That Time A Building Completely Broke My Heart

On January 29, 2021, 3½ years after my wife Nell suggested in financial exasperation that I write a book, I put on “outside” clothes, sneakers and my protective mask, then walked down to our local FedEx office. There, I plugged my thumb drive into a printer…then watched in relief and wonder as it printed out a complete manuscript of my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own. You may find some of the book’s backstory here.

Manuscript in hand, I began the process of getting it published; any advice or assistance you have to offer will be greatly appreciated. This is easily the most terrifying thing I have ever done: I feel as though I am trying to hit a bullseye on a moving target while blindfoldedI compiled a list of 19 literary agents I felt were the best fit for this book, sending formal queries to 11 of them, keeping nine in reserve. Three agencies sent immediate rejections, while I have yet to hear from the other eight.

In the meantime, I have decided to increase public awareness of my work by publishing excerpts from Interrogating Memory on this site. This is the closest I can come to a “teaser trailer.

One unexpected theme which emerged while writing was “what once stood proud, now stands not at all.” That applies primarily to John Rhoads Company, the West Philadelphia landmark whose “rise and fall” narrative is woven throughout the book. Forty years after it first opened in 1886, it was taken over by my paternal grandfather and his younger brother in the 1920s then passed to my father a little over three decades later. The demise of John Rhoads in the 1970s is partly discussed here. It also applies to the homes destroyed to make way for superhighways and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, or any number of storied buildings–Metropolitan Hospital, The Gladstone Hotel/Greystone Apartments, the Philadelphia Police Department 40th District station house at 28th and Oxford–torn down and replaced for various reasons.

I first wrote about childhood summers in Atlantic City here. In Chapter 8 (Fathers and Sons Are Only Black and White in the Movies), I describe those magical summers in greater detail, lovingly recreating a motel called the Strand, which once stood between Boston and Providence Avenues just off the Boardwalk. On, I found these contemporary advertisements, one from the June 25, 1972 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer

…and one from the June 10, 1973 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

For the full story, I urge you to read Chapter 8 when Interrogating Memory is published. Until then, please enjoy this brief excerpt from that Chapter.

My happiest memory of those summers, however, is seeing Atlantic City from the Atlantic Ocean with my maternal grandfather. Beyond the northeastern end of the Boardwalk, on what was called Inlet Pier, sat the popular Capt. Starn’s; it closed five years later.[i] Besides a seafood restaurant and bar, one could charter boats or take a ride on the speedboat “Miss Atlantic City.” It also had a white double-decker tour boat which gently carried passengers round trip to Longport and back, a safe distance from the shore. I recognized buildings as they drifted by—the Ambassador Hotel, the Convention Center (home to the Miss America pageant since 1921) and, of course, the Strand and the Warwick. As we sat contentedly in one of the 10 or so rows of white plastic seats, two on either side of a narrow aisle, a man sold beverages from a large cooler. “Pop-Pop Sam” always bought a can for me. Nothing has ever tasted as delicious as I remember that Coke or Dr. Pepper tasting.

All things come to an end, though. This is how I described leaving the Strand at the end of the summer of 1975 in a high school English essay I wrote in March 1982:

’Matthew, will you hurry up!’ cried the boy’s mother. She was standing in the parking lot of the Strand motel, by a packed Ford.

“In the motel’s lobby, the boy was frantically running from adult to adult saying breathless good-byes.

“‘Ya comin’ back next summer, Matthew?’ asked an old man who sold candy and sundry goods.

“The boy, who was seven [sic–I was actually eight] years old, with messy, brown hair and a perpetual smile, shrugged his shoulders.

“I really hope so, but I don’t think we will, because my dad said money was tight and stuff like that,’ replied Matthew, the smile fading a bit.

“’Well I hope you do, Matthew. Now you’re [sic] mother is calling you, so you’d better go. Here.’

“The man jammed a Snickers into the boy’s hand. Matthew opened it, stuffed it in his mouth and, yelling good-bye over his shoulder, jumped in the car.”

We returned one last time, in the summer of 1976 or 1977. This time we stayed for a weekend, or perhaps longer, in a room overlooking Boston Avenue; this may be when Allen Hirschbaum rented a room in the motel across the street. One night, I tried to sleep on one of the deck chairs; I eventually returned inside. But once Resorts Casino Hotel opened on May 26, 1978, the Strand’s days were numbered. On June 22, Golden Nugget Inc. president Stephen Wynn announced he had bought the Strand from Solomon for $8.5 million ($34.4 million in 2019).[ii] Wynn tore down the 23-year-old motel to build the 541-room Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, which opened on December 9, 1980.[iii]

Later in the essay, titled “Repulsion Is Golden,” I pick up the story a few years later, likely the summer of 1981. After promising my mother I would return at 6 pm, I ran the “brief block to the bus stop.” From there a bus took me to the corner of Atlantic and Boston Avenues, steps away from where the boarding house Samuel and Irene Kohn operated during WWII had stood. Sprinting the block south to Pacific Avenue:

“’What in God’s name!’ I thought to myself. I frantically checked the street signs. I was on the corner of Boston and Pacific allright [sic]. So what was that in front of me?

“I was quite confused, because where my beloved Strand had always stood was a huge, gold-and-glass horror. The sign on it read ‘Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino.’

“I crossed the street and entered the lower lobby. Surrounding me were gold columns, fine carpeting, more glass, and shining marble. I was filled with repulsion, and was rapidly approaching actual physical illness.

“Recovering from the initial shock I walked to the main desk. In answer to my question, I was told the Strand had been torn down three years [ago] so they could build this hotel. I thanked the clerk and walked away.

“I looked around a bit, the gaudiness of the place sickening me. I kept asking myself, ‘How, how, could they have done this!’ Tears welled up in my eyes, so I sat down a minute to think. I recovered, and went into the men’s room to clean myself up.”

Melodramatic flourishes aside, this succinctly sums up my feelings not only about the replacement of the Strand by the Golden Nugget—itself sold to Bally’s Organization in November 1987[iv]—but of gambling generally. Presented as a way to revive the dying city lovingly portrayed in the bittersweet 1980 film Atlantic City, it instead cleaved the storied resort. Giant lurid casinos flanking the beach draw guests who rarely venture outside the hotels and Boardwalk, while the rest of the city seems worse off than before. Given my father’s addiction, however, it is all for the best we stopped summering in Atlantic City before the first casinos were built.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

[i] “Capt. Starn’s pier a sunken relic amid glitter of Atlantic City casinos,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), May 7, 1989, pg. 6B

[ii] “Vegas firm buys piece of Boardwalk,” The Record (Hackensack, NJ), June 23, 1978, pg. A3

[iii] “Gaming agency analyzing Golden Nugget’s trial run,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), December 12, 1980, pg. B19

[iv] “Farewell and tears loom for The Grand,” Asbury Park Press (Asbury Park, NJ), September 25, 1994, pg. E9

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