The Ravenhall Baths and the downfall of Coney

Tragedy struck the Coney Island’s mighty Ravenhall Baths in the 1960s.

Boys like my pagemate Carmine Santa Maria were cavorting life-guards there braving fresh salt-water to save little children and the comely maidens who floated in the choppy water sucked in from the nearby ocean.

It was a mid-winter fire that ravaged that Boardwalk building, its dock, and its indoor offices, bringing death to that summer magnate for swimmers and bathers.

Ravenhall had served as a Boardwalk frontier, way across W. 19th Street from the famed Steeplechase pool, that the Trump tycoons were about to execute thus destroying the last vestiges of the pool connection, leaving the desolation to the historians.

One day, when Mayor John Lindsay asked those of us on his Seaside Advisory Board (myself included): “What does Coney Island need most?”

First to answer was tiny Nathan Handwerker, the man who built his fortune one nickel at a time selling franks, who pushed the mayor for a new bath house.

As the weiner king put it there in City Hall, “We need a place our visitors could take a bath.”

The mayor laughed as Handwerker drove his joke home: “ A lot of people coming to Coney need a shower.”

The news reached the Parks Department that, working with Borough President Abe Stark, came up with the idea of a multi-purpose new Boardwalk structure, and the Planning Commission then had a project that might revive the burned out and abandoned amusement area facilities.

Before Community Board activists and committees came to the area leaders, Stark devised a plan to build a multipurpose year-round facility — but not at the decimated Raven Hall site, or in the surrounding amusement zone. No, the area selected was five blocks beyond, five blocks further from the vast subway terminal. Five blocks away from the amusement zone on a block that had a gas station on Surf Avenue, followed by two blocks of clean brick homes, with no relation to amusements.

Four of us as business leaders had a meeting with Stark, telling him it was the right thing in the wrong place — but he shook his head saying “Let it be, where we said.”

Driving home, one of our four said, “He’s the Borough President, we can’t fight him.”

Of course, that was indigestible to me.

Back in my store on Mermaid Avenue, I combed the comparison between our more logical more economical location, and his more costly one.

We called one of our mates, including the late Al Hirsch who had been a the Stark meeting. We had just four land owners versus 52 of Stark’s way; was a few million dollars less for land purchase — and truly within the fun zone that Ravenhall portrayed.

We put it all into a prepared proposal and submitted it to the (then active) Site Selection Board, which consisted of the five borough presidents and the comptroller. Six months later, a secretary of the board called us in to a conference before a public hearing. He confided that it the ruling would be almost unanimous. Almost all preferred our controversial site, particularly because it eliminated the blight of the untouched, burned-out Ravenhall.

A hearing was held soon after. We had our say.

The vote came in. The first five voted for the new site we submitted. Stark voted last; good willed his vote, making it unanimous.

Books were printed and distributed depicting all of the facilities it should provide and we took home a copy of that legal portrayal.

In my next column I shall portray the ideas and the failures that came of this costly project, which to this day, produces no known revenue, other than a parking lot attendant who collects if you want to park at those virtually always-closed facility.

In the meantime, save our wooden Boardwalk. It is virtually all we have left connecting us to the past glory that was Coney Island, the place the hoodwinkers took away.

This is Lou Powsner.

Lou Powsner, the 92-year-old Dean of Brooklyn Columnists, has been writing for the Graphic since the 1970s. His column appears every two weeks on BrooklynDaily.com. Send correspondence to [email protected] with the Subject Line “Attention Lou Powsner.”