The “new Coney Island” is about to claim two of the last remnants of the old Coney.
Developer Joe Sitt has begun demolishing the dilapidated Coney Island Bank building at W. 12th Street and Surf Avenue, and is set to begin tearing down the former Henderson’s Music Hall at Stillwell and Surf avenues, much to the dismay of preservationists who had hoped to save the historic structures by turning them into attractions in their own right.
“Instead of trying to build up the market and signal a revival of Coney Island, they’re demolishing and are going to put up temporary buildings of marginal interest,” said Juan Rivero, a spokesman for Save Coney Island, a preservation group. “He is going to sit on the property and have nothing happen there.”
The notion that Sitt’s Thor Equities development company would simply sit on the soon-to-be-cleared property is a common fear among the Coney faithful, but the company has said it has big plans for next summer that required the destruction of the buildings that are some of the last vestiges of the amusement area’s glory days.
“Thor has launched its program to revitalize Coney Island by replacing these two ramshackle structures with interim structures that will house new selections of games, shopping and food beginning next summer,” said Stefan Friedman, a spokesman.
Friedman added that the destruction of Henderson’s would soon commence, “assuming all permits are in place.”
The demolition is yet another sign that Coney Island is undergoing a significant transformation — one that comes at a cost.
“It’s inevitable news, but it’s not good,” said Dick Zigun, the “mayor” of Coney Island and the founder of Coney Island USA. “I remember banking [at the Bank of Coney Island] as recently as 1992. It was a beautiful building with a marble lobby and an amazing atrium. It could have been a nice hotel, but it wasn’t meant to be, unfortunately.”
Henderson’s is even more historic: it is the place where Harpo Marx made his debut, and first opened in 1899.
In its place, Sitt plans to erect a temporary structure with fast-food joints and games.
But the developer reiterated that he’s ready to build more appropriate attractions on his 5-1/2-acre swath of properties — provided the city chips in, of course.
“We eagerly anticipate the city’s fulfilling its commitment to improve the area’s long-inadequate infrastructure, so we can get to work on building the kind of permanent showpieces that will anchor a 21st-century, year-round Coney Island,” said Friedman.
Save Coney Island had made several last-ditch efforts to save the buildings, producing renderings of a restored bank building as a ballroom and Henderson’s as vibrant music venue.
The preservationists also managed to get an endorsement from New York State declaring that Coney Island qualified for entry in the National Registers of Historic Places, a designation that would encourage the restoration of buildings through tax credits. Unfortunately, the National Register required the support of property owners, so it went nowhere.
Still, Rivero held out hope that the bank building, which is currently surrounded by scaffolding, could be saved before it is nothing but dirt in the ground.
“We’re trying to arrange for some sort of acquisition [of the property],” said Rivero. “There are ways of restoring the buildings and preserving them to be part of the future of Coney Island that would be beneficial to the public and to [Sitt], if he’s willing to entertain the thought,” Rivero said.
That looks unlikely.