Text and above photo by Rick Ouellette
Opened in 1929 and designed by the same architects who conceived of Grand Central station in New York (Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore), the Asbury Park Casino was a monumental Beaux Arts complex that spread out over both sides of the boardwalk in what was then one of New Jersey’s premier oceanside resorts. Behind its ornamental limestone and concrete façade was a concert hall, a cinema, and indoor ice-skating rink, arcades, restaurants, and even year-round accommodations.
In the antique postcard world, the complex looked the very ideal of City Beautiful movement.
The Casino (so defined here as a place of entertainment, not gambling) anchored the southern end of the Asbury beachfront. The northern end featured another immense structure that straddled the boardwalk: the equally grand Convention Center and Paramount Theater. In between were all sorts of amusements, rides, and eateries. Asbury Park along with other similarly structured cities on the Jersey Shore, had their heyday in the simpler times of 50 to 100+ years ago, when the living was more modest and long-distance vacation destinations far less accessible.
While places like Atlantic City and Wildwood still hold forth to a greater or lesser degree, Asbury Park took a massive body blow that has been especially hard to come back from. And it wasn’t just shifting societal trends or superhighways and jumbo jets that caused this decline. Mass riots in the city that broke out on July 4th, 1970 and raged for days. When it was over, the main business avenue of the city’s African-American neighborhood burned down, most of it was never rebuilt.
The windswept boardwalk started looking like a ghost town, but at the same time a tightly-knit (and racially integrated) community of rock ‘n’ roll and soul musicians started making a big noise in local nightclubs like the Stone Pony and Upstage. Chief among them, of course, was a young, determined and ambitious Bruce Springsteen, who hailed from nearby Freehold. A postcard of the city would adorn the cover of his debut album, 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” Though there are no direct references to the town (there would be plenty on his next album’s standout ballad “Sandy”), there is a more subtle and symbolic allusion. In the first verse of the first song, the classic word-drunk rave-up “Blinded by the Light,” Bruce is “trippin’ the merry-go-round” between adolescence and young adulthood with a colorful cast of characters. But the background scenery is not as fresh with promise—by the end of the verse “the calliope crashed to the ground.”
And so it would be for the Casino. The building lost favor and deteriorated, attractions closed and the painted ponies were auctioned off. On my first visit to AP in 1995, the circular Carousel House now was a games arcade, the rest of the complex was shuttered. In the back corner of the arcade, you could see what remained of the skating hall (see top photo) giving some idea of the great interior scale of the place. At that time, the beachside part of the Casino was still standing. But disinvestment and the ravages of time and tide and storms would eventually lead to demolition.
My second visit to Asbury Park, in 2017, saw half of it gone, the walk-thru was thrashed, enlivened only by the bright and sensuous mermaid murals. The Carousel House is still the only part of it that’s open, nowadays used as an indoor skateboard park.
A renovation of what is left looks unlikely, although it is on the city’s wish list. But Asbury Park is a funny place: it seems to be in a tug-of-war between decay and rejuvenation. The town has a strong arts and LGBQT community, condos are going up, and the music scene is still a factor.
At this late date it is hard to see how AP could ever sustain two large-scale complexes, especially given the lofty architectural standards of a bygone era. The Convention Center and Paramount are in good shape, a new restaurant has taken over the great old space-age Howard Johnson’s and further up the boardwalk is the wonderful Silverball Retro Arcade and the fortune-telling booth of Bruce’s late friend Madam Marie: still run by her family. So there is still plenty of life left in Asbury Park. But for the Casino, it may be a case of the bigger they come they harder they fall or, in the best case, the smaller they’ll be if ever re-habbed.