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From the Ephemera Files: an Imperfect Paradise in Brooklyn

Feb 9, 2011 11:25 AM | 3 comments

Walking into work today, I overheard the plaintive cry of a cabin-fevered fellow Brooklynite, "Ah, why can't it be just be warm outside?!"  Grimly, inwardly, I had to agree with her helpless complaint.  Facing the icy depths of February, the mind can't help but wonder if there's a happier place.  A warm, welcoming place, with bright sunshine, sandy beaches, luxury accommodations, and maybe even world-class entertainment to round out a glorious day in paradise.  A place like... Manhattan Beach!

Browsing through our ephemera files, I found this promotional brochure from the Manhattan Beach and Oriental Beach Baths, published in 1935.  The front and back covers offered this handy visual comparison to remind potential guests what bathing looked like in the business's early years, specifically, 1885.  The 20th century seems to have brought beach-goers a long overdue liberation from cumbersome swim pantaloons and bonnets.

 

Boasting that it was the "Largest Privately-Owned Oceanfront Playground in the World", the resort occupied the eastern spit of land on Coney Island.  According to Brooklyn's Gold Coast: the Sheepshead Bay Communities by Brian Merlis, Lee A. Rosenzweig, and I. Stephen Miller, that land was first known as Sedge Bank, an unused and uninviting swamp.  It might have stayed that way, if it weren't for First National Bank founder Austin Corbin, who visited the site with his convalescing son in 1873.  He saw potential for play and profit in the virgin sand dunes, and set out to buy the tracts of land that made up Sedge Bank, which he renamed Manhattan Beach.  Corbin quickly went to work developing his oceanfront playground, complete with two railroad lines to bring in daytrippers from New York and Brooklyn.  By the summer of 1877, Corbin's seaside paradise was realized--the Manhattan Beach Hotel was in business. 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle waxed ecstatic at the resort's opening, breathlessly praising the speed at which the railroads and hotel were built (less than a year, by their reckoning) and predicting great benefits to the leisure and business prospects of the people of Brooklyn--nay, the entire region!  To top it all off, the Eagle enthused, due to the particular formation of the coastline at Manhattan Beach, there would be "no danger to be apprehended from the undertow."

A rendering of the Manhattan Beach Hotel grounds, from the 1880s.  No undertow!

Eager to live up to the Eagle's praise as "the best hotel on the Atlantic Ocean," Corbin brought in first-class entertainment for his guests, including the march master John Philip Sousa.  We are lucky to have a copy of a tune he penned to honor the hotel, the "Manhattan Beach March", in our sheet music collection.

But why settle for just one beachfront resort when you can have two?  The Oriental Hotel was opened next door in 1880, to provide even more accommodation for elite crowds.  And they were elite.  A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article from the summer of 1899 gushes that four direct descendents of American presidents were staying at the Oriental at once, along with the "usual quota of barons, dukes, counts, and foreign attaches, in addition to many other notables from all quarters of the globe." 

From the outset, Corbin and the resorts' investors aimed to bring patrons of the "highest social element" to Coney Island.  To Corbin, this could only be gained by excluding unwanted populations from the sandy expanses and luxury facilities--in this case, Jewish people.  Corbin's racist viewpoint came to light in the summer of 1879, two years after Jewish patrons were banned from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, when Corbin announced that he would do the same.  A revelatory article in the July 22, 1879 Eagle reprinted an interview Corbin gave to the New York Herald, in which he explained in no uncertain terms that Jewish people "are contemptible as a class" and "are not wanted at the Beach, and that settles it."

This set off a flurry of debate, with no less a personage than the Reverand Henry Ward Beecher (who, the Eagle cryptically notes, "rarely gives his views on any subject without 'saying something'") weighing in on the matter, suggesting rather limply that Corbin's stance was, "not very wise" and that the proper course for Jewish beachgoers would be to, "simply assert their rights."  

 

The Eagle also sent a reporter down to the site of the controversy, the Manhattan Beach Hotel itself, to collect the common man's views on the issue, reporting that, "everybody appeared to be talking about it, from the proprietor of the hotel down to the humblest employee of the place, and the humblest visitor on the grounds, and it is safe to say that nine tenths of them all sided with Mr. Corbin."  However, the same article went on to report "either Mr. Corbin's remarks touching the Hebrews had failed of the effect anticipated by many, or they had not been very extensively read.  For there were as many Hebrews in the throng there yesterday as have been seen on any day save Wednesday during the week."  Take that, Mr. Corbin!

Despite the bigotry of its founder, the Manhattan Beach and Oriental Hotels attracted visitors through the rest of the 19th century.  After Corbin's death in 1896, the company operating the hotels met with financial trouble, and plans to redevelop the site as a residential community were put into motion.  The Manhattan Beach Hotel was demolished in 1911, with the Oriental Hotel to follow in 1916. 

Partial demolition of the Oriental Hotel, May 27, 1916.

Under the guidance of a new leader, Joseph P. Day, the site was redeveloped into the bungalow and bathhouse community depicted in our 1935 brochure.  The 20th century revamp of the site included 82 handball courts, 4 swimming pools, 20 volleyball courts, 6 baseball fields, 15 basketball courts, 30 clock golf courts, 13 tennis courts and 67 hand tennis courts.

If by some bizarre chance these athletic facilities were fully occupied, there were other pleasures to be pursued.  The resort maintained its tradition of top-notch entertainment through the 1930s, offering daily concerts from the likes of Rudy Vallee and Paul Whiteman.  

 

Daily "tea dances" were held in the Oriental Cafeteria, "where patrons in street attire may dance FREE in a colorful setting."  And as this photograph of bathing beauties from the summer of 1933 shows, visitors could--as a last resort--relax and enjoy Manhattan Beach's abundance of sun and sand. 

 

Alas, as with any sunny day at the beach, the fun was all too fleeting.  The heyday of the Manhattan Beach and Oriental Beach Baths came to a close in 1942, when Day sold the property to the federal goverment, which would use the site as a military training base through World War II.  In the 1950s, after some property transfers among the federal, state, and municipal governments, the city gained ownership of about forty acres of the oceanfront property, turning it into the public beach we know today.  The easternmost edge of Manhattan Beach was also used to establish Kingsborough Community College, where classes were held in repurposed military barracks and offices well into the 1960s.

Comments

4/19/2011 3:25:41 PM #

Great article, so interesting to know when i go there.

hotels in manhattan beach

9/20/2012 5:13:46 PM #

Thanks for this history of Oriental Beach Baths.  My parents met on a handball court there in 1938 & I held a memorial service for them on location (now Boro of Brooklyn Community College) in 2009.
My aunt recalls attending a tea dance on December 7 1941 and recalls the historic evening vividly

Nancy

12/1/2012 10:05:16 PM #

Thank you for the interesting acount of the Manhattan and Oriental Beach Baths.  My father-in-law included the brochure in a letter to my mother-in-law while they were courting in 1935, and we often wondered about it's history.  Barbara

Barbara Tillman