An old souvenir picture book of Asbury Park proclaims, "In 1869 the land on which the City of Asbury Park now stands was nothing but forest and sand dunes without house or habitat." James A. Bradley, a developer and visionary, changed all that. He discovered the land that was to become Asbury Park while vacationing in Ocean Grove, a Methodist retreat situ-ated immediately to the south of the city. As described in his diary, Bradley happened upon the area and recognizing its resort potential, quickly began negotiations for its purchase. On January 24, 1871, Bradley acquired approximately 500 acres of land contained east of the railroad, between Wesley and Deal lakes, for approximately $90,000. He named his community Asbury Park after Francis Asbury, the founder of Methodism in America.
Between 1871 to the time of his death in 1921, Bradley was deeply involved in every aspect of the development of Asbury Park. He planned the layout of the area before the first structure was built. He set aside park lands and waterfront areas. The urban scale blocks, remarkable in the 100-foot width of the avenues, flaring to 200 feet at the ocean, to this day provide a feeling of spaciousness often lacking in seaside resorts.
Asbury Park Arcade, 1908
[Courtesy Jersey Shore Postcard Page]
Bradley took full advantage of the natural assets surrounding and contained within the tract of land he purchased. The land surrounding the three lakes within city limits were designed as public areas. He planned a plank walk along the ocean for strolling and restful enjoyment of the shore area. Bradley wanted a special character for Asbury Park and donated land to religious and civic groups, offering only large residential lots. Most of the churches front 100-foot-wide Grand Avenue and are surrounded by large Victorian-style "summer" homes. The religious area is contained around Library Square Park. The library, a lovely example of turn-of-the-century architecture, was built on land donated by Bradley. The commercial areas of Main Street and Cookman Avenue were all planned in advance. Bradley had traveled extensively in Europe and incorporated into the planning for Asbury Park ideas already proven successful on the Continent. The result of his planning and attention to detail gives Asbury Park a distinctly unique appearance, somewhat like a mini-Paris, rather than the usual randomly developed American town.
In the beginning, the town took on the appearance of the typical pioneer town. Understandably, as all the original structures were wooden, Bradley organized the first fire department, the Wesley Steam Fire-Engine Company No. 1, within the first year of development. As Asbury Park was intended as a year-round community, the first school session was held in 1872 in a room in Park Hall, the first building erected by Bradley. The building, no longer standing, also served as headquarters for all business, social and religious activities during Asbury's early years.
Monterey Hotel, Asbury Park, 1916
[Courtesy Jersey Shore Postcard Page]
Washington White erected the first store in Asbury Park. It was later enlarged and in 1873 became the Lake View Hotel, the city's first hotel. Asbury Park's first post office was established in October 1874, with Bradley as the first Postmaster. The Asbury Park Journal, established January 29, 1876 by Bradley as a weekly newspaper, was printed by the Brooklyn Eagle until June 1878.
When Bradley started developing the city, the railroad did not stop in Asbury Park; Bradley provided horse-drawn coaches to pick up vacationers at the train depot in Long Branch, the resort town to the north. By 1877 several large hotels had been established, notably the Coleman House, which occupied an entire city block on Ocean Avenue between Asbury and First avenues.
Asbury Park, in 1881, was the first seaside resort on the American continent to adopt a perfect sanitary sewer system. Water was supplied to the city from the very beginning from artesian wells. An opera house, on Sewall Avenue near Grand, was erected in 1882. It had a seating capacity of twelve hundred.
In 1885, a trolley system was constructed that circulated from the train station through the shopping district and beachfront and then through the residential areas near Deal Lake to Main Street and back to the station. Asbury Park's trolley system was the second electric system in the United States; previous trolleys were horse drawn. Asbury Park was the first community of the Monmouth County coast to use the electric light service provided by the Asbury Park Electric Light and Power Co. starting June 20, 1885.
Asbury Park Boardwalk, 1971
[Courtesy Jersey Shore Postcard Page]
The early Boardwalk was really a plank walk, consisting of portable planks. Bradley built a fishing pier, eventually enlarged the Boardwalk and began placing old boats and carriages along side it for the amusement of children. The Steeplechase, a forerunner of the modern roller coaster ride, was built between Second and Third avenues; a merry-go-round and Ferris wheel were built near Wesley Lake in the 1890s.
