Building of the Day: 834 Surf Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: The Cyclone Roller Coaster
Address: 834 Surf Avenue
Cross Streets: West 8th and West 10th Streets
Neighborhood: Coney Island
Year Built: 1927
Architect: Harry C. Baker, inventor. Vernon Keenan, engineer.
Landmarked: Yes, individual landmark (1988)

The story: It’s the middle of summer, it’s hot and muggy, a typical New York summer day, so let’s celebrate one of Brooklyn’s iconic summer pleasures; the Cyclone Roller Coaster. While it’s not technically a building, per se, it is an engineered hunk of wood and steel that sits on a piece of land, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission has deemed it landmark worthy, