Name: Former Child’s Restaurant
Address: 2102 Boardwalk
Cross Streets: West 21st and West 22nd Streets
Neighborhood: Coney Island
Year Built: 1923
Architectural Style: Spanish Baroque Revival
Architect: Dennison & Hirons
Other buildings by architect: Beaux Arts Institute of Design, 304 E. 44th St, Manhattan, Suffolk Guarantee and Title Company Building, Queens, both landmarked.
Landmarked: Yes, Individual landmark, 2003
The story: Coney Island’s reputation was built on the concept of über, that over-the-top, on steroids kind of grandiosity that took people out of their everyday lives, and placed them in places they would never see, and experience things they would never experience anywhere else. Child’s Restaurants understood this well, as did this building’s architects, and they gave us a building to rival Neptune’s own palace on the bottom of the sea.
The Child’s Restaurant chain was founded in 1889 by brothers William and Samuel Childs. Their goal was to provide quick and inexpensive food in a clean and pleasant setting. They were innovators in the cafeteria-style lunch counters, and by 1925, they were so successful that the Child’s chain had 107 restaurants in 33 cities in the US and Canada. Rather than trying to replicate the same building and style wherever they were located, like today’s McDonald’s, they were flexible enough to sometimes incorporate the local environment into their stores. For example, one of their restaurants on 5th in Manhattan had streamlined curved glass windows and a sophisticated décor, an early project of William Van Alen, architect of the Chrysler Building. Here, they took the beach and the sea, and went crazy.
Ethan Allen Dennison and Frederic Charles Hiron were both graduates of the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. They opened their architectural practice in 1910, and their early works were mostly Neo-Classical banks and office buildings. They later designed many more buildings in the Art Deco style, also with lots of terra-cotta. Dennison and Hiron developed a close relationship with the artisans of the Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company, and for this and subsequent projects, had the ornamentation rendered in quarter scale models, which they could then glaze in the exact colors they wanted. Model-maker Maxfield Kleck and colorist Duncan Smith of the Atlantic Terra-Cotta Company were the artisans of record, and having their names and work known to us is a rarity, as these talented people often remained anonymous and unaccredited.
The restaurant originally had a rooftop pergola, as seen on an old postcard, allowing patrons ocean views. The wide arches were once glass filled picture windows, which also extended on the W. 21st St. side of the building. And then there was the ornament. Neptune rises from the sea, dripping with seaweed. Cavorting fishes, cockleshells, seahorses, sailing ships, as well as swags, garlands, classical urns and other ornament, crown the building. They all mix in a unique Baroque pattern of swirls, and shapes, in bright and fantastic colors. Most impressive were the mixture of glazes that mimicked a view from under the sea, as seen in the corner medallions. Even today, much of the ornament is still in fine shape, including the fish on top of the columns which once held the pergola, although a lot of the original stucco is gone. Originally, the boardwalk was higher, and another story was below, offering customers even more dining room.
Child’s Restaurant weathered the ebb and flow of Coney Island, and survived until the 1950’s. It was bought by the Ricci family, who were still running a candy manufacturing company there when the building was landmarked in 2003. They must have sealed all the huge windows, and totally enclosed the building. The property has changed hands several times since then, and now needs some serious TLC to restore it to its proper and deserved glory. GMAP