By 1890, there were over a dozen hotels that could accommodate better than 2500 guests and more than 1000 guest cottages. The first "Baby Parade" was held in 1890 and became a yearly event. In less than 25 years Asbury Park had become renowned throughout the country for its grandeur. In 1903, Bradley sold the Boardwalk and beachfront to the city. The city rapidly set about redeveloping the area and soon the Boardwalk could boast such grand structures as the Esplanade, Beach Natatorium, 7th Avenue Pavilion, and the original Casino. A fishing pier was built at the foot of First Avenue that extended 500 feet into the surf. Men in white straw hats and women in white-linen, bustled dresses, carrying lace-trimmed umbrellas, would promenade the length of the mile-long boardwalk. In the evenings, bands would play for the enjoyment of the promenaders. In 1904, Arthur Pryor, who had once been a member of the John Phillip Sousa band, began a series of concerts that performed each summer on the Boardwalk.
In 1906, Asbury Park doubled its size by annexing the area west of the railroad, then known as West Park and part of Neptune Township. Asbury Park continued to grow. Soon the commercial section included four banks. The magnificent post office building, after moving three times, was finally located in 1909 at its present site on Main Street. The post office is included on both the State and National Register of Historic Places. Steinbach's Department store, built in 1912, soon became the leading retail establishment for the entire northern shore area. The Cookman Avenue shopping district was exceptionally prosperous, attracting vacationers, local and regional shoppers.
On April 5, 1917, Asbury Park experienced its greatest fire. Four blocks of hotels, boarding houses and residences, part of the Boardwalk, and the First Methodist Episcopal church, a total of over 50 buildings, were destroyed.
Asbury Park Casino, 1996
Asbury Park recovered from the fire and severe devastation caused by a winter storm in 1923 with a building boom. Among the buildings built during this rejuvenation were the Santander, long known as a posh summer apartment house, the Berkeley-Carteret, Convention Hall and the Casino. The Casino and Convention Hall were designed by the architects Warren and Wetmore, who designed New York's Grand Central Station. Convention Hall, a unique structure, also included on the State and National Register, would fit comfortably on St. Mark's Square in Venice.
Asbury Park Convention Hall, 1996
The hall, presently earmarked for extensive changes, has hosted performances by world-famous entertainers, trade shows and folk festivals. The Casino, located at the south end of the Boardwalk, is presently considered eligible for listing on the Register of Historic Places. The circular Carousel structure, attached to the Casino, resembles a royal crown, a fitting symbol for this jewel of a city.
Cookman Avenue, to a large degree, still retains the look of an early twentieth-century shopping center. The bank buildings, built in this section of the city, remain as outstanding examples of the architecture of that era.
The area west of the railroad began to be settled as early as the 1880s by people needed as support staff for the many large hotels, and numerous services provided for the tourist trade. There are small cottage developments on the west side that appear to be untouched by time.
By the 1930s, the city had become "the" place to be on the Jersey Shore. There was a swan boat and paddle boats on Wesley Lake, pony rides and miniature golf on Ocean Avenue. A foot bridge crossed Ocean Avenue near the Berkeley-Carteret, providing easy access to the many pavilions, several of which provided both fresh- and salt-water swimming pools. During the evenings, noted "Big Bands" played at the various pavilions for dancing.
Asbury Park got through World War II gasoline rationing and wartime shortages by having the British Navy take over the Monterey and Berkeley-Carteret and the British Army take over the Kingsley Arms.
Asbury Park Boardwalk, 1996
The post-war years brought drastic changes in the lifestyle of the average American. Slowly but steadily those changes took their toll on Asbury Park. One-stop shopping centers, which included movie theaters, began the decline of the commercial business district. Better roads and greater prosperity provided the opportunity for vacations further from home. Air travel came within the means of the average citizen. Asbury Park was by then well established as a year-round community, and to a large extent self-sustaining. Asbury Park had so much going for it by then that the effects were at first imperceptible.
By the late 1960s, when Bruce Springsteen first came of age, he could only see a vision of an Asbury Park that was declining, but Springsteen's vision has already disappeared. The City Council started implementing a plan for revitalization; the changed economy has made it necessary to go back to square one, forcing the council to revise plans for a "new" renewal.
Asbury Park has experienced renewal several limes before, coming back after fires, hurricanes and economic hard times in the past. The council has had to call in experts in the past, and finally move on to turn things around. The process of change has never been rapid in the past, not for Asbury Park, nor for other cities going through a rebirth, but like the Phoenix of Egyptian mythology, Asbury Park has always managed to rise again.
A very convenient location and great infrastructure will again be the features that bring Asbury Park back to prominence.
Copyright ©1991 by Florence J. Moss