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Crumbling into Obscurity-Will Asbury Park’s Iconic Architecture be Saved?

The Casino, Carousel House and the Steam Plant in Asbury Park

ASBURY PARK, N.J.— In recent months Asbury Park has garnered some big press- best beach, best hotel, and other accolades.

How Asbury got there and who helped that meteoric rise is now at the center of a controversy over the massive redevelopment plan that changes the boardwalk itself and a stretch of real estate at the north end of the boardwalk.

Change is often difficult and sometimes not welcome. If you live in Asbury or remember it fondly from your childhood, you have a very deep sense of loyalty and respect for the history. If you are a long-time resident, you have been through the city’s many changes, the highs and the extreme lows. That love of history and respect for the tenacity of this place is strong and some residents and visitors are unhappy with the proposed boardwalk redevelopment plan and the fact that some of the most iconic buildings in Asbury are being forgotten and seemingly being left to crumble into obscurity.

One of the first re-development plans for Asbury’s future was created way back in 1984.

It called for a revitalized Cookman Avenue and an upscale oceanfront. It spoke about limiting building heights and maintaining open space while creating new and exciting retail and residential buildings. In fact, these are the specific principles and objectives that the original plan called for:

Encourage new residential development. Preserve the important buildings. Preserve the Bradley Plan. Preserve the memories of past entertainment. Re-create Asbury Park as an entertainment center. Prevent residential/entertainment conflicts. Make Asbury Park a place for families. Respect Asbury Park’s historic character. Create pedestrian-friendly streets. Prevent parking & traffic problems. The plan goes on to talk about the preservation of the Casino, the Steam Plant and the Carousel House. It stated, verbatim: “The historic Casino and adjoining Heating Plant are to be the center of entertainment activities that will extend out to the Palace and along Ocean Avenue for one or two blocks. This development will take advantage of Wesley Lake and the direct connection to the oceanfront.”

That was 1984.

The Palace Amusements complex in 2004

Unfortunately, the Palace Amusement complex lost its battle to the wrecking ball back in 2004. The Palace withstood hurricanes, nor’easters and WWII. It closed in the late 1980’s and it had deteriorated to the point that it could not be saved. So many other historical, stunning pieces of architecture have been lost to the wrecking ball. Places like the Mayfair Theater, with its Spanish-influenced Art-Deco style or the Metropolitan Hotel, and the Monterey Hotel, just to name a few.

The Mayfair Theater in its Heyday

The Paramount, Casino, Carousel House and the Steam Plant still, remain.

Realistically, redevelopment plans change and evolve--economics, developers and need create those evolutionary changes. But the foundation of historic preservation and the balance of development versus quality of life should remain the same.

Another new plan was developed in 2002 to meet new challenges and change. One of the constants in all plans since 1984 have been preservation of historic buildings, restoration and/or adaptive reuse of historic structures such as the Casino and Convention Hall. This plan also included the same 10 planning principles listed above.

The 2002 plan also called for a drastic change to the north-side boardwalk’s now famous 30-foot wide planks we have all come to know and love. It would shrink the width to 15 feet and curve out onto the beach.

The North-Side Boardwalk changes.

Back when this plan was conceived Asbury didn’t have the tourist trade it now enjoys. The streets were empty, the shops were empty, and the council at the time didn’t think the change would affect much. They couldn’t have foreseen the future revitalization, the new golden age that was about to happen in Asbury. Many redevelopment plans have come and gone since.

The residents and the visitors just seem to roll with them.

Allie Squillante, a former resident of Asbury Park and worked for the city has fond memories of it. “I worked in the AP beach department from 1972 until 1985 and the steam plant was where we punched in and got our equipment for our daily jobs. Became quite attached to that building and would love to see it developed.” he said.

He also said that he would “love” to see the remaining part of the Casino and Carousel House developed into some sort of small, intimate concert venue.

“I’m 65 years old and hope I live to see something done with those buildings and also the North end, 6th Ave pavilion.”

Allie is like a lot of the people who lived and worked or played in Asbury. Their memories are always nostalgic and reverent, kind and clear. They also make their feelings known about the Asbury that is.

Amid some pressure and the desire to maintain the integrity of the boardwalk the current city council voted to halt construction on the north side. The beach and boardwalk are owned by the city, and developers are currently under contract to rebuild and redevelop the boardwalk. Some of the pavilions have been saved and reconstructed to serve a new purpose and more will be redesigned and will further the revitalization of retail and mixed-use space on the boardwalk.

All great things, right?

Unfortunately, a historic part of that boardwalk stands untouched, is being left to decay, part of the iconic history of the Asbury Park boardwalk is going to disappear into obscurity if it isn’t saved.

The Casino as it looked in the 1930's

You can see it happening right before your eyes. The Casino, a once opulent building that has been plagued by many unfortunate disasters sits and deteriorates with each storm, silently screaming for someone to save it.

The Casino as it looks today

The Steam Plant is crumbling, its once majestic design slowly eroding and the stunning Carousel House is empty, the sounds of joyful riders now just a ghostly memory.

The City of Asbury Park no longer owns the Casino, the Carousel House and the Paramount--these are all owned by Madison Marquette. iStar owns the Steam Plant.

So, who will save them?

Have all the new restaurants and the eclectic shops that seem to bustle with activity and the new construction on the boardwalk become more important than the history and the architecture that has anchored the boardwalk since the beginning?

The famous designers of the Casino, the Steam Plant, the Paramount and Convention Hall built them to last, built them with care and a sense of style that no longer exists. Most everyone understands that change happens, the new replaces the old but the history needs to be honored and preserved whenever possible. These buildings could once again become a vital part of the boardwalk, serving a new purpose and enchanting a whole new group of visitors and residents.

The Steam Plant in 2019

During a recent event at the Paramount, Danny DeVito made a plea for the theater, the Steam Plant, the Casino and Carousel House to be restored to their former glory.

It’s that sense of history and pride that residents and those who spent their childhoods in Asbury Park remember and want to preserve.

The City’s Master Plan, adopted in 2017, has a section devoted to historic preservation. It talks about the importance of recognizing and preserving the historic character of Asbury Park. Will the fragile architecture of the Casino, Steam Plant and Carousel House be able to withstand the time frame of the plan? And are they truly represented in this plan?

What is Madison Marquette and iStar planning for these historic structures? Are they simply going to decay to the point of no return? We decided to ask them what exactly was being done to preserve, restore and re-imagine the Casino, the Steam Plant and Carousel House. We also wanted to know what restoration has and will take place in the Paramount Theater.

Beautiful Beaux-Arts design detail of the Carousel House

In a statement issued by Madison Marquette, they had this to say:

“Since 2007-2008 when Madison Marquette initiated the redevelopment of the Asbury Park Boardwalk, Madison Marquette has replaced the roofs of the Paramount Theatre, Casino and Carousel building--and in the years that have followed, conducted extensive structural exploratory work and stabilization of the Casino (both pre and post Sandy), Convention Hall, Paramount Theatre and pavilions. The most recent pavilion renovation includes the beautiful 5th Avenue Pavilion and the re-imagined Arthur Pryor Bandshell.” “From the outset, Madison Marquette’s vision has been to honor Asbury’s history while creating a waterfront experience unlike any other. In our development plans for the Casino, we look to combine retail, dining, edutainment and entertainment…with a twist, while staying true to the spirit of its original architectural design.”

When asked about timelines for restoration the statement also notes that Madison Marquette is in the process of reviewing their architectural and engineering studies.

The Paramount Theater 2019

“Given review, design and approval timelines, we cannot commit to an exact date, our goal is to make sure the redevelopment is viable and appropriate.” said Pasqualina DeBoer, spokesperson for Madison Marquette.

They also provided a long list of other things that they are doing and have done to restore these buildings. Including a new upper roof for the Paramount and extensive work to its upper-promenades and a lot of primary work like electrical, plumbing, and HVAC. Safety issues are being addressed and doors and windows have been replaced.

All good things.

We decided to ask some residents what they thought about the restoration and reuse of these beloved buildings.

Glen Burtnik, a member of the Weeklings and a former member of Styx is a long-time resident of Asbury Park.

“The Paramount Theatre has terrific acoustics. It’s had a bit of a difficult time in the past 20 years or so competing with Red Bank's Count Basie Theatre (which is a well-oiled Performing Arts Center), but it's (The Paramount) sort of an undiscovered gem.” Burtnik said.

“To my knowledge there are no restoration plans for The Paramount currently. But I wouldn't really know. I will say, it's human nature to resist change, so I guess I tend to worry about changes made to the Casino, Steam Plant or Carousel House resulting in less charm, but these structures deserve restoration.” Burtnik continued.

“But I truly love anything historic left standing in the beloved city of Asbury Park.” he said.

Restoration and re-purposing historic architecture is an incredibly expensive and time consuming thing. It’s a big investment of resources, manpower and money. In this case, restoration is important. In Asbury Park these iconic buildings are important and as many have said, they are beloved.

The current golden-age for Asbury Park will be in the creation of the new and preserving the old. The restoration of the Paramount Theater, the Grand Arcade and Convention Hall are good things. The new places in Asbury are good things.

Still what will happen to the Casino, the Carousel House and the Steam Plant? There didn’t seem to be a definitive answer for them yet. Madison Marquette's answer for the Casino and the Carousel House was very general but there was no answer for the Steam Plant.

The re-development and the new construction of buildings like the Ocean Club was non-stop, it seemed to go up overnight. Perhaps because it is a money-maker, with its multi-million-dollar units towering over Ocean Avenue, there was no hesitation in making sure it was built. The fact that it was built isn’t the issue.

The issue still sits just down Ocean Avenue, in the place that used to be the “heart” of the “circuit,” the place where families played, where Springsteen proudly stood for those iconic images in the days before he was a mega-star.

Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park.

The issue is the chain link fencing inside the Casino that has sat idle for years with no discernable restoration going on. Nothing but deterioration seems to be going on.

The Steam Plant and the Casino stand in silence, no money can be made from them as they sit today. The Carousel House has had occasional events held inside its walls, the Wooden Walls project is supposed to be there at some point, but none of them can promise millions in revenue.

A View from Inside the Casino

They weren’t intended for that.

The happiness that they created once upon a time is a mere memory now, but their future could promise enjoyment and fond memories for a new group of people who are just discovering Asbury Park. Or for those that have been collecting memories there since they were children.

The long-time residents and visitors of Asbury Park want the revitalization, but not at the expense of the memories and the history. So much has already been lost to the wrecking ball.

What remains should be saved and not be allowed to crumble into obscurity.

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