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Inspiration: tourist attraction
Lucy the Elephant, Margate, NJ
Lucy the Elephant is a remarkable technical achievement — both materially and structurally — and is especially important because of the journey she has been on within her community.

People often dumb down that whole eccentric side of Victorian culture which was as complicated and varied as our own in terms of taste. Lucy is an example of one of the extremes of that age. Researching for my MA at the Royal College of Art took me into many “themed” architectures, from the Great Exhibition to world fairs and expos, where countries attempt to project ideas about themselves through architecture. But despite studying the history of modern US architecture in my degree at Nottingham University, I didn’t discover Lucy until I was writing a brief for students there some years later.

A number of years after finding out about her, I went on a short pilgrimage to Lucy in 2005 when I found myself on the East Coast and decided to visit the New Jersey shore to see how she was. Lucy was a spectacular concept by a property developer called James Lafferty. She’s lasted more than 120 years. In that time her role has constantly shifted, and also the way she has been perceived.

I’m interested in how something of such “exotic” form could capture different imaginations at different times. Part of the reason it’s lasted is that it’s thought to be useful by lots of different people.

It’s very specific, an elephant, but it’s also flexible, and you can do whatever you like with it: its generous elephant nature has helped it do that. It got to the point where it meant enough to people in the town for them to save it.

The relationship between obvious metaphor and architecture is common but rarely acknowledged, and very few architects are willing to be honest that their work relies on it. But even if they don’t notice the associations, the public will, as they have with the Gherkin. Lucy also possibly has as much of a relationship with pop art as she does with modern architecture. The work between Frank Gehry and Claes Oldenburg in the 1980s is perhaps a good, more recent comparison.

Lafferty and his architect treated the elephant much like any building project, and I like the bravery of that, although they struggled to find a contractor. In some ways making a building shaped liked an elephant is a timeless ambition. She was modelled by boat builders, a local craft, and her final form was an additive process.

The exterior is tin, which was almost a vernacular building product in the US. (Stamped tin was used to line the ceilings of commercial spaces in New York City when European plasterwork wasn’t available.) It was a good material to curve around the complex geometry of the elephant’s form. I don’t know of many other examples of 120-year-old double curvature cladding systems.

She dominates the town. The only other big structure is the water tower, and that has a picture of Lucy on it. It’s fascinating that something like her exists, popping up over standard lot houses in this quiet seaside town two miles south of Atlantic City. She seems more dominant here than if she’d been in more of an urban or rural setting.

Visitors approach her from behind and walk between her legs into a gathering space. She feeds from a bucket, so has five legs really. You go in through one leg and climb up a very tight spiral staircase into a triple-height main hall through the hip. It’s like a boat, with a raised forecastle serving as a stage. At the front, you can go into closets which have porthole eyes. I like how you get a weird mix of elephant, paint graphics, boat structure interior, and standard domestic elements such as doors and windows. And there’s a suggestive window inserted just below the tail!

The combination is very interesting, architecturally speaking. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes not — there’s a clash where the thigh meets the stomach, for example. It’s got a raw quality, it’s certainly not hi-tech. I like the way Lucy isn’t really precious. The important thing appears to be the play between familiarity and otherness, and that is something we attempt with our work.

At AOC, we’ve done a couple of buildings with a relationship to Lucy, including a touring theatre for the London International Festival of Theatre (Lift), which plays with the surface and form of the tent, and an exhibition for the London Development Agency called No 1 Lower Carbon Drive, which focused on lowering domestic carbon emissions. For the latter, we built a replica domestic-scaled Victorian house and placed it in the middle of London’s Trafalgar Square. That was almost as bizarre as building an elephant on a beach as it took something everyday with one set of cultural connotations and put it somewhere else, allowing it to resonate.

We’re interested in artifice. For Urban Splash’s Birnbeck Island competition at Weston-super-Mare, we designed an all-star hotel which mimics a mountain, and we won second place.

We tend to put animals in our project visuals, but more as active contributors to the space. In our competition for the Architecture Foundation’s headquarters, we filled the landscape with bats, urban foxes and a falcon to deter pigeons. In the original concept for the Lift, we had animal-shaped ballasts from each different continent with guy ropes.

Lucy is one of the oldest examples of ridiculously shaped buildings, but it’s not just a Victorian thing. Geometrically defined blobs are mainstream in architectural discourse — Venturi’s ducks are rarer. But in Drumheller, Alberta, the “dinosaur capital of Canada”, the world’s largest fibreglass dinosaur has recently been constructed as a tourist information centre and look-out. Such potential crassness is important because where there is no implicit sophistication, you have to stop and think. After the immediate assault on the senses, you have to work out why you like it and why others do too.

Lucy is a relevant piece of architecture because she reminds me that traditions of architecture are not reductive, closed systems but subject to change, and that ideas like pop and spectacle are actually antique in our modern age.

The other highlight of my trip to see Lucy was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Falling Water is a building full of love, care and ambition, but perhaps more surprisingly, so is an elephant.

Lucy the Elephant was built in 1881 by engineer and land speculator James Lafferty as a stunt to promote home sales near Atlantic City. Would-be buyers of plots for vacation cottages got a great view of the land from the viewing platform in the elephant’s “howdah” riding carriage, and Lucy soon became a tourist attraction. Since then, she’s served variously as a private house, hotel, tavern, café and museum.

Lucy is an example of the eccentric architecture of the late Victorian age. Her design and construction by Lafferty and Philadelphia architect William Free owed a great deal to boat building, and involved nearly a million pieces of hand-shaped wood to create the intricate support structure for the metal skin.

Standing six storeys (just under 20m) high, Lucy weighs in at around 82 tonnes and is covered in an estimated 1,115sq m of hammered sheet tin, supported on 8,560 arches or ribs. The legs contain the stairs and the body is divided into rooms, with more stairs leading to the howdah. Construction cost a reported $25,000; Lafferty claimed the final cost was $38,000, a vast sum at the time.

Lafferty secured a patent for constructing animal-shaped buildings in 1882, giving him exclusive rights to make, use or sell such buildings for 17 years. He built two other elephants: the 12-storey, 31-room Elephantine Colossus in an amusement park on Coney Island, New York, and a smaller Light of Asia elephant which was the centrepiece of another real estate venture in South Cape May, NJ. But Lucy is the only one to survive. She was sold by Lafferty in 1887. Later owned by the Gertzen family, Lucy was joined by an ornate Turkish pavilion constructed originally in 1876 for Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition but used by the Gertzens as a hotel.

Lucy became a famous attraction and the subject of many postcards, one with the caption, “The only elephant in the world you can go through and come out alive”.

But by the 1960s, she was abandoned and threatened with demolition. Following a local rescue campaign, she was moved on wheels to a new site after being declared structurally sound by architect John Milner. After extensive repairs, she is once again a visitor attraction and is the only elephant to be designated a US National Historic Landmark.
 
Published by Tom Coward speaking to Pamela Buxton
Building Design
6 February, 2009