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Voices Spring-Summer, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “The House under the Roller Coaster” by Steve Zeitlin here.
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Volume 27
Spring-Summer
2001
Voices

The House under the Roller Coaster



Coney Island roller coaster
The Thunderbolt was a Coney Island landmark. Built in the 1920s, it ran for almost sixty years—right over the 1895 Kensington Hotel—but was razed in 2000. Photo: Charles Denson ©2001.
Downstate
Without warning, in the early morning hours of November 17, 2000, New York City bulldozers staged a surprise attack on one of Coney Island’s few remaining monuments, the long-neglected Thunderbolt roller coaster. In its twists and turns nestled the old Kensington Hotel—the "House under the Roller Coaster" made famous as the home of Alvie Singer in Annie Hall. The small hotel was also home to May Timpano and Fred Moran, who owned the Thunderbolt and lived there for more than 40 years, the coaster rattling their living room with every ride.

The house and coaster were both slated for a secret demolition by the mayor, whose waterfront development plans for a new, more profitable Coney Island will sever all ties to its glamorous past. The demolition orders asserted that the structure was unsafe (although it was completely fenced), and that the City owned the property (maps show it did not).

At 10 a.m. I learned of the bulldozers’ assault on the site from Dick Zigun at Coney Island USA. Dick is a Yale drama school graduate who has spent his adult life creating and sustaining the Mermaid Parade, Sideshows by the Seashore, and the Coney Island Museum. Like the entire preservation community, Dick was never informed of the demolition until it was too late even to mount a meaningful protest. I immediately asked my office to call the television stations and the New York Times, then jumped on the F train—running maddeningly slow that day—in hopes that with Coney Islanders, fellow preservationists, and a media blitz that never materialized, I might be able to stop this disgraceful act.

The Kensington Hotel, built in 1895, was the last remaining waterfront structure in Coney Island. It miraculously survived the Bowery fire of 1903 and the Steeplechase fire of 1907. In 1926 owner George Moran hired the world’s most famous roller coaster designer, John Miller, to build the Thunderbolt. They found a way to save the hotel by running the steel supports of the coaster right through the building. "You don’t tear down buildings in Coney Island if you can help it," Moran said at the time. The hotel and the Thunderbolt, crown jewel of John Miller’s surviving wooden roller coasters, created a unique landmark. In its nearly sixty-year run, the Thunderbolt had carried hundreds of thousands of screaming riders on its thrilling joy ride. The historic structure had even withstood two more recent fires, only to face the mayor’s wrecking ball.

May Timpano, the Kensington Hotel’s former resident, arrived on the scene in her Sunday best for the sad occasion. "I wanted to see it saved," she told reporters. She brightened as she began telling stories about living under the Thunderbolt. She recalled finding in her yard false teeth and other curiosities that had slipped from the hands and pockets of the riders. "We had to straighten the pictures," she said, "but the shaking wasn’t as bad as it appeared to be in Woody Allen’s movie." "Hey, you’re tearing down a priceless piece of Americana!" I yelled to two workers inside the hotel. One raised his head as if to speak. "Don’t talk to nobody," the other muttered.

State Assemblywoman Adele Cohen, Dick, and I winced every time the long arm of the crane brought another piece of history to the ground. We talked about how the coaster took a year to build, sixty years to accrue memories, but just a few hours to be razed. The steel bent and the old timbers creaked and cracked, and pieces of wood fell like branches of a great tree.

As the iron claw of a steam shovel gradually tore the scaffolding down, the crumbling Thunderbolt took the form of an imposing, oddly beautiful wood-and-steel sculpture. We felt dwarfed both by it and by our powerlessness to stop the damage. We thought we had come to save the Thunderbolt, but instead we had come to stand witness as a work of great beauty was destroyed—and perhaps to make sure this story gets told.

The wrecking team destroyed not only Coney Island’s past but also the possibility of a future that would honor its history as the site of the first enclosed amusement park, the place where the hot dog and the roller coaster were invented. Plans had already been submitted by preservationist Charles Denson to stabilize the Thunderbolt. Landmarked and restored, perhaps with a boardwalk restaurant in the hotel, it might have been the gaudy centerpiece of a revived Coney Island.

"They’re starting on the house," Dick said, as we both turned up to walk the boardwalk. From the planks, we watched the claw tear into the side of the old hotel, putting a gaping wound in its side. It was now afternoon, and there was nothing we could do.

"Why don’t we get some lunch?" I said.

"Let’s get a hot dog and cheese fries at Nathan’s," Dick answered, "before it’s too late."


 


Steve Zeitlin is executive director of City Lore, 72 East First Street, New York, NY 10003. His most recent book for children is The Four corners of the Sky: Ancient Myths and Cosmologies from Around the World.Steve Zeitlin
Photo: Martha Cooper




The hotel and the Thunderbolt, crown jewel of John Miller’s surviving wooden roller coasters, created a unique landmark. In its nearly sixty-year run, the Thunderbolt had carried hundreds of thousands of screaming riders on its thrilling joy ride. The historic structure had even withstood two more recent fires, only to face the mayor’s wrecking ball.


This column appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Spring-Summer 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.


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