The (Pop-Up) Atlantic City Trump Museum

As a public historian interested in heritage tourism, I am always looking out for ways to use local history to draw visitors to our area. Not long after I started Jersey Shore Tours, I decided the opportunity presented by Donald Trump’s nomination for President coinciding with the choice to close the Taj Mahal by Carl Icahn was too good to miss, and I went about writing a “Trump’s Gambling Heritage Tour” of AC. This tour, which I imagined when I wrote it would only be temporary, garnered my fledgling company a great deal of free media, with the Philadelphia Inquirer and our local National Public Radio affiliate the first to cover it. After the Taj closed, and Trump won, press attention went global, with big newspapers in Germany and Spain as well as Japanese Public Television and the BBC News featuring segments on it.

Alongside the media attention, I was also glad for the chance to connect local history to national politics for those members of the public who took the tour, most of whom seemed to appreciate my mix of fact and some satire. However, this was nothing compared to the public reaction and media attention drawn by what seemed to me a logical move following the closing of the Taj and the election of Trump, the creation of an Atlantic City Trump Museum project that would use artifacts and stories to preserve the history of Trump’s involvement in Atlantic City. After discussing the project with some colleagues at Stockton, we put out a release and immediately received interest from a Press of Atlantic City reporter, whose story was picked up the next day by the Associated Press and appeared across the country. Over the next six weeks, the Atlantic City Trump Museum project was the subject of several additional articles by newspapers as far away as the Boston Globe and also appeared on local FOX and NBC news affiliates, though many of those commenting on the idea expressed skepticism and others were overtly against it.

This community reaction was interesting to me because, as a doctoral student then completing a dissertation that included an analysis of Korean War exhibitions, I conceived of an “Atlantic City Trump Museum” as being a bi-partisan space in which to learn about the history of East Coast gambling, and to think critically about President Trump’s previous career as Atlantic City’s most well-known casino mogul. What surprised me most was the way in which people of all political persuasions seemed to assume that any “Trump Museum” would be a shrine to the man who was once the largest employer in Atlantic City, but suffered several bankruptcies and was known to short-change small businesses throughout the area. Moreover, this was the same feedback I faced when I spoke to a Temple undergrad class in the spring of 2017, despite the fact that they had been learning all semester how professional museums were run. This widespread public reaction made me realize that if the Atlantic City Trump Museum project was to move forward at all it would have to based on community engagement and use artifact-heavy exhibits.

That is why I have decided to set-up an upcoming Trump Museum exhibition directly on the AC Boardwalk, in front of the former Trump Plaza, which was the tallest building in town when it opened as a partnership with Harrah’s in 1984. Consisting of artifacts that I have acquired during the last two years, this ‘(Pop-Up) Atlantic City Trump Museum’ exhibit will encourage visitors to examine objects first-hand, to learn where they were produced among other things, while I stand by to offer live curatorial context. The exhibit, which will also play with how the naming of museums impacts our perceptions of them, will be staged from 2-4 every Sunday afternoon in August, following a test run from 2-4 this Sunday, July 29. I encourage you to come learn about Trump’s casinos at one that closed in 2014, and may be torn down in the future, and to learn about The Atlantic City Trump Museum Project at:

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The Newest Historic Site in Ocean City

Ocean City, New Jersey was still known as Peck’s Beach (after a Seventeenth Century whaler) when Parker Miller became the island’s first permanent resident in 1859, farming land near the corner of Asbury Avenue and Seventh Street to supplement his income as a nautical vessel insurance inspector. Across the street, in front of the real estate agency now housed in a tackle store dating to the 1920s, is the starting point of the Footsteps of the Founders Tour that is one of Jersey Shore Tours’ most popular. Just down the block is the Cedar Tree where three members of the Lake family and one other Methodist minister named Bill Burrell formally founded the Ocean City Association in 1879, while over the next few years these men built the first Tabernacle, a school, and several beautiful homes which still stand today.

Some of these buildings would doubtless have survived redevelopment, such as the Queen Anne style ‘Marrying House’ where Reverend Burrell performed nuptials for generations of local residents, or the building directly across Wesley Avenue built by Ezra Lake in 1881 that is now known as ‘Scotch Hall,’ after the women who purchased the site in 1910 to use as a rest home and then as a maternity hospital. However, were it not for the Ocean City Preservation Commission, which oversees their historic district, both smaller fishermen’s bungalows and historic structures like the Stick style Simon Wesley Lake House (built in 1880 across Fifth Street for the first head of the Tabernacle), might have been lost decades ago. Long led by local historian John Loeper, who personally rebuilt his “Northwood Inn” on Fourth Street in 1990, the Commission overseas about 250 properties according to a 2005 article in the New York Times.

Loeper, who is also renowned for his ability to spin a yarn about famous local incidents such as the wreck of the Sindia (which he argues was an inside job), has for the last several years been primarily focused on the community-wide effort to reconstruct the Fourth Street Life-Saving Station, built in 1886. When OC’s Historic District was formally approved in 1993 the Life-Saving Station was added at the last minute, despite it having long been converted to a private home that held lots of hidden areas, at least according to a longtime local (who had once played at the site) when she took my tour two years ago. At that point the building was still shuttered and the reconstruction had hardly begun, although last year I was lucky to bring a tour group by when the historic architects were on site, so could see much progress. Yet despite following media reports closely as the project neared completion, I was wholly unprepared for what I found when I accidentally stumbled upon a VIP tour given by Loeper last Saturday afternoon.

After chatting with Loeper a bit about the process of artifact acquisition and fundraising efforts, which he said required targeted networking and could not have been done “with bake sales,” several prominent residents and their families entered to begin the tour, such as Fred Miller (the good-natured gentleman who wrote the book on Ocean City and contributed funds for the Station’s hardwood floors). Loeper explained that the red linoleum flooring found in the entryway and the kitchen, along with a few other period elements and numerous authentic artifacts, established 1905 as the year of interpretation. While Loeper’s description of beach rescues was riveting, I was perhaps most interested in his discussion of purchasing unused can labels to ‘stock’ the pantry and buying brass in bulk to get one specific artifact. Loeper noted that there is still much work left to be done, such as renovating the unfinished upper floor, while highlighting state-of-the-art re-design elements including an ultra-modern fire suppression system and detailing possibilities for rotating exhibits in the dining room that was once the heart of the station. Indeed, thanks to Loeper’s efforts the future is bright for the nation’s best-preserved Life-Saving Station.

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The Most Historic Town In Atlantic County

Long before Atlantic City was initially founded in 1854, even prior to the carving out of Atlantic County from Gloucester County in February of 1837, what would become the city of Somers Point was first populated in the 1690s. In 1694 the first ferry was established between Beesley’s Point in Cape May County, which had been settled even earlier, and what would become Somers Point, while the next year Quaker John Somers purchased 3,000 acres of property from the same English speculator whose lands were later bought by the founders of Scullville in Egg Harbor Township and Conovertown in Galloway. In 1720 Somers’ son Richard began work on the Somers Mansion, Atlantic County’s first building, which in the nineteenth century had additions made which gave it more of an eclectic Victorian style, complete with wraparound porches. The building was restored to its original Flemish Bond brick form by the WPA in the 1940s and is now being supported by the new non-profit group ‘Patriots for the Somers Mansion.’

In 1737 Judith Somers, Richard’s wife, gave birth to a son named for his father who would serve as a Colonel in charge of the Third Battalion of the Gloucester County Militia in the American Revolution. The Colonel is buried along with his wife Sophia at one of multiple Somers Family plots throughout the community, this one located on the highest point in town, which today sits next to the New York Avenue School building that was constructed in 1914 (and incidentally is where I went to school for Grades 1-6). Colonel Richard Somers’ son, likely the town’s most famous resident, is also honored with a monument on the grounds, though he was buried half a world away. U.S. Navy Commandant Richard Somers was born in 1778 at site of the tavern his father had founded eight years earlier on the corner of Shore Road and Bethel Road, and attended school in Philadelphia before sailing to the Mediterranean with his friend Stephen Decatur in 1804. Although he engaged in numerous naval actions, including the rescue of three hundred sailors that had been captured by Barbary Pirates, Somers is most recalled for the way he died.

Commanding the U.S.S. Intrepid, a captured pirate ship that some sources say was rechristened again as the U.S.S. Inferno before battle, Somers perished while en-route to Tripoli harbor after having converted his vessel into a fire ship rigged to explode adjacent to enemy boats. Somers and twelve of his crew were buried at a Protestant Cemetery in Libya, though efforts are ongoing to find a diplomatic way to bring their bodies back to the United States. Somers himself is widely remembered throughout the nation with at least six naval warships named in his honor dating back to the 1840s and a marker at the Naval Academy in Annapolis founded that same decade, while in the town that was named for his great-grandfather he now has a bust dedicated in 2013 sitting next to a mural describing his life (and death) painted just two years later. This mural sits on the wall of an addition created after an old City Hall, built in 1906 in an Italianate style, was converted into the town library, which allowed the old church built in 1886 that had been serving as the community’s library to become the Somers Point Historical Museum, only a few blocks away from the Atlantic County Historical Society ‘s museum that was founded in 1913.

The old City Hall site and the two museums sit just across Shore Road from the Bayfront Historic District, which was established in 1989 on the National Register of Historic Places following community frustration at the destruction of one of the town’s iconic houses the year before to create a parking lot. This area of town is home to numerous homes and businesses constructed from the 1880s through the 1920s, making it one of the most coherent such historic districts in the country, and is home to a range of once popular architectural styles from bungalows to Queen Anne Victorians as well as a monument to locals who defended the community in the War of 1812, which was constructed in 1923. Having grown up in one such home, built by Captain Charles Steelman and his wife Elvira in 1892, I was glad to become Secretary of the Somers Point Historical Preservation Commission, which was created a century later to protect as much of the historical architecture in the neighborhood as possible as we move into a future where my community is now known for, among other things, the country’s largest crabbing tournament.

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The Most Historic Hotel in Atlantic City

Atlantic City was initially founded in 1854 to create a seashore resort as close to the factories of Philadelphia as possible. Before incorporation much of the land was owned by Revolution vet Jeremiah Leeds, who settled his family near what would become Brighton Park, at the intersection of Park Place and the Boardwalk. In a few years rooming houses dotted the strand, often replaced by the turn of the twentieth century with Second Empire Style Victorian hotels with their mansard roofs full of windows. By 1930 several grand palaces had been built along the Boardwalk, too few of which remain today, with the iconic Marlborough-Blenheim and sandcastle-shaped Traymore among those lost to wrecking balls. Other hotels built during this hey-day of Atlantic City, when first Commodore Kuehnle and then Nucky Johnson ran things, include the Dennis (now part of the Bally’s complex) and the Chalfonte/Haddon Hall, home of the Thomas England General Hospital during WWII and now the centerpiece of Resorts Casino.

The most memorable Atlantic City hotel created in this era was also the most modern, with the Claridge when completed in 1930 boasting an early form of air conditioning, and is now its most historic. Philadelphia-based architect John McShain, who would later create the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and the Pentagon, designed the twenty-four floor Claridge, which quickly became knowns as “The Skyscraper by the Sea” thanks to elements recalling a Manhattan roofline. Like the Ritz-Carlton several blocks away, the Claridge included hot and cold running fresh and salt water faucets in each guest room, with the idea being that bathing in salt-water had healthful benefits. Many famous faces stayed at the Claridge over the decades from the 1930s to the 1970s, before the site was temporarily transformed into “the Claridge Hotel and Hi-Ho Casino” (later “Del Webb’s Claridge”) in 1981, including Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Al Capone, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe, who lodged there while serving as Grand Marshall of the Miss America pageant. Moreover, much national history has run through the Claridge.

In November of 1943, after having housed the Army Air Corps for more than a year, the Claridge was chosen to host the new United Nations as it staged the first Relief and Rehabilitation Administration World Conference, whose stated goal was to “shorten the war and save the peace.” At this little-recalled meeting of the forty-four nations actively engaged in the fight against fascism, future U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson signed a pact with British Ambassador Lord Halifax and Soviet representative Andrei Gromyko , while one Polish dignitary even noted that he brought “from Atlantic City a feeling of warm gratitude” for “the management and staff of the Claridge.” Two decades later, in August of 1964, the Democratic National Convention was held at the old Convention Center now known as Boardwalk Hall, which brought to town many important individuals, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who stayed at the Claridge during the event. Indeed, according to a 1975 New York Times article, Dr. King and his party were given rooms 1901, 1902, and 1923, which allowed them to be wiretapped by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.

Confronting such checkered episodes, the Claridge now partners with the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, named for Atlantic City’s once-segregated beachfront block, to put on an annual Jazz Concert series that helps raise funds for the organization’s local community programs. Since being purchased by the Radisson Company several years ago, the Claridge has also embraced its past as a way to separate itself from other hotels by creating period pubs like Malcolm’s Lounge and a Twenties Bistro, though their finest feature may be the VUE rooftop bar, which offers the very best views of Atlantic City. Perhaps most importantly (at least for this column) the Claridge will also be the home to a kick-off party for the 48 Blocks Arts Festival, which will feature your- truly fully in-character portraying Nucky Johnson, that is taking place this Friday June 22 from 6-8 PM in the Ocean View Room, with tickets only $10 each.

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The Maritime Museum In Linwood

For Those Interested In The Local History Of Shipbuilding There Is No Better Place To Visit Than The Linwood Historical Society’s Maritime Museum. From Baymen’s Tools To Models Of Ocean City Area Wrecks Such As The Sindia, The Museum Is A Treasure Trove Highlighting Our Local Maritime Heritage. To Learn More About The Site Visit The Historical Society’s Webpage:

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The People Who Live Near The Ocean

The Inhabitants Of The Area Around Atlantic City, Somers Point, And Cape May County Have Been Associated With The Water Since Before The First English Speaking Colonists Settled Here. In Fact The Branch Of The Larger Lenni Lenape Native American Nation That Lived In South Jersey Was Known As The Unalachtigo, Which Means “People Who Live Near The Ocean.” To Learn More About The Unalachtigo Check Out This Article:

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Welcome To The NEW Jersey Shore Public History Blog

After A Three Year Lay-Off, We Are Proud To Announce The Re-Launch Of Jersey Shore Public History As The Official Blog Of Jersey Shore Tours. This Blog Will Provide Periodic Updates About The Local History, Architectural Heritage, And Marine Ecology Of Coastal Atlantic And Cape May Counties, Especially Atlantic City, Ocean City, And Somers Point.

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