Michigan Avenue & the Boardwalk, Atlantic City, NJ - Atlantic County History Cache #9 (ACHC #9)
The Boardwalk at Michigan Avenue has a long and storied past. You’re searching for a camouflaged cylindrical matchstick container.
Let’s learn a little bit about the history of Michigan Avenue.
At the northeast corner still stands one of the most elegant of the old Atlantic City hotels. The history of the Dennis Hotel follows that of Atlantic City itself. It started out, like many A.C. hotels, as a group of wooden cottages on the beach, and very likely opened shortly after 1854, when the seaside resort was founded.
In its heyday, the Dennis was one of the premier hotels in A.C., up there with the Marlborough-Blenheim, the Traymore and the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall (which later became Resorts). The Dennis was always owned by the same family -- the Busbys -- who kept it from generation to generation.
The latest version of the Dennis, pre-casinos, was constructed between 1919 and 1925. It was built in the French regency style, with a distinctive mansard roof.
The Dennis was built when people came to Atlantic City for the entire summer, like a luxury home away from home. They tried to cater to every possible whim of most well-to-do families. Those were the boom times in Atlantic City.
After the advent of air conditioning and the proliferation of air travel, however, Atlantic City fell out of favor with summer travelers. The city fell into decline. That is why voters in 1976 approved a measure to allow casino gambling.
The Dennis, the Marlborough-Blenheim -- all of those fell onto hard times in the '60s and '70s and it was only the pride of the families that owned them that kept them going.
By the mid-1970s, the Dennis fell into bankruptcy. First National Bank took control of it and, shortly before the statewide referendum legalizing gambling was passed, the bank agreed to sell the Boardwalk property to brothers Abraham and Robert Schiff for $600,0000.
After the gambling referendum passed, Boardwalk property was suddenly in high demand. The original Bally's owner bought the Dennis and used it as the casino's hotel. But the Schiffs, who still own more than half of A.C.'s non-casino Boardwalk property, refused to sell the land in front of the Dennis, even as Bally's expanded all around it.
For years, city and casino officials complained the strip mall the Schiffs built was an eyesore. It completely blocked the Dennis, so much so that most people long ago forgot it even existed, although it continued to serve as a hotel for Bally's. Its rooms, with their low ceilings and various layouts, were not especially popular.
Now, after a complete makeover, the Dennis is sought after once again. With the strip mall gone, the hotel now boasts oceanfront views.
To be sure, the Dennis is not for everyone. Most casino hotel towers are pretty standard, with three to four different room types. The 379-room Dennis has 46 different configurations. It is a small part of the Bally's complex, which includes hotel towers at Bally's and the Claridge. In all, the casino has 1,745 rooms.
Another of the old AC hotels, the Shelburne Hotel, once stood at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and the Boardwalk. Originally built and opened in 1869, the hotel was initially a wood-frame cottage. Following several expansions, under the direction of hotel manager Jacob Weikel, a modern, brick-faced, steel frame, multistory structure was constructed along Michigan Avenue at the southwest corner with the Boardwalk. This portion of the hotel opened in 1926. The hotel was a fine example of Georgian Revival architecture and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The Shelburne Hotel gained a reputation as a home to entertainers and celebrities, due to its close proximity to Atlantic City's famed Warner Theater (read further down for more info on the Warner), including among them businessman "Diamond Jim" Brady and his companion, actress and singer Lillian Russell; composer and singer George M. Cohan; British actress Lillie Langtry; composer Irving Berlin; actress Ethel Barrymore; composer and conductor John Philip Sousa; and entertainer Al Jolson.
Despite its tower addition in 1926, the Shelburne was a relatively small hotel in comparison to Atlantic City's much bigger resorts such as the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall Hotel, Traymore, and Claridge. This coupled with the Great Depression bankrupted the hotel in 1931. It would pass through a series of owners until being taken over by the United States Army during World War II, then passing into ownership of the Malamut family who briefly revived the hotels success in the 1950s with several renovation and motel expansions.
Upon the legalization of casino gambling in 1976, the Shelburne once again became hot property, as with most hotels in Atlantic City at the time. The Malamut family closed the resort in 1978 after leasing it to Japanese investors Rocky Aoki and Takashi Sasakawa, owners of the Benihana restaurant chain, who planned to keep the existing hotel as well as add a 31-story tower and casino calling it the Benihana Casino-Hotel. In 1983 work crews began to renovate the hotel, however, disagreements between the Malmut family, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, and outside investors led Akoi and Saskawa to abandon the project after investing over $25 million in construction and renovations. Sasakawa was the son of noted Japanese fascist and philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa, who had links with the Yakuza. Aoki and Sasakawa had also faced charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading in the stock of Hardwicke Companies, which had planned to manage the hotel/casino.
In 1984 the site was acquired by Blumenfeld Development Corp. and the hotel was demolished. In 1986 a groundbreaking was held for the intended construction of the Carousel Club Hotel Casino (originally called Carnival Club Hotel Casino). However, the company did not obtain sufficient financing and after foreclosure the property was sold to Bally's Manufacturing Corp., which built Bally's Wild Wild West Casino in 1997, which now stands on the grounds that the Shelburne once stood on.
The Warner Palace Theater opened in 1929 on the world famous Atlantic City Boardwalk, on the block between Arkansas and Michigan Avenues. Built as a movie house and showroom, it was giant, beautiful and elegant. But the timing was bad for such a remarkable showplace; Depression, World War II and that new-fangled thing called television proved too daunting. By the 1950′s it had been turned into a bowling alley, and by the 1980′s it was finished. Caesars Atlantic City bought the property, tore down the auditorium and turned it into a parking garage. Lights out. But not entirely. Somehow, and no one seems to know the real reason why, Caesars didn’t demolish the building’s facade on the boardwalk. Through the ’80s and ’90s it remained, with a small building behind it that stayed open as a burger joint. The front somehow survived until the late 1990′s-early OO’s, when Caesars and Bally’s decided to pour a few million bucks into their Atlantic City properties. They had plans to build between the two casinos, essentially tying them together. The old Warner was in the way. However, instead of demolishing the ornate structure, it was left intact and Bally's essentially built around the old building and incorporated the facade into the front of their new Wild Wild West Casino. Today, the Warner Theater’s original facade stands proudly among the glitzy casinos, restored to perfect condition. Its doors no longer open on a grand palace, its windows no longer emit sparkling light; it just sits in quiet dignity, a reminder of the glory days of the movie palace – and Atlantic City.
AC’s Dennis Hotel regains its luster, August 21, 2008; NJ.com
"National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service
Atlantic City Free Public Library