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ATZ’s inside look at a rarely photographed Coney Island building begins at the entrance to the long vacant bank on West 12th Street across from Coney Island USA. The public hasn’t had access to the Bank of Coney Island building since the 1990s, when sideshow operator Bobby Reynolds moved into the defunct bank with his museum of curiosities.

Today the 1923 Classical Revival style Bank of Coney Island could be draped in black bunting and a rephrasing of Dante’s “Abandon hope all ye who enter….” Abandon hope of this historic building surviving in the upzoned Coney Island. The Bank of Coney has been sentenced to the circle of hell reserved for buildings considered unlikely to win landmark designation from the powers that be. Is it destined for demolition? Probably. The City of New York has rezoned the lot to accommodate one of the four high rise “hotels” placed on the south side of Surf Avenue by city planners. The Coney Island Rezoning Plan was passed by the City Council in July.

In recent years, the building has been among the historic structures kept empty and shuttered by Coney Island’s largest property owner Thor Equities.

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These photos were taken last year by a potential tenant who was interested in leasing and rehabbing the bank building to open a business for the 2009 season. Alas, Joe Sitt’s price to lease the property– $500,000– was too steep. Same story on the west side of Jones Walk, which remained shuttered and devoid of activity all summer. One tenant from last season was told the rent for his stand on the Walk had tripled from $8,000 to $24,000. ATZ was given these photos of the bank building months ago, but we made the decision not to post them until the season was over. Photos of vacant buildings and shuttered stores are bad for business because they tend to reinforce the public misperception that all of Coney Island is closed. Coney Island is open and not only that, it’s open year round!

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Delving into the history of the Bank of Coney Island, we found this description of the building in the city’s resource list: “The limestone-clad 3-story building has a double-height arched entrance flanked by pilasters, two double-height arched windows with keystones, a projecting cornice, and an attic story. The north façade is a nondescript party wall where there used to be an adjoining building. On the West 12th Street façade, the arched entrance and windows have been boarded up, as have the attic windows, and the façade details appear to have been removed from the southwest corner.”

William J. Ward (1867-1937), the founder of the Bank of Coney Island and its president for two decades, was inducted into the Coney Island Hall of Fame in 2008. “The Wards were early Coney pioneers, and the family, which still owns Jones Walk, is the last of the original landowners from the 1870s,” said Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project at the Hall of Fame ceremony in August 2008. “William Ward was the proprietor of the block-long Ward’s Baths and Ward’s carousel, roller coaster, and kiddie park.” Ward was also the developer of the Half Moon Hotel and president of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce.

The Ward family has since closed on the sale of their Coney Island property to the City. As for the Thor-owned Bank of Coney Island building, the Coney Island Rumor Mill is sayin’ Joe Sitt will sell all of his Coney property except Stillwell to the city after the election. If Mayor Mike gets re-elected. No matter who ends up owning the Bank of Coney, the best chance for its survival is the Municipal Art Society‘s recommendation that the city decrease the incentive to develop low rise buildings on lots where the FAR (floor to area ratio) has been increased. As MAS’s Lisa Kersavage testified at the City Planning Commission hearing in May: “The City should consider a follow up corrective action that would create a designated area eligible for the transfer of development rights from landmarks, comparable to the Grand Central Subdistrict. This catchment area (or subdistrict) should be a place appropriate for higher density development north of Surf Avenue.”

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“The Bank of Coney Island building ceased being a bank circa 1990 and Bobby Reynolds moved there in 1992,” recalls Dick Zigun, whose Sideshows by the Seashore moved to West 12th Street from the Boardwalk in 1996. That summer the tabloids had fun writing about duelling sideshows on opposite sides of the street. After Reynolds and his two headed babies went back to California, the building fell vacant and was plundered. “The owner, Mike Weiss, had a salvage company come in and rip out each and every door and each and every fixture,” says Zigun. “The vandals broke in and stole the copper wiring and plumbing. The salvage company built a big pile of garbage in a corner and eventually it caught fire. There is smoke damage, water damage, etc. but the building is structurally sound.”

Coney Island USA received a grant from the JM Kaplan Fund in 2004 to “protect the legacy of old Coney Island.” Says Zigun: “Our grant from the Kaplan Fund to hire an architectural historian and do proper nominations for landmarks was only enough money to pay for five buildings and we stretched it to six. The six nominations was an arbitrary list based on finances not architectural merit. The bank was #7 on our list so it was not nominated which does not mean it is not worth saving. It would be a natural for a nightclub or music or theatre venue.”

The Municipal Art Society had the bank building on their list of seven to save in Coney Island when MAS testified at City Planning in May 2009. Among the other structures identified by CIUSA, MAS and Save Coney Island are Nathan’s Famous, Henderson’s Music Hall, Shore Hotel, Childs Restaurant (CIUSA Building), the Grashorn Building, and the Shore Theater. “Under the NYC Landmarks Law, structures can be designated as landmarks for architectural, historical and cultural reasons,” said MAS’s Lisa Kersavage. “Although some of these structures have been altered over the years, their ties to the legendary Coney Island of the past gives them a cultural significance that should be recognized and protected.”

According to Zigun, discussions with Landmarks suggests that they probably will landmark the Coney Island USA building and the Shore Theater. “They are still discussing Nathan’s so there is still room for hope,” he says.

UPDATE August 14, 2010:

We’re sorry to report the demolition permit for the bank building was issued yesterday– Friday the 13th. It was no surprise because on Wednesday the sidewalks around the Thor-owned building were being dug up to disconnect sewer and water lines in preparation. How inexpressibly sad to see the potential here and what will be gone forever in a matter of days. Don’t bother calling the DOB to complain either. It’s final! According to the permit: “This job is not subject to the Department’s Development Challenge Process. For any issues, please contact the relevant borough office.” Yeah we have an issue. A piece of Coney Island’s history is being sacrificed to the mighty Thor. Joe Sitt will soon have another empty lot to add to his collection of empty lots.

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Related posts on ATZ…

November 24, 2010: Photo of the Day: R.I.P. Bank of Coney Island

June 14, 2010: Thor’s Coney Island: Caution! Asbestos Removal at Doomed Bank

April 21, 2010: Thor’s Coney Island: Tattered Tents, Deathwatch for Historic Buildings

March 3, 2010: Thor’s Coney Island: What Stillwell Looked Like Before Joe Sitt

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