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1888

On an unusually warm Monday, Feb. 20, 1888, Ernest S. Schnitzler set out to build a pleasure palace at the corner of Lake Avenue and Kingsley Street in Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Bad timing.

Schnitzler's contract called for local workmen to remove planks from a 100 foot by 190 foot skating rink known as the Surf Palace for reuse "as far as possible" in the construction of the new building. During the first two weeks, temperatures in the high 40s created perfect working conditions. Suddenly, torrential rains hit on the evening of March 12, temperatures plunged to zero, and the worst blizzard in U.S. history lashed the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine.

Asbury Park amusements pioneer Ernest Schnitzler. Photo courtesy of Peter Lucia. view larger image
The National Weather Service estimated that the storm, driven by ferocious winds, dumped more than 40 inches of snow on New Jersey and New York. Over 400 people died, more than 100 of them sailors at sea. The New York Stock Exchange closed for the first time ever, and travel was so impossible that in New York City, officials decided it was time to consider a subway. In Asbury Park, snow drifted up to second floor windows, ending any thought of construction for weeks.

Bad as it was, not even the "Great White Hurricane" discouraged Ernest Schnitzler from pursuing his dream.

By June 1, the four-sided Victorian pavilion was nearly done. Asbury Park carpenter William. B. Stout had built a 93-foot by 100-foot one-story structure. Local roofer Joseph L. Seamon covered the double hip roof with 11,300 square feet of felt roofing. At ground level, wood frame doors with colored glass slid along horizontal rails, while higher up, a band of windows separated the lower and upper hip roofs. Inside, there were no partitions or finishes, leaving an exposed framing system.

In a sense, it was big box.

Not, however, just any box. For Ernest Schnitzler, Asbury Park's amusements pioneer, was expecting people - lots of people - and he needed a particular kind of box. One with space. One with class. One worthy of housing a gem.

The Palace in 1891, from the collection of Christopher Flynn.

Born in Cologne, Germany on May 26, 1852, Schnitzler emigrated as a baby to Camden, New Jersey, where he learned the mercantile trade from his father. In the early 1880s, he bought a hotel and sea-water bathing business in Atlantic City, then sold it to finance his entry into the amusements business. He bought an Atlantic City merry-go-round and operated it for a year, then sold it. At age 35, he moved up the coast to Asbury Park, which was rapidly evolving into a top tier summer resort.

The Asbury Park which greeted Schnitzler and his wife Mary bore the traits of its founder, James A. Bradley - cosmopolitan and yet with a heavy Methodist influence to dampen the impulses toward gambling, liquor and prostitution that defined the reputation of near-by Long Branch. Asbury Park featured several smart hotels and all of the conveniences that the late 19th century had to offer, including electricity, pumped artesian well water, a centralized sewer and drainage system, and one of the earliest telephone systems in New Jersey. Amenities of that sort appealed to the congenial crowd, and more than 600,000 people a year vacationed there during the summer season.

Schnitzler's big box at Kingsley and Lake was for them, the men in top hats and the women with their parasols, the summer folk who rode the railroad from New York City and middle New Jersey to enjoy the mile-and-a-quarter stretch of oceanfront Asbury. They walked Bradley's boardwalk, took in performances in the orchestra pavilion, visited the public baths and strolled the pier at the south end of the boardwalk, but except for the roller toboggan at the southwest corner of Ocean and 2nd Avenues, there wasn't much by way of organized amusements. That was the niche Schnitzler intended to fill and he was soon placing advertisements in the city directory describing his pleasure palace as a place of "refined amusement for Ladies, Gents, and Children. Polite Attendants. First-Class Soda for sale in the Building."

At the heart of his enterprise, as his premium draw, Schnitzler placed a great carousel crafted by Charles I.D. Looff, who was among the first eminent American carousel builders. [For more, visit The Carousel.] The three-row machine held 70 hand carved animals, of slender and stylized bodies, spirited expressions and elaborate trappings. Most were carved by Looff, but under the pressure of a delivery deadline, a few were purchased from the master carver Gustav Dentzel of Philadelphia.

When it was ready, Schnitzler flew a flag over the place, and called it the "Palace Merry-Go-Round."