New Airbnb Listing: A 65-Foot-Tall Landmark Named Lucy the Elephant



Feb. 27, 2020

Lucy the Elephant, a six-story tall roadside attraction on the beach in Margate City, N.J., will soon be available to rent from Airbnb.


MARGATE CITY, N.J. — A beloved rebel from a bygone era, she stands as a six-story testament to New Jersey’s brawny brand of seaside kitsch.

Her calendar age is 138, but she wears it well. She has survived hurricanes, mild rot and brushes with fame.

Lucy the Elephant, a national landmark built in 1881 in Margate, a seaside city about five miles south of Atlantic City, is the last of three hulking pachyderms that once stood along the East Coast.

“The oldest surviving example of zoomorphic architecture on Earth,” boasted her human handler and lifelong cheerleader, Richard Helfant.

And she is about to be the object of a publicity stunt befitting her colossal size and in service of her original mission: attracting visitors to the Jersey Shore.

Lucy has been listed on Airbnb. Starting on St. Patrick’s Day. For $138 a night.

“Guests will be transported back in time with a stay inside Lucy the Elephant, one of the last standing pieces of roadside Americana,” Airbnb said in a statement released on Thursday.

Mr. Helfant holds a key to her cavernous heart, opening the door in her left hind foot for daily tours during summers and on weekends in the off-season.

Each year, about 132,000 paying visitors climb a narrow spiral staircase into the belly of the beast. Some continue up the side stairs to Lucy’s ornate howdah, which is perched atop the 65-foot-tall elephant and offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlantic City skyline.

“If you could see the faces of the little kids,” said Mr. Helfant, who has served for 21 years as executive director of a nonprofit responsible for operating and maintaining Lucy. “‘Is she real?’ they ask. ‘Can I touch her? What do you feed it?’”

When Lucy hosts overnight guests, it will actually not be the first time the giant elephant has been inhabited by humans, though it’s been a while.

During one quirky chapter of her storied past, a family of six rented Lucy as their home in 1902. They constructed a second floor within the elephant’s wooden frame, and installed a kitchen and a parlor, according to Jeremy Bingaman, Lucy the Elephant’s educational director. A bathroom was built in the cove of her right shoulder.

The second floor has been removed, and Lucy has no running water, but a white claw-foot tub remains in the tiny bathroom.

Lucy will be available to rent from Mr. Helfant, the Airbnb host, on three days next month, for two guests a night. A staff member and a security guard will be on hand in the nearby gift shop. And a mobile trailer will be positioned at Lucy’s feet to satisfy guests’ toiletry needs.

For now, it’s a three-day offering, but Mr. Helfant said he was open to an extended run.

“When you work for a 90-ton, 138-year-old elephant, nothing is off the table,” he said.

The $138 rental price is a nod to Lucy’s age. Mr. Helfant said the main goal was not rental income, but the power of Airbnb’s global advertising.

He said he hoped the novelty would help to increase awareness of Lucy outside the immediate region, and would draw new customers to offset Lucy’s considerable insurance and operating expenses.

In exchange for bragging rights to the only elephant lodging in the nation, Airbnb outfitted Lucy with Victorian furnishings and made a contribution to the Save Lucy Committee. Neither Airbnb nor Mr. Helfant would disclose the amount.

“It’s sizable,” he said. “It’s extremely generous.”

Guests will sleep in a red-draped canopy bed, and will get a gift card to dine in an area restaurant. Breakfast will be delivered, and can be eaten at a table positioned on a landing just below Lucy’s circular eyes, which glow blue at night in honor of Old Blue Eyes — Frank Sinatra, a native of Hoboken, N.J.

Legend has it that the lights in Lucy’s eyes once served as a signal for rum runners navigating the ocean during Prohibition. They would be lit green if it was safe to come ashore, and red if it wasn't, said Ryan Brown, who sometimes works in Lucy’s well-stocked gift shop.

She has been repeatedly struck by lighting, was briefly condemned after falling into disrepair and was moved — twice. Famous visitors have included former President Woodrow Wilson, Henry Ford and a Sultan of Brunei. In 1976, she was designated a national landmark subject to federal rules and regulation.

“I got yelled at when I painted her toenails,” Mr. Helfant said.

Lucy was built by James V. Lafferty, of Philadelphia, to lure buyers to what was, in the late 1880s, a largely undeveloped tract of land.

He held a patent on the design, Mr. Bingaman, the educational director, said, and it was used to construct Lucy’s even more mammoth cousin, the 12-story Elephantine Colossus in Coney Island in New York, which operated as a hotel. The Light of Asia in Cape May, N.J., was a distant relative, but was not built by Mr. Lafferty.

While Lucy got her start as a real estate office, she became a tavern in the early 20th century that was operated by her second owner, Sophia Gertzen.

Airbnb is known for offering novelty lodging opportunities, like a night in a Goodyear blimp, though Lucy will be one of Airbnb’s most offbeat listings ever, according to a spokeswoman, Liz DeBold Fusco. She said searches for unique lodging — for example, a U.F.O.-shaped pod, a covered wagon or an Idaho potato — increased by 70 percent over the past year.

The mayor of Margate, Michael Becker, said the city owed a debt to Lucy.

“Lucy is Margate’s favorite animal by far,” Mr. Becker said. “Whatever we can do to get some fame for Lucy and the city of Margate is good, as far as I’m concerned.”

“Not many towns have an elephant,” he added.

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