ATLANTIC CITY IS NOT A NORMAL CITY. Built on the seashore for tourists and summer people, it’s easier to understand Atlantic City as a permanent carnival or a year-round festival. When your main drag is a seaside promenade, it’s safe to say that the rules that apply to your average bedroom suburb or commercial centre don’t really apply.
When I wasn’t exploring the Boardwalk I spent my whirlwind day there running from attraction to attraction, starting with Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, named after the former mayor and New Jersey senator. It’s the older of two convention centres in Atlantic City, opened in 1929 and featuring – among other things – the world’s largest pipe organ.
The organ – famously both the largest and loudest instrument of its kind – is the high water mark of an era when any really notable all-purpose hall like this had to have a pipe organ. The numbers are truly impressive – seven keyboards or “manuals” on its console, 852 stops and 33,112 pipes, though nobody is really sure of the exact number.
Most of the organ is out of sight behind baffles surrounding the stage, but I’m taken on a tour of the workings, up narrow stairways and ladders to where the pipes stretch out row after row in the dim backstage light. It goes without saying that tuning and maintaining the instrument is a non-stop task, undertaken by a non-profit charity that organizes weekly concerts and noon tours from May to September.
The console with its stops, pedals and keyboards is massive, but it seems tiny sitting on the stage at the end of the hall, such is the scale of this facility that hosts everything from sporting events to concerts to car races. This, for instance, is the view looking back from the console into the hall:
Make sure you visit the museum in the lobby of Boardwalk Hall, with exhibits devoted to the history of Atlantic City as well as the hall and the Miss America pageant that it’s hosted for decades. Among the displays are souvenirs from the 1964 Democratic Convention that acclaimed Lyndon Johnson as presidential candidate, held just a week or two before the Beatles played Boardwalk Hall.
Drive down Atlantic Avenue to the summer homes of Margate to see Lucy the Elephant, built in 1881 to attract home buyers to the new seashore resort. A designated U.S. national historic landmark, this novelty structure built in the shape of an Indian elephant is considered America’s oldest roadside attraction.
In its long, colourful and occasionally mobile life, it’s been a home, a hotel and a tavern. It’s been abandoned and moved and thanks to a committee of locals was restored and re-opened as a museum in 1972. It’s worth taking one of the multiple daily tours to get up close with the interior, with its intricate timber structure and clever use of space – obviously the work of ship’s carpenters.
Atlantic City has a complicated relationship with its history, full of booms and busts and historical characters both colourful and criminal. A good place to learn about it all is Princeton Antiques, back down Atlantic Avenue. Past the shelves full of used books lining the front of the shop is Robert Ruffolo Jr. and his staff, who collect and curate books, photos and artifacts from the town’s past.
In heavy binders on sagging shelves sit collections of photos taken in and of the city over a century or more. Some are the work of the portrait photographers who set up shop near or on the Boardwalk, offering their services to tourists who wanted to get a souvenir of themselves at leisure. Others are the later work of the professionals who were hired to document the events that filled the calendar year after year – the conventions and attractions, the concerts and personal appearances that defined Atlantic City’s function as a destination.
It goes without saying that there are a lot of places to eat in Atlantic City. Every hotel and casino is full of places to eat, from fine dining to food courts, but I was pleased to discover that Resorts AC, my home base for the trip, let me enjoy the summer sun on an autumn day at its beachfront Landshark Bar & Grill. I tried to eat light with a shrimp taco and chips appetizer, and enjoyed some very refreshing and citrusy house brand lager.
Away from the Boardwalk, there are legendary eateries like the Knife & Fork Inn and Dock’s Oyster House, as well as more recent restaurants like Chef Vola, tucked away discreetly in the basement of an old apartment off Pacific Avenue behind the Boardwalk hotels. I was in far too much of a rush to do a sit-down dinner at Dock’s or the Knife & Fork, and reservations at Chef Vola have to be made weeks in advance – or so I was told by a helpful Uber driver who said that it was still worth the trouble.
I opted for another Atlantic City culinary hot spot – White House Sub Shop on Arctic Avenue, an old school diner with its orange and white linoleum opened in 1946. The walls are covered with signed 8x10s and photos of celebrities, athletes and politicians who’ve filled the booths over the years, with pride of place being the Governor’s Corner near the door.
This isn’t just any sub shop: Cold cuts and toppings are sliced to order, and make sure whatever you get is covered with the hot pepper relish. I go for the house special – extra salami, provolone, ham and capicola. I order the half sub, but wonder if I’ve been given the full size when it arrives at my table – an overstuffed sub on a thick, fresh white bread bun that fills two paper plates. Nope – this is the half order, and I manfully finish everything in front of me.
My final destination in Atlantic City is the Absecon Lighthouse, built in 1856 and in use until 1933. The 228 steps to the top are helpfully numbered, and I recommend taking your time making your way up nearly 171 feet to the viewing platform at the top. The view from the top is impressive, looking back to Clam Creek and the marina, then past Absecon Inlet and to the Atlantic Ocean behind the casino hotel towers. You feel like a pin on a map as you take in this very unique city with its past and present tumbled together up and down the shore.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of these photos go here.