Convention Center and Paramount Theatre
These two impressive buildings are the cultural centerpiece of the Asbury Park boardwalk, connected by the boardwalk itself running between them. They were constructed in the 1920's from archictectural plans by Warren and Wetmore, best known as the architects for New York City's Grand Central Station, the Chelsea Piers, and numerous hotels and railroad stations. The convention center overlies the beach with capacity of 3600. The Paramount showcases musical acts and the performing arts and is renowned for its acoustics. The exterior of the theatre is highlighted by the decorative ornamentation featuring mythical sea creatures and the extensive arched ground level.
The opening show featured the Marx Brothers and Ginger Rogers, July 1930. For decades, interrupted by the WWII, premier acts were drawn to these venues. In the 1960's, the convention center was the premier showcase in central New Jersey and featured visits by The Who, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones, as well as less famous artists (at that time) like the Joan Baez whose concert we attended.
Because these two buildings have been in continuous use, they are in better shape than most of the boardwalk attractions. Of course, they no longer attract top-grade performers. The highlight of the 2007 season will be one night with the remnants of Lynyrd Skynryd. On a recent weekend, a reunion tour of the Byrne Brothers, an Irish sing along group was the feature. The boardwalk between the buildings was filled with tables covered with green table cloths and signs featuring $4 beer pitchers. The conclusions are yours to draw, but the buildings themselves are a remarkable reflection of the past, including mine. Both buildings are included in the national register of historic places.
The Legendary Stone Pony
The Stone Pony looks like any roadside bar in the United States but is unquestionably one of the world's most revered rock music venues. Originally constructed as a biker Beer garden with occasional live band performances, Mrs. Jay's was forced out of business over the issure of see-through blouses on the waitresses. With the downfall and racial riots soon to follow, the building lay empty until the Stone Pony opened in 1974. State of the art sound and light equipment brought many top flight bands here as well as many future stars to be including a young Jon Bon Jovi.
Asbury's downward spiral forced closure of the club at least twice in the 1990's. Re-opened in 2000, it was rebuilt as it originally appeared with top flight equipment and today attracts both touring rock bands of modest repute as well as local bands. The musical boundaries have widened considerably - a recent top flight appearance was the Tony Tryschka band, one of my favorite bluegrass bands.
Since 2000, the new management has become extremely active in the community. It has a small museum of old artifacts, and is involved in chairtable causes including world hunger, local food drives, and supporting young musical acts and musical education.
The 180 room Metropolitan Hotel is a classic example of the upscale ornate hotels located within two blocks of the boardwalk and beach. This Spanish style building with an attached motel unit was one of the last large facilities to close, finally, in 1989. The ornate style includes Doric columns and both external and internal porches, and a large central pavilion. Sold in 1987 for $2.25 million dollars, the more recent sale price by a bank after foreclosure was only $10,500 -- for a piece of prime real estate. The city of Asbury Park refused an offer several years ago to create a home for the welfare population and this remarkable building remains shuttered and boarded up, a sad reminder of former glories. Now owned by the city, its status as a landmark prevents destruction of the outer walls. The city has offered the building for sale for over 2 million dollars - understandably, there has been no interest.
2008 Update - the hulk of the Metropolitan is no more. Despite heritage status, the building has been levelled by the development company and remaining is yet another vacant lot with debris.
The mile-long boardwalk between the North End and Ocean Grove has been reconstructed with re-opening of the long closed segment through the Casino at the south end. Grass no longer grows through the cracks and the wood segments are no longer rotted. Previously lined end to end with food stands including the famous Kohl's custard, games of chance with wheels of fortune, and arcades with pinball machines and skeeball, the modern boardwalk
is mostly lined by shuttered decrepit stalls and empty spaces. But some changes for the better have occured.
Howard Johnson's circular restaurant has been re-opened under new manangement and some of the older stands have also re-opened with souvenier stores and fast-food places. On selected weekends, vendors offer from their tents art work mostly reminiscent of the past. Walkers and joggers fill the boards in the morning hours, but during peak hours the magnificent boards are half-deserted. Even the mediocre miniature golf course is again available.
The included images are of the boards, with images of the old shuttered stands and the vast and empty spaces fronting the ocean waiting for the rebirth of Asbury.
Asbury's long white sandy beach will remain one of the main attractions for all time - clean, wide, and well-maintained. For the first time in years, lounges and umbrellas can be rented at the stairs down from the boardwalk. On shore breezes are delightful along the Jersey coastline and the beach used to be jammed with families and young people. Today the beach is as beautiful as ever, but the infrastructure has disintegrated. There are, sadly, no showers and no changing facilities or lockers. The few open restaurants and stores limit their bathroom facilities to paying customers. And for the entire mile-plus length, the only public bathrooms are in one trailer on the boardwalk. Not hooked up to the sewer system, it is basically a large port-a-john. Parking years ago was in fairly expensive lots 2 blocks off the beach. Today, one can park at meters on Ocean Avenue or for free perhaps half a block inland without any difficulty at all. The latest rebirth of Asbury will require a crowded beach and boardwalk but the lack of basic amenities cannot work in its favor. These images give an idea of how deserted the beach can be on a summer Saturday afternoon.
