ATLANTIC CITY — Mr. Peanut says hello.
One of the original costumes of the top-hatted, monocled Boardwalk icon is the first thing that greets visitors to the Atlantic City Historical Museum at Garden Pier, which reopened to the public Thursday after almost two years of wrangling over insurance payments following damage suffered during Hurricane Sandy.
Also reopening is the Atlantic City Arts Center across the pier, currently hosting a visual arts exhibition and an exhibit by the African American Heritage Museum of South Jersey, complete with a re-creation of the neon Club Harlem sign and the famous club’s original doors.
The reopening “shows how important arts and culture is to our community,” said Mayor Don Guardian, who helped cut the ribbon at a windy ceremony Thursday morning.
“When I think of Garden Pier, I know people who have told stories about how their grandfather and grandmother danced on stage in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s, or how they met their husband or wife at a USO show when this was Camp Boardwalk (during World War II),” Guardian said. “Sadly, Hurricane Sandy destroyed the roof and a lot of the pier, but it’s great to be able to restore it back.”
Garden Pier’s own history is as up and down as the history of the city itself, suffering damage and reopening again and again. First opened in 1913, the pier once extended 1,500 feet and housed the B.F. Keith’s Theater, home of the first Miss America pageant.
“It was a giant, two-story theater, structured very much like the pier is now, with Spanish architecture,” said Heather Perez, archivist of the Atlantic City Free Public Library, which took over the museum in 2012. “They used it to showcase different businesses, like the giant Underwood typewriter.”
As business dropped, the city bought the pier in 1944 — just as a hurricane destroyed most of it.
Reopened in 1954 as the Garden Pier Civic Center, the smaller pier housed the Atlantic City Art Center and historical exhibits before it was damaged by a fire in 1981.
After being listed as an eyesore, the city unsuccessfully tried to give it away before it underwent a refurbishment in 1994 — but its location at the very north end of the Boardwalk left it isolated until Revel was built.
To mark that occasion, the pier temporarily closed again for a $3.3 million renovation funded by the city, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and a smaller contribution by the state. It reopened with great fanfare in August 2012 — exactly two months before Sandy.
The pier suffered significant roof damage, not to mention a small fire a few days later. After a protracted battle with its insurance carrier was settled, repair work was delayed again when other city properties such as the All Wars Memorial Building and Police Athletic League building received priority.
The city contracted with Statewide Fire Restoration for restoration work for $547,500 on Dec. 11. Once work started, also complicating repairs was the intricate terra cotta roofs on the buildings, which are more expensive but historic to the property.
But even as the city celebrates the reopened pier, the hope is that the Historical Museum and the African American Heritage Museum in Newtonville — the latter only temporarily exhibiting at the Arts Center — will one day expand to larger digs in Atlantic City to truly showcase their collections.
“We’re still in the market for 50,000 square feet,” said Perez. “We still want a bigger museum for the Atlantic City Experience” — a proposed project that would include exhibits, a venue for book signings and concerts, classroom space, a research center and a museum store.
The reopening of the 5,000-square-foot Garden Pier site, she said, is a “kick start” to the project — and includes expanded exhibit space of its own. Besides the Historical Museum’s permanent exhibits — which include a Miss America display case that became obsolete and then accurate again as the pageant left Atlantic City and returned — are two new exhibits about sports in Atlantic City and the eventful summer of 1964, which featured a Beatles concert and the Democratic National Convention.
“This museum on Garden Pier really doesn’t give the history of this town justice,” said Library board of trustees member William Cheatham. “This museum here is a start, and we’re looking forward in the future to an attraction where people nationwide can come see the history of Atlantic City.”
At the Atlantic City Arts Center, a visual arts exhibition by artist Glynnis Reed was joined by the African American Heritage Museum exhibit, which founder and president Ralph Hunter said featured only 208 items out of a collection of 11,000 items.
“Three warehouses full,” Hunter said. “We’d need a structure of 10,000 to 15,000 square feet.”
So while museum directors dream of larger space, at least one major milestone is still to be celebrated — belatedly.
Since the pier’s 100th anniversary took place when it was shuttered, the Library is making up for lost time with a 101st anniversary celebration on July 19.
Mr. Peanut is already dressed for the occasion.
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