A Casino on the Boards

In the 19th and early 20th century Casino described “a public building where pleasurable activities took place” including dance, music, sports, and, of course, games of chance. Today the term Casino refers specifically to a hall used for gambling. 

The Asbury Park Casino straddles the boardwalk, C A S I N O etched in the bronze plaques above the missing doors, a hall where buskers busk, skateboarders board, and people stroll, or jog or bike south to Ocean Grove and beyond. Clearly the Casino was more than this, something visionary, and you ask yourself, how did we come to this?

asbury park nj casino on the boards

In 1930, 59 years after the founding of Asbury Park, Mayor Hetrick commissioned the esteemed New York architecture firm Warren and Wetmore to build the Casino complex (see the previous ‘New Icons, Asbury Park’ Fun House blogpost for an in-depth look at construction of Convention Hall), expanding his vision for to include “twin solarium pavilions” along the beachfront. Mayor Hetrick envisioned Convention Hall and the Casino Building complex as creating a reliable source of year-round income.  The Warren & Wetmore design created an open hall for trade shows, a national trend that had recently begun in New York. By expanding the hall to house indoor amusements, food stands and dance hall, the vision for a grander Casino Building grew, squeezing the footprint for the steam plant (needed to generate electricity as well as to heat a new natatorium just north along the boardwalk) into a small plot on the doorsteps to Ocean Grove. 

The Casino complex was completed quickly but millions of dollars over budget. The city found itself with a mountain of debt and the country was struggling as the Depression grew. To counter falling property taxes and fewer visitors, the City introduced several mini golf courses in the green spaces between Ocean Avenue and the boardwalk. Mini golf was a hole-in-one that brought families back to the oceanfront and the tradition continues today with Asbury Eighteen in the green space at 3rd Ave and the Boardwalk.

Get Your Skates On
asbury park nj casino building roller skating

Surprisingly, skating had over a century of history, in the Casino Building. In 1905, the original Casino featured an ice-skating rink which Warren & Wetmore included in their 1930 design for the complex, boldly constructing an entire eastern wing on a pier jutting out over the beach reaching the ocean at high tide. The magnificent Casino Building complex was home to games of chance, food concessions, ice skating, and a merry-go-round putting the boardwalk on the map as a premieryear-round Jersey Shore destination. 

The ice-skating rink opened and closed several times, but during WWII, roller skating was king. From 1941-1944 ’America on Wheels’ Roller Skating was a huge success until a hurricane hit in September 1944. (Just a note here – did the hurricane damage something & kept people from coming?) The battle in popularity between ice skating and roller skating ended in the 1980s when the building completely closed for business and sadly, due to improper roof repairs and neglect, the entire eastern wing of the Casino was demolished in 2006. One spark of hope was the skateboard park that opened in the Carousel Building with an amazing skate bowl. Unfortunately, the skateboard park was short-lived.

A Supporting Cast of Boardwalk Businesses

Hot Dogs & Music

In 1922 John and Ida Jacobs opened Mrs. Jay’s, a popular hotdog spot at the corner of Second and Ocean Avenues. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 Mrs. Jay’s expanded into a beer garden with live music. Mrs. Jay’s was sold in 1939 and by the mid-1960s was the Magic Touch, a biker bar with go-go dancers. In 1974 Jack Roig and Butch Paella bought the old Mrs. Jay’s building and opened their nightclub and music venue the Stone Pony. The club initially struggled to find an audience, but it was the Pony’s first house band, the Blackberry Booze Band, that began to draw a crowd. Locals John Lyon and Steve Van Zandt joined the band which evolved into the now iconic Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. The Jukes played three nights a week, cutting their first album “I Don’t Want to Go Home” in 1976 which helped establish the Jersey Shore Sound. Needless to say (or maybe in another blogpost) the rest is history.

Sweet Tooth

Saltwater taffy, it turns out, got its start in the 1880s at the Jersey Shore. Originally made and marketed in Atlantic City, saltwater taffy is “pulled,” the technique of repeated stretching and folding the taffy creating a softer, less sticky candy. In 1923 the candy was so popular that one candy maker tried to trademark “saltwater taffy.”

Louis Karagias brought the saltwater taffy craze to the Asbury Park Boardwalk. Criterion Candies (now Criterion Chocolates) opened in 1929 with lines out the door and soon expanded to a second boardwalk shop, several store locations in nearby Shore towns, and a candy factory in Eatontown. Criterion closed its flagship store in 1993, reopening briefly on the boardwalk in 2012, but continues taffy and candies production in Eatontown. Fun House proudly sells Criterion’s original saltwater taffy, made from its decades-old recipe in Eatontown and has collaborated on a “Greetings from Asbury Park” taffy tin.

Murals Bring Back Renewed Interest in the Casino
asbury park history

In the first decade of the 21st century, the stripped-down hall of the Casino was given a seed of rebirth. Asbury Park gallerist Jenn Hampton and her partner, the artist Porkchop, conceived of a series of murals to revive the Casino shell and its sidekick the Steam Plant. Sheets of plywood covered the abandoned fronts and windows, but they saw these boards as blank canvases, as opportunities to introduce art where there had been little sign for optimism. The original Casino mural was a collaborative project between Porkchop and fellow local artist Bradley Hoffer, with Porkchop painting the northern/right half and fellow artist Bradley Hoffer painting the southern/left half. Bradley Hoffer’s mural will be less familiar to more recent visitors and latest waves of locals as Hoffer’s mural of giant birds were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Porkchop’s half weathered the storm, and he completed the mural that we see today (albeit through peep holes) of his two giant seductive sea maidens.

casino building asbury park nj

Fortunately, another local, carpenter and photographer Jason Stumpf, captured the entirety of Porkchop’s monumental mural with a series of photographs taken during the winter of 2015. Not only did Stumpf capture the breadth of Porkchop's oversized piece but also captured the beauty of the aging architectural and structural elements of the Casino. Stumpf’s meticulous digital editing of the shots gives us an image without the distortion of a wide-angle lens at a distance that a single lens or eye could capture.

sea flapper mural in asbury Park casino

Today, as Asbury Park continues its confident stride towards comeback, the Casino Building continues to deteriorate. The confident, monumental mural by local artist Porkchop of two giant oceanic flappers, an elegant mermaid-octopus and a mermaid-jellyfish, sirens of the deep, study passersby from their water world which has now been boarded over for the safety of pedestrians. Peer through the peepholes and what do you see?

Hot Tea
hot tea artist asbury park nj

In 2019, the Casino was again energized by art. A massive site-specific kinetic yarn sculpture by artist HOT TEA, “One Last Moment Under the Sky,” was installed above the viewer, across the open span of the passageway almost filling the building’s entire width and breadth of the Casino. HOT TEA tells us his great interactive piece of 6,000 strands of suspended strings of yarn in 32 colors represented the sunrise and the sunset with the ocean and land in between. Never planned as a permanent installation “One Last Moment…” not only mesmerized us passersby with its changeable, kinetic vast beauty but it also enchanted viewers nationally on CBS Sunday Morning in its short life in the cavern of the Casino.

Many thanks, again, to Helen Pike for the depth and breadth of her research into what would be a lost history of Asbury Park. Her latest book Asbury Park, A Century of Change was especially helpful. Asbury Park Reborn by Joseph G Bilby & Harry Ziegler was insightful to the history of specific buildings along the boardwalk. Michayle Hazard’s blogpost on The Clio, Percy, artist HOT TEA and curator Jenn Hampton on the Wooden Walls Project Instagram’s page, and CBS Sunday Morning for sharing a moment of our joy that was the HOT TEA installation with the nation.

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