from the posterior of the federally recognized National Historic Landmark. The 65-foot-tall Lucy had worn a protective seal and scaffolding since September 2009, when a windstorm sent a party tent into her rear.
“Once we have a look inside the structure, we’ll know whether the whole tail gets rebuilt or if any of it can be used,” said Richard Helfant, executive director of the Save Lucy Committee.
The extent of the damage has remained a mystery, Helfant said, as the insurance claims process through a third-party broker managed by Lloyd’s of London stretched on. Last month, the underwriters agreed to pay the claim in three increments as the scope of the repairs becomes clear, he said.
Last week, Helfant said he received a letter from Lloyd’s of London terminating Lucy’s coverage upon the expiration of the current policy April 21.
“They said they’d had an ‘adverse claims experience,’” he said.
Helfant said the British insurance market has covered the tourist attraction, which is visited by about 30,000 people each year, for about eight years. The company had previously underwritten repairs to Lucy’s howdah, or riding carriage, which was damaged in a May 2006 lightning strike.
A spokesperson for Lloyd’s of London did not respond to a request for comment.
Chris Jensen, assistant vice president of the Atlantic City-based M.B. Markland Contracting Co., said the upper portion of Lucy’s tail is in surprisingly good shape, with little of the feared water damage.
“Cedar takes more than a year to rot,” he said.
But that didn’t save the lower portion of the tail, which had nearly broken off in the 2009 incident. Jensen said the wood at the base of the tail was rotted through. The disembodied tail sits at the base of the elephant, covered in a plastic dropcloth.
“It looks like water seeped in through the cracked metal and the rotted wood settled to the bottom,” he said.
Open to daylight for the first time in decades — and possibly since 1881, when Lucy was built by a real estate developer — the outsized pachyderm is revealing her secrets.
Perched atop a boom lift, Jensen leaned into the hole he made at the base of Lucy’s tail to take photographs of the point where the tail and the body connect.
The images show that the metal rod that runs the length of the hollow, wooden tail connects somewhere inside the body. The connection point, however, is shielded from view by another layer of tin sheathing that covers Lucy’s rear.
“We’re performing exploratory surgery (into parts) of Lucy we’ve never seen before,” Helfant said.
Margaret Westfield, who has served as Lucy’s architect since 1991, said the connection point had never been made visible during her many years of work on the structure.
The two layers of metal skin, however, could mean that water did not infiltrate any farther than the tail, she said.
“If you think about it, it’s very smart,” she said. “Unfortunately, it means we just need to go deeper to find the answer to our question.”
That question is whether the tent impact caused any structural damage to the connection point.
“Since it was strong enough to break the tail lower down, that force could’ve transferred to the connection,” Westfield said.
Whatever the result of the team’s exploration, Helfant said the goal is to repair the tail by Memorial Day. The rest of the work, including the replacement of tin panels beneath the tail, will have to wait until September, he said.
“We want her to look nice for her 130th birthday” on July 20, he said.
Jensen said it will take several months to reconstruct the tail using cedar and rust-resistant stainless steel. The final product will be as historically accurate as possible, he said, while helping the structure better withstand the elements.
For now, he said he’ll have to get creative in patching the gaping hole he punched into Lucy’s tail while the architect figures out the next steps in the process.
“We’ll need the world’s largest roll of toilet paper,” he said.
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