Walkabout: William H. Reynolds, conclusion

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From sweeping up wood chips in his father’s shop, to hiring his father for his successful real estate and building business, to neighborhood creation and Creation (the ride) itself, William H. Reynolds had the golden touch. He had a large hand in shaping late 19th and early 20th century Brooklyn, perhaps more so than anyone else to date. He also lived large and well. In addition to his accomplishments told here and here, he was also, at various points in his life, an oil promoter, a copper mining man, and a racetrack builder and operator. He built and operated the Jamaica Racetrack for over ten years. He also operated a water company and a trolley line. He was an active athlete, and he loved yachting. In 1899, Reynolds took advantage of his growing fortune, and bought himself another yacht. It was a 120′ schooner called the Florida. The sale was paid for with $16,000 of Borough Park land to the seller. He was a member of the Atlantic Yacht Club, and this was not his only yacht. He also had one called the Wanderer, which he bought from one of the members of the Gould clan. The sale made the papers, which also chronicled, a year later, the death of the yacht’s captain, who drowned when he slipped and fell from the rowboat ferrying him from the Wanderer to another vessel at 2 in the morning.

In 1906, Reynolds’ company awarded what was called the largest contracting job ever, to the M.C. Madsen company, to construct paved roads, sidewalks, and general improvements to his new project in the Jamaica section of Queens. He called this 300 acre tract Laurelton, and announced plans for 50 large suburban houses, a clubhouse, and a Long Island Railroad Station house for his new Laurelton stop. Over a million dollars was to go into the project.

With Coney Island’s Dreamland a huge success, William Reynolds gaze turned to farther out in Long Island. In 1906, at the age of 39, Reynolds, in partnership with some very heavy hitters, the presidents and vice-presidents of some of Brooklyn and Nassau County’s biggest banks and trusts, formed the Long Beach Estates, for the purpose of heavily investing in the resort town of Long Beach, practically an island on the outer barrier of Long Island’s South Shore. The town had been a popular tourist and vacation town since the 1880′s and featured sandy beaches and large resort hotels. The largest was the Long Beach Hotel, billed as the largest hotel in the world, which burned to the ground on July 29th, 1907. 800 guests poured onto the beach, with 8 people injured by jumping out of windows, and one fatality. One of the guests was William Reynolds, who helped organize a fire brigade and rescue crews. He and his partners had just paid $1.5 million for the property only 2 months earlier. It was a total loss. However, they were now in possession of the entire oceanfront, and they proceeded to buy the rest of the island from the town of Hempstead. They planned to build a boardwalk, homes and hotels. In order to bring in more tourists and guests, Reynolds had a channel dug to widen the waterway to accommodate steamboats and seaplanes. Over 320 men, working in shifts twenty-four hours a day, dredged the waterway, creating a channel 1,100 feet wide, twelve feet deep and five miles long on the north side of the island. It was the largest dredging project of its time, surpassed only by the Panama Canal. This new waterway was named Reynolds Channel.

As a publicity stunt, which also had a practical application, Reynolds had a herd of elephants brought to the beach from Dreamland. The elephants helped move lumber used to build the bulkhead along the beach and the miles of boardwalk. The boardwalk was 50′ wide, flanked with electric lights on both sides, and the project cost $136,000 a mile. As all this was going on, streets, sewers, gas and electric conduits were laid, sidewalks were laid out, and trees planted. In 1914, the village of Long Beach Estates elected its first mayor. Not surprisingly, it was William H. Reynolds. He called Long Beach the Riviera of the East, and mandated that every building was built in what he called an eclectic Mediterranean style, with white stucco walls and red tile roofs. He also mandated that the homes could only be occupied by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It wasn’t until his company went bankrupt in 1918 that these restrictions were lifted. The new town was very popular with wealthy businessmen and entertainers, as well as day trippers. Reynolds built a theater called Castles by the Sea with the largest dance floor in the world for dancers Vernon and Irene Castle. Photographs and postcards from the first third of the century show large crowds of people enjoying the beach, the many hotels and amenities, and the sun and fun. (Long Beach later became known for the many entertainers who vacationed and entertained there, including Mae West, Zero Mostel, Humphrey Bogart, Cab Calloway, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow and James Cagney. Billy Crystal was born and raised there, and Long Beach was the setting for the Godfather).

But behind the hotels and their famous guests, all was not well in Long Beach. In 1922, Long Beach was designated a city by the state Legislature, and William Reynolds was elected again as the new city’s first mayor, a much large position than mayor of his smaller village. His Long Beach Estates company had gone bankrupt in 1918, owing more than $5 million dollars, but he remained a popular and influential figure. However, in 1924, he and his city treasurer, John Gracy, were indicted for grand larceny and graft. The indictments stated that they had stolen over $8,000 in Long Beach city funds to pay off contractors who had not done work they were contracted to complete for the city, and that Reynolds had known the work wasn’t done, but ordered Gracy to cut checks for these men anyway. Gracy was complicit because he also knew the work hadn’t been done, and had cut checks without the usual proof of completion, or even invoices and receipts. Larger sums of money were also in question, as well, in schemes involving bonds issued and traded against services rendered in construction of sewers and other construction projects. A jury found Reynolds guilty of graft, and he was sentenced to at least 10 years in prison. Local lore says that the clock in the city hall tower was stopped in protest. Almost a year later, in 1925, the judgment was overturned on appeal, and Reynolds was released. Almost the entire population of Long Beach was on hand to welcome him back, and the clock was turned back on. In 1927, Reynolds was again cleared of larceny charges, and all indictments were dismissed. He was already working on another project, the development of Lido Beach, east of Long Beach, spending $5 million to build a luxury hotel/club called the Lido Country Club, followed by the development of the Lookout Point Beach, in 1930.

Not content with properties in Long Island, Reynolds also owned land in Manhattan. His most well known parcel was the land he had leased from Cooper Union, on the corner of 42nd and Lexington. It had been his desire to build the world’s tallest building on that spot, and he had engaged architect William Van Alen to design an 808 foot skyscraper with an observation deck. The designs were drawn up, but Reynolds decided to sell the land lease and the designs to Walter P. Chrysler in 1928, for over $2 million. Chrysler adapted those plans, and went on to build the iconic Chrylser building in 1930. It is not known why Reynold’s abandoned his plans. His Reynolds Building would have made him a household name. On October 20th, 1931, William H. Reynolds died at his apartment at 200 West 57th Street, in Manhattan. The cause was heart disease, he had been ill for several months. He was only 63. His obituary in the Times was a long one, and chronicled his very full life, noting that he had been very generous to charities, especially the Elks club to which he belonged, and several hospitals on Long Island. The paper noted that at his death, he had been president of the Lido Realty Corporation, Long Beach On the Ocean, Inc, the Alert Associates, Inc, Blythedale Water Company, and the Raylex Corporation. He was also on the Board of Directors of the Long Island Safe Deposit Company, and had once been president of the Long Beach Railway Company. He left a summer home at the Lido Club, and his wife, Elise, and two daughters, two sisters, and a grandchild. His estate was estimated at over ten million dollars, half of which went to his wife, with his two daughters splitting the rest. William H. Reynolds did return to Brooklyn at the end, and remains here now. He is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. With all that he achieved, it’s a wonder he didn’t figure out how to own that too. It’s a nice plot of land.

Research material for this series came from the the LPC designation reports for Prospect heights and Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The New York Times, Wikipedia, rootsweb.com, Carousel News, and from Ilovelbny.com. All photos for this story can be seen on Flickr.

11 Comment

  • Some life! It is so fascinating to see how much he accomplished in 63 years, and how it still affects us today in some form or another. Quite a legacy, MM! Thanks!

  • Great job! This guy was more interesting than Trump…

  • I had no idea Long Beach had been such a celebrity magnet back in the day. Will have to go exploring there sometime on a day trip. According to their historical society, they are having a house tour on Sunday, June 13, 2010; call the Museum for information at (516) 432-1192.

  • so corruption in Nassau county is nothing new then.

  • It’s me again! Not going to ruin anything this time, just add a little something of interest. For whatever reason, whether the records were lost along with the hotel itself, no one knows where exactly the Long Beach Hotel was located in the City of Long Beach.

  • I welcome your comments, bmf, cuz I don’t know anything about Long Beach. That’s amazing, since there are so many photographs of it, but I guess if it was surrounded by beach, with no other landmarks, and if other buildings were built on the site, it could easily disappear.Hmmmm.

  • Do you know if Isaac Reynolds, the architect who did a lot of work in Bedford Stuyvesant and Stuyvesant Heights, was William H. Reynolds grandfather?

  • Do you know if Isaac Reynolds, the architect who did a lot of work in Bedford Stuyvesant and Stuyvesant Heights, was William H. Reynolds grandfather?