Casino refers to a gathering place or place of entertainment and in the glory years of Asbury this remarkable building fit the description perfectly. There has actually never been gambling in Asbury. The original Casino from the early 1900's was replaced by this Warren and Wetmore plan in 1929 after a major fire and housed some of Asbury's greatest attractions. The famed Carousel 87 was a great merry-go-round, the prancing hand-painted wooden (and later fibreglass) horses carrying laughing children including my own. Strange images surrounded on the glass windows of the roundhouse like bizarre Medusa figures. The fun house, the Mad-O-Rama dark ride, the Skeeball arcade. It was here, in Kevin Smith's famous movie Dogma that God as an old man went to play skeeball and was mugged on the adjacent boardwalk. The Casino was also used in Robert DeNiro's movie City by the Sea as a stand-in for a fallen Long Beach NY which is not. There was even an ice-skating rink, along with the usual t-shirt and fast food stands, a mirror maze and a fun house barrel.
The boardwalk through the Casino has been re-opened in the last few years allowing access to Ocean Grove but the Casino remains totally fenced and barricaded both outside and inside. The damaged roof and busted windows are unfixed as the building decays through planned neglect. The exterior, especially around the carousel, however, remains a Deco masterpiece and a symbol of the Jersey Shore.
This venerable bar and music venue on Ocean Avenue near the north end has featured over the years many well-known rock musicians. Originally famous for having "the mile-long bar" around the periphery, it achieved real fame after the demolition of Palace Amusements in 2004. The previously white building was painted pale green in the style of the amusement hall and an image of Asbury's iconic Tilly was painted literally overnight.
The face of Tillie on the Palace Amusement outer wall was the face of Asbury - a demonically smiling old-time face welcoming visitors to the rides and attractions in a bygone era, mine. The new owners of the Wonderbar will not volunteer that the image is not the original, but the true Tillie is in storage. The exterior of the building is a New Jersey Heritage site.
Like the Stone Pony, the Wonderbar serves a short greasy lunch menu with all the usual suspects. On selected nights, local and third rate travelling rock bands bring small audiences for the music and Miller Lite beer by the pitcher. In the past, some notable acts have appeared here and Bruce Springsteen was an occasional unannouced visitor, but the highlight of this year is a one night only visit on Labor Day weekend of Gary (US) Bonds, tickets $20.
Berkeley Carteret Hotel
The most famous of Asbury Park's hotels was the Berkeley Carteret, located just across Ocean Avenue from the Convention Center and Paramount Theatre and connected by a second story bridge. Originally built in the 1920's, it was designed as a luxury hotel to serve "all the best people" and it did. In my memory, it was the hotel - convention center combination that hosted many state wide conventions for Lawyers, Doctors, Engineers, Political Parties, given Asbury's midpoint location between north and south New Jersey. A large facility, it had decorous ballrooms and over 250 rooms. After the decay and race riots of the 1970's the hotel fell into disrepair and ruin. It has been rebought and resold and renovated many times. Over $20 million was sunk into the hotel in the mid-1980's and in 1989 the Paramount and the hotel hosted the premiere of Asbury Park native Danny DeVito's film "Throw Momma from the Train". Again in 2007, recently purchased for $34 million, it is undergoing yet another total renovation. Notice on the images the absent windows as the two north wings are gutted.
While built under totally separate ownerships, the Paramount and the Berkeley Carteret have very similar exteriors, quite harmonious. Red brick, with white, copper green, tan, and sky blue was the dominant color scheme for town.
Of interest, during WWII the hotel stayed alive by housing thousand of naval personnel from the British Navy.
This latest renovation, like so many earlier, depends on the revitalization of Asbury Park as a major shore destination. A risky investment, based on history.
The Yellow Brick Tower
The over the top tower just south of the Casino is one of the tallest buildings on the boardwalk. It is currently totally shuttered and barricaded and gives no evidence as to its function. The strange architecture draws all sorts of guesses about its former life, but the rather mundane answer is - the boilers and heaters for the Casino were housed here. In order to keep open as long as possible the Casino, which was at least in part open to the elements, required a lot of heating.
Visiting beachside condominium sales offices is a very popular activity on the boardwalk. Not only are they airconditioned, but they have the only flush toilets open to the public without buying or eating something.
The heart of the current plan for Asbury's rebirth is developing an upscale residential community beyond the gay population. Three huge upscale condominium complexes are being built on the oceanfront and several of the deserted buildings in the business center are being gutted and refitted. Prices are $600000 US and up. These are going to be an very difficult sell for many reasons. One earlier builder walked out on a half constructed cement monstrosity at the north end bankrupt a few years ago ( the dirty hulk lies across Ocean Ave permanently destroying Springsteen's famous circuit.)
The buildings are all east west oriented - half the units will never see the direct rays of the sun and only a few will be ocean-front. Most overlook vacant trash-filled lots because all the old buildings have been demolished. There are zero amenities - not a convenience store much less a supermarket, bank, or gas station within a mile. The apartments are large and tony - they just aren't selling.
The most damaging part of all this - overbuilding. There are plans for over 2000 units on paper and less than 50 have been sold in two years of trying. Assorted images accompany.
Visit The New Stores on the Boardwalk
In a mad rush to recoup their investment, the management company has rented space to stores opened with barely more than a removal of debris from the old buildings. Many have no signs or interior decor. Forget flooring - the original cracked cement floors are unchanged from decades ago. Some are located within the Paramount theatre complex, some in the pre-existing buildings. Some have opened in plastic shells awaiting construction. Indeed some are little more than tables set up in the arcades. Will they survive the long winter?
The available vendors are largely selling tacky souvenirs and gifts but some more upscale offerings are also available including furniture and accessories. One sells prints of old movies and stars of music, stage, and screen in a very retro setting and another antiques.
Rent A Bicycle
A new bicycle sales and rental store on the boards is located just south of the Paramount complex. They offer a full range of upscale units and accessories for sale and rent basic no-gear units at surprisingly reasonable cost. A full day rental is $20 and short term rates are also available for as little as $14. At this time, driver's licenses are held pending return rather than a credit card imprint for the cost of the unit as is so frequent in other places.
The surroundings of Asbury are favorable for long and not particularly difficult excursions. North lie the mansions of Deal and the beach town of Long Branch. South on the continuous boardwalks are Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, and Avon by the Sea. Cycling the boards is a popular pastime on the shore and we went both north and south over a trip of several hours. South of Asbury, the preferred stopping place for refreshment and food is the Avon Pavilion, near the south end of the trip (Ocean Grove restaurant tip).
Do note that during church service hours on Sunday, Ocean Grove forbids bicycles on the boardwalk and one must take to the streets carefully watching for cars backing out of parking spots along the way. Except in Asbury, the boardwalks are relatively narrow without dedicated bike lanes - joggers and walkers are everywhere.
Play Miniature Golf
Back in the ancient times of my youth, the center of the Asbury boardwalk was a dingy and dilapidated miniature golf course offering as its greatest challenge the torn green carpet haphazardly placed over the cracked cement of each hole. Nonetheless, its central position made it one of the major attractions for meeting friends and just hanging out. Today, a new, more challenging, and much nicer course has been created on the same site and is already drawing customers and onlookers. A classic boardwalk activity reborn.
Check out the Mansions of Deal
Decades ago, Ocean Avenue, the main street of Deal, an extremely wealthy enclave between Asbury Park and Long Branch, was paved with yellow cobblestones which glittered like gold in the sun. Deal is certainly where the gold is, although asphalt has replaced the cobbled surface. Unlike many beach towns in New Jersey and Long Island, ostentatious display is the keyword here. Deal houses the largest concentration of Syrian Sephardic Jews in the United States and they apparently make no effort to hide their wealth. These mansions are immaculately groomed and beautifully maintained just as they were in the years of my youth. For us, no trip is complete without checking out the latest improvements and additions.
Take that rented bicycle or a car and check out the mansions lining the ocean and along Ocean Avenue. There are bike lanes on both sides of the street here. Do note that the run towards Long Branch is downhill and that ride back to Asbury is a long unbroken uphill ride.
Visit the New Restaurants on the Boardwalk
Dining is a term used loosely on any boardwalk and Asbury is no exception. The famed circular restaurant adjacent the Paramount which housed a Howard Johnson decades ago is again under new management and offers a real menu with appetizers, salads, entrees, and desserts but as of now is alone in this category. Many new venues, all constructed within the past few months, despite appealing names with clam bar, irish bar, and whatnot, offer little more than fried fast food and beer with a predominantly domestic orientation. Order from the signs over the service counters - printed menus and table service are largely a thing of the future. There are several vendors of ice cream and cake confections along the boards operating out of large plastic packing shells. None offer decor and seating is often just tables thrown out randomly with some chairs, even bridge chairs. Since there are no meaningful alternatives near the beach these eateries are attracting customers from the beach and the boardwalk. Which is better than a year ago when there was nothing. And as images 4 and 5 suggest, construction continues at a rapid pace.
And for customers only, bathroom facilities are available.
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