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.