The Coney Island History Project will launch the timely exhibit “50th Anniversary of Fred Trump’s Demolition of Steeplechase Pavilion” this Friday, May 28th. Untapped Cities’ tour guide, Justin Rivers, who leads our “Secrets of Coney Island Tour” says, “Like father, like son,” describing the tragic story of the historic Steeplechase amusement park, demolished by Fred Trump, the father of Donald Trump, using tactics that will seem familiar to those following the Presidential race today.
Steeplechase Park was created by George C. Tilyou, a Coney Island resident inspired by the Hugh Ferris’ famous wheel at the 1898 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Tilyou would bring not only the ferris wheel to Brooklyn, but also the Parachute Jump, the Steeplechase Ride (a horse race/rollercoaster-like combination), miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, many and more iconic amusements.
Steeplechase Park in the 1950s. Photo via Brooklyn Library.
There was plenty of drama surrounding the sale of Steeplechase Park following the death of George Tilyou’s last son. Hoping for a better deal by hiding his identify, Fred Trump entered the bidding for the property by using a proxy by the name of Jimmy Onorato. Fred Trump purchased Steeplechase Park in 1964 with grand hopes to build Trump Village, waterfront housing complex on Coney Island. Coney Islanders believed that Trump would keep the park open until permits were approved for construction.
Faced with legal and community challenges from preservationists and organizations like the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, Trump was unable to get a zoning variance to allow residential development on the property. In a move that would not seem surprising given recent developments, Trump held a “Demolition Party,” hiring scantily clad models to parade in front of the park and encouraged guests to throw bricks at the stained glass windows of the historical Pavilion of Fun at Steeplechase. Then in the night, he bulldozed the amusement to the ground, thereby limiting any pending proceedings for landmarking.
The new exhibit 50th Anniversary of Fred Trump’s Demolition of Steeplechase will examine through photos and oral history the pavilion and the Coney Island personalities that became embroiled with Trump. The demolition of Steeplechase is seen as the final turning point and he beginning of a long decline that would plague Coney Island. According to the book Coney Island Lost and Found by Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project, “When Steeplechase closed and failed to open for the 1965 season, the resulting publicity created a worldwide impression that the whole of Coney Island had closed.”
As the Coney Island History Project describes, over the last decade “Charles Denson interviewed many of the players involved in the loss of Steeplechase and the exhibit reveals many little known facts. Fred Trump had a long lasting effect on Coney Island that goes way beyond the loss of the Pavilion. His racist tenant relocation tactics at the Trump Village development site destroyed the lives of many poor families who were moved to the dilapidated bungalows of Coney’s West End community. None of Trump’s Coney Island projects were without scandal or controversy. This exhibit covers them all.”
Included in the ephemera on exhibit will be an 1823 Toll house sign, referred to as Coney Island’s “first admission ticket” that once denoted the 5 cent toll for a horse and rider to enter the island, an original Steeplechase horse, and “Skully,” the giant skull from Coney Island’s Spookhouse and Spook-A-Rama.
Nonetheless, Denson tells Brooklyn Paper that this is not a political exhibition: “It’s not political in any way, it’s about Coney Island — how did it get this way? How did it develop? To me the real business in Coney Island has always been real estate and this is part of it.”
Coney Island Parachute Jump
Today, Steeplechase Park now hosts MCU Park, the baseball field where the Brooklyn Cyclones play. The Parachute Jump was fortunately landmarked and rehabilitated, still an important landmark on the Coney Island boardwalk.
The Coney Island History Project is next to the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park at West 12th Street. The exhibit 50th Anniversary of Fred Trump’s Demolition of Steeplechase Pavilion opens on May 28th.
Next, check out the Secrets of Coney Island.