Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lost in History vol. 54: Childs Restaurant A-Go-Go!

Roller skating will return to Coney Island! At long last, a glimmer of hope at this terminally threatened oceanfront paradise: the addition, on the boardwalk, of an all-ages, wholesome family activity won’t spur constant complaints about the death of working-class amusement parks and “the way things used to be.” What a relief that not everything at Coney is going out via Thor Equities’ wrecking ball — we’ll always have lace-up skates and a booming sound system, hopefully playing Brooklyn locals the Bee Gees. And what better place to have it than in Childs — the historic and landmarked restaurant space at West 21st sSreet on the boardwalk, on the western fringe of the amusement district.

Childs was a famous New York restaurant chain at the turn of last century — sort of a local, franchised Korean-owned buffet-style deli market. Opened in 1889 by William and Samuel Childs, the eateries were known for their oysters, white tile walls (which emphasized cleanliness and discouraged loitering) and self-service standards. Their first shop opened on Cortlandt Street, which has a non-functioning subway stop for the R and W trains, but no actual street: Cortlandt was de-mapped when the Twin Towers were built in 1971. Later Childs restaurants even had table service and more expensive menus, catering to the moneyed crowd – the flagship Childs, opened in 1925, was at 604 Fifth Avenue. (Thanks, Encyclopedia of New York City!) In 1961, the Riese corporation bought out the Childs empire, and converted many of the stores into fast-food joints — in fact, the flagship Childs is a T.G.I. Friday’s today, smack in the heart of Rockefeller Center.

Luckily (depending on how one sees luck,) no such Fridayification was in store for the Coney Island Childs. Built in 1923 by the architects Dennison & Hirons, the space is a huge open-air single-level hall, moderately interrupted with pillars, which are necessary to support the roof. The terra-cotta façade has whimsical nautical themes of lobsters, fishes, ships, seahorses and more; four gorgeous crests adorn the front wall, including Neptune and his trident, a Venetian Galleon, curious fishes and other maritime images. The terra cotta adornments were glazed with bright colors, some of which are visible on the building even today. The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company, in their September 1924 publication, referred to the Childs building as being reminiscent of Coney in its “carnival spirit [which] demands color; it permits almost anything. Childs Restaurant strikes a new note of beauty in surroundings that are naturally festive.”

And it’s going to be a roller rink! After decades of derelict abandonment and ugly graffiti (unlike Creative Time’s Dreamland Artist Club, a 2005 project that can still be seen today), Taconic Investments, the other big-name development organization down at Coney (one with a little bit of public support behind them for, you know, not ramming high-rise lux condos down Coney’s throat), offered Diana Carlin, aka Lola Staar , the space to develop the rink after she had won a "make your dreams come true" contest sponsored by Glamour magazine and Tommy Hilfiger. (So sayeth the Post, via www.gowanuslounge.blogspot.com) Taconic has a 49-year lease on the building. The rink is scheduled to open March 22nd. That’s two weeks away! Strap on those skates kids, and have a drink at Ruby's, the last historic dive on the boardwalk — because next spring there’s a good chance that one of the two will be gone. Definitely not Childs.

(originally published on 3/10/8 on www.thelmagazine.com)

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