Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Coney Island Historic Sites to be demolished?

Coney Island history may get razed
By Ryan Chatelain, amNewYork Associate Editor
ryan.chatelain@am-ny.com
July 25, 2007

For photos: http://www.amny.com/news/local/am-coney0725-gallery,0,855531.photogallery?coll=am-local-headlines

Coney Island's oldest standing structure and the building where Harpo Marx made his stage debut in 1908 are among the historic sites endangered by a controversial makeover planned for the storied peninsula.

The Grasshorn building, built in the early 1880s, and the Henderson building, once the home of a popular Vaudeville theater, are expected to be razed as developer Thor Equities makes way for a glitzy $1.5 billion development that will include an amusement park, water theme park, hotels, time-share units and retail shops on 10 acres between West 10th and West 15th streets.

Dick Zigun, founder of the arts organization Coney Island USA, which runs Sideshows by the Seashore and the annual Mermaid Parade, said his group reached a preliminary agreement last year with Thor chief executive Joseph Sitt to purchase the Grasshorn building using $2 million in city-awarded grant money.

Zigun hoped to move the Coney Island Museum into the building that was best known as the home of Henry Grasshorn's hardware store, which provided amusement owners with the parts they needed to keep their rides running. But Sitt broke off talks with Coney Island USA last month, saying the building was no longer for sale and that he planned to build a new structure there, Zigun said.

"In a place where so little has survived, it would be a shame to lose that building," Coney Island historian Charles Denson said.

Instead of the Grasshorn building's place, Coney Island USA later suggested it would be interested in acquiring the 108-year-old Henderson building, as well as several other "architecturally distinct" structures owned by Thor.

"He will not sell me any of those buildings because he intends to knock down every old building that Thor owns and only develop new buildings and not really be involved with any type of preservation efforts," Zigun said.

Thor officials declined to comment.

The Grasshorn and Henderson buildings are among six structures in the neighborhood that Coney Island USA has nominated for landmark protection, but the organization has received unofficial feedback saying the two buildings have been altered too significantly over the years to qualify, leaving their fate solely in Sitt's hands.

"I thought we were over this, where developers and architects realize that, in a place like New York, a mix of rehabbed old buildings together with new buildings speaks a lot more to the history and culture of New York City than a suburban attitude, where everything is new and sort of uniformed," said Zigun, who added that because Sitt led him on for a year and a half into believing he would sell the Grasshorn building, Coney Island USA faces forfeiting its grant money if it does not spend it before the end of the Bloomberg administration next year.

Thor still needs city zoning approval before it can move forward with construction on its development.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.