Remembering the day Trump’s dad destroyed a Coney icon

Remembering the day Trump’s dad destroyed a Coney icon
Photo by Georgine Benvenuto

Remember the Steeplechase!

It has been 50 years since the father of soon-to-be Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump demolished one of Coney Island’s most beloved icons — the Pavilion of Fun at Steeplechase Park. A new exhibit details the destruction wrought by real estate developer Fred Trump in a failed bid to build condos in the People’s Playground. That action drove the final nail in the coffin of old Coney Island, a neighborhood that has only recently recovered, says the man behind the exhibit.

“That was a real turning point for Coney Island, everything changed after the pavilion was demolished — Fred Trump really shaped Coney Island in a negative way,” said Charles Denson, the executive director of the Coney Island History Project.

The Pavilion of Fun, built in 1908, was the centerpiece of entrepreneur George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park. The giant glass-and-steel building housed some of Tilyou’s most popular attractions, including the Steeplechase Ride, which snaked in and out of its massive interior. The famous Steeplechase Funny Face, painted on its glass windows, smirked down at thrill-seekers.

But an economic downturn in the mid-1960s left the park and pavilion up for sale. Trump bought up the property in 1965 to build condos there. The next year, to prevent the city from declaring the park a protected landmark, the mogul and his wealthy friends smashed the building’s most famous features. Coney Islanders are no stranger to development, but none have been so happy as Trump to tear down something so loved by locals, Denson said.

“Trump sent out engraved invitations and invited people to throw rocks and bricks through the Funny Face — it was a desecration of an icon, it was insane.” Denson said. “Most developers are worried about making a profit, most wouldn’t throw a party to desecrate a stained glass window.”

The exhibit uses photos, newspaper clippings, and interviews with eyewitnesses to chronicle the Pavilion’s destruction, and to recount the elder Trump’s first foray into Coney Island real estate — creating the apartment complex Trump Village and displacing low-income families, an act Denson blames for devastating the nabe’s economy.

The Donald plays a surprisingly small role in the exhibit, only meriting a small mention as an attendee at the closing of the Pavilion sale. Denson said he does not want to connect the two because this is a Coney Island-specific story.

“It’s not political in any way, it’s about Coney Island — how did it get this way? How did it develop?” he said. “To me the real business in Coney Island has always been real estate and this is part of it.”

“50th Anniversary of Fred Trump’s Demolition of Steeplechase Pavilion” at the Coney Island History Project [3059 W. 12th Street, between Bowery Street and the Boardwalk. (347) 702–8553, www.coneyislandhistory.org. Open Sat–Sun, and holidays 1–7 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Dennis Lynch at (718) 260–2508 or e-mail him at dlynch@cnglocal.com.
Trumped: A postcard shows the Pavilion of Fun during its pre-war heyday, before the glass-and-steel amusement house came crashing down under the bulldozers of developer Fred Trump in 1966.
Boston Public Library