Asbury Park has a richly diverse history. Much of it is entwined with rock and roll. But the residential resort has a story that
begins in those important years immediately following the Civil War when individuals resumed building this great nation.
In 1871 and for $90,000, Mrs. Louis Elting sold 500 acres she had inherited on the New Jersey coast to New York brush maker James A. Bradley. A hay fever sufferer and teetotaler, Bradley believed the country-by-the-sea parcel, complete with three lakes and towering trees, would make for an idyllic community where residents and visitors could restore the holy trinity of mind, body, and soul.
In that spirit, Bradley named his real estate investment after Francis Asbury, the first ordained Methodist bishop in America. In 1921, on the eve of the city’s golden anniversary, municipal leaders posthumously honored Bradley with a statue in a park that bears his name.
By then, Asbury Park’s participation in the City Beautiful movement was clearly visible. Lushly landscaped parks complemented the stunning, mile-long beachfront. The original cherry trees surrounding Sunset Lake commemorated the 1912 accord in foreign relations between the United States and Japan. A specimen garden grew in Library Square.
Names of nationally-known religious, political, and civic figures graced many of the wide avenues: the influential Holiness leader Reverend Alfred Cookman; founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Henry Bergh, and morals crusader Anthony Comstock.
Numbered cross streets flared at their eastern ends to funnel the ocean’s breezes into the interiors of magnificently architected Victorian homes. Manicured gardens testified to property owners’ enthusiastic interest in horticulture.
Meanwhile, new public buildings embraced the wide-ranging Beaux Arts aesthetic of order, dignity and harmony. Notable examples vary from the Italianate style of the famed Steinbach family’s department store in the historic heart of the downtown to the exuberant design of the Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall complex on the Boardwalk.
Eminent New York architect Whitney Warren planned the latter along with the nearby and now-named Berkeley Oceanfront Hotel and the Casino Arcade and Carousel House that, respectively, overlook the Boardwalk and Wesley Lake. Using the Boardwalk as a backdrop, in 1890 Asbury Park had inaugurated the seashore’s first Baby Parade.
The United States Post Office as well as banks contributed their own vocabulary to the streetscape from Greco-Roman to Romanesque to Dutch Colonial Revival. The electric utility sent an architect from its Chicago headquarters, Frank Case, to oversee construction of an eleven-story Art Deco skyscraper; the north Jersey shore’s first elevator building opened its doors in 1927.
So did the new Asbury Park High School. It not only stands as an example of neoclassical architecture but also for a renewed commitment to a liberal arts curriculum that meets 21st century expectations. History happened here, too. In the late 1940s, its athletic field fronting on Deal Lake hosted one of the first racially integrated baseball games when the New York Yankees pitched against the Brooklyn Dodgers who had just signed Jackie Robinson.
Keenly aware of the harmful effects of airborne diseases, Bradley installed the region’s first modern sewer system. Resident doctors founded what is today Jersey Shore University Medical Center in neighboring Neptune. Health care professionals who embrace western as well as eastern medicine continue the tradition of healing the body and mind.
Though the original vision of one man, thousands of new arrivals shaped Asbury Park. They came not only from around the Garden State and the South, but also from Italy, Germany, Lebanon, Greece, Ireland, Croatia, France, Armenia, China, and the Caribbean islands.
AP LibraryTheir cultural legacy is found in the city’s vibrant churches and on the menus of an astonishing variety of restaurants that is unrivaled on the Jersey shore. Not surprisingly, the city boasts a professional culinary program at the high school that is complete with a bakery and restaurant. It is open to the public during the academic year.
Asbury Park counts many international celebrities as its own: film actors Danny DeVito and Jack Nicholson; Rome Olympics track competitor Frank Budd; Vogue magazine’s first editor-in-chief Edna Woolman Chase; comedian Bud Abbott; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Margaret Widdemer; Society of American Travel Writers founder Lowell Thomas; professional wrestler Bam Bam Bigelow, and movie mogul Walter Reade who opened New Jersey’s first talking picture house in 1927.
Setting the pace for the city’s new-found interest in pop-culture museums is the Stephen Crane House. The war correspondent and realism author of the Red Badge of Courage spent his formative years here. His teenage home is the only one preserved in America and is frequently opened to the public with programs devoted to the written word.
The city’s role as an art and performance incubator for aspiring musicians, actors, playwrights, poets and artists has remained a constant throughout its history. But the lead belongs to music. It can be heard all over the Asbury Park, from religious and patriotic hymns to opera and folk; from rhythm and blues and the ragtime tunes of legendary composer Arthur Pryor to the rock anthems of icon Bruce Springsteen.
For residents and visitors, alike, the Asbury Park experience truly is a never-ending renaissance.
Helen-Chantal Pike is the author of nine books including the award-winning Asbury Park's Glory Days: The Story of an American Resort (Rutgers/2005). It is a follow-up narrative to her ground-breaking pictorial research on Asbury Park's founding history, Images of America: Asbury Park (Arcadia/1997).
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