The People’s Clay-ground: Historic terra cotta images on display in Coney

The People’s Clay-ground: Historic terra cotta images on display in Coney
Charles Denson

The king of the sea is re-surfacing at the People’s Playground!

The Coney Island History Project’s latest exhibit, “Neptune Revisited,” opening on May 27, will showcase weathered clay images of the oceanic deity and other nautical figures from the early 1920s. The artifacts once graced the walls of the historic, recently-restored Childs Restaurant on the Boardwalk, and the mini museum will offer visitors a unique, up-close look, said the project’s executive director.

“We have a small space, so it’s an intimate look at some of the original pieces that were beyond repair after a century of exposure to salt water air. They’re extraordinary craftsmanship,” said People’s Playground historian Charles Denson.

When the Childs Restaurant opened in 1923, it sported numerous nautical terra cotta images along its facade. Many of those clay creations crumbled over the last century, and the building’s new owners, who re-opened the space last week as Kitchen 21, worked to restore what they could. But some pieces that were irreparably damaged had to be replaced by painstaking replicas, and Denson finagled an indefinite loan of the original, weather-beaten artifacts for his exhibit at the Coney Island History Project, where they hang alongside a photographic timeline of the rise, decline and rejuvenation of the Childs building.

The terra cotta pieces include vivid beach scenes, an intricate tangle of sea creatures, and a vibrant portrait of the restaurant’s facade. But the show’s main draw is a striking ceramic medallion of King Neptune himself rising from the sea, holding a trident dripping with seaweed.

“King Neptune is the symbol of Coney Island. He’s kind of the guardian of the Boardwalk watching over us,” said Denson. “It’s an iconic image and he’s sort of the centerpiece of the show.”

The size of the hulking works will surprise visitors, said Denson.

“When they’re up on the building you can’t see the scale, but when you’re up close you see how massive they are,” he said. “So you can really get a good look.”

“Neptune Revisited: Terra Cotta Relics from the Childs Building, Last of Coney Island’s Boardwalk Palaces,” at the Coney Island History Project [3059 W. 12th Street, between Bowery Street and the Boardwalk, (347) 702–8553, www.coneyislandhistory.org]. Open weekends and holidays, 1–7 pm. Free.

Reach reporter Caroline Spivack at cspiv[email protected]nglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2523. Follow her on Twitter @carolinespivack.