The Oriental Hotel, namesake of Oriental Boulevard, at its peak. Image courtesy of Ron Schweiger.
Ever wonder about the more exotic street names in Southern Brooklyn? Oriental Boulevard is one of these handful of colorfully-named (perhaps culturally insensitive from today’s perspective) streets slipped into otherwise peaceful residential areas. Walking down Oriental today lends itself to strikingly ordinary views of private residences and bits of high school property, but its name reveals what the neighborhood used to be: a hub for luxe beach resorts. And the most luxurious of all was the Oriental Hotel.
Imagine a strand of resort hotels nestled in white-sand beaches. Posh, scented with orange blossoms, perhaps the sort of place Dick and Nicole Diver would vacation. Now imagine it in Brooklyn. Such a place existed just over a century ago, and the Oriental Hotel in Manhattan Beach was the crown jewel of southern Brooklyn resorts.
Manhattan Beach––an odd little thumb jutting out of southern Brooklyn just east of Coney Island’s glitter and noise––was not always the quiet residential neighborhood it is now. Today, Kingsborough Community College, synagogues, and Jewish day schools dominate the area. But just one hundred years ago, the very atmosphere held swank and sparkle. Colorful streets stretching from Coney Island to Manhattan Beach still hint at that atmosphere with names like Surf Avenue, Ocean Avenue, and Neptune Avenue. And, of course, the mysterious Oriental Boulevard. Oddly enough, the magic’s origins lie in the vacation industry.
Modern-day Manhattan Beach. Image via Flickr by Alexander Malina.
Before Coney Island existed as we know it––that is, with hot dogs, carousels, and roller coasters of questionable safety ––it existed mainly as a vacation spot for beachcombers. The Coney Island Hotel was the area’s first hotel, constructed in 1829 to the delight of city dwellers who needed a “proper” location to holiday. In other words, Manhattanites wanted a beach site far enough from home to feel like a true vacation, but close enough to reach by the same afternoon.
The new steamship services and carriage roads of the 1830s proposed just the solution. By snipping travel time from two days to two hours, the beaches of southern Brooklyn suddenly became viable locations to spend the weekend, even on a whim. The Coney Island Hotel sprung up out of virtual public necessity. (The other element of public necessity? Scorching New York summers. As advertised, the hotel’s seafront location kept temperatures within the balmy mid-seventies.)
Vacationers spending a weekend at Coney Island around the turn of the century. Image via Brooklyn Museum.
But with the growing popularity of resort towns like Atlantic City, the Manhattan Beach hotel financiers felt the need to step up the luxury and refinement of their principal accommodations––in part to offset the area’s growing reputation as a hub for working-class daytrippers. In 1877, a man named Austin Corbin spent the then-extravagant sum of $350,000 on a new hotel called Manhattan, where residents ate exquisite seafood dishes as bands played and nightly fireworks glittered above their heads. Just one year later, James Jordan’s Brighton Hotel cropped up as a slightly more upscale residence for vacationers and quickly became a colorful hub for the beach’s “race track crowd.”
Corbin finally spent $400,000 to one-up Jordan, and ended up building the most glamorous, fashionable, and famous hotel of the triumvirate: the Oriental.
The hotels quickly became a stomping ground for the upper crust of New York City society. In one instance, the city’s “foremost Republicans,” including the famous R. Ross Appleton, spent the late summer of 1901 in this resort community with other usual Manhattan expatriates. When asked about his opinion on this or that political candidate, Appleton was usually interviewed from his room at the Oriental. In fact, the world of elite New York business and social exploits that we usually associate with Upper Manhattan often took place in this glittering seaside community.
Interested in booking a night at the Oriental? Sadly, you can’t. All three hotels of the triumvirate were demolished within the last half-century to make room for clusters of individual beachfront cottages and private homes.
Manhattan Beach as it is today, with the Kingsborough Community College dominating the landscape. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Jim Henderson.
Part of the charm of New York City, especially for an American city, is its simultaneous sense of impermanence and history. There’s a pervasive knowledge that the neighborhood you pass through every weekday may have looked and felt completely different to its inhabitants just a few generations earlier. Oriental Boulevard is one such vestige of a sepia-washed earlier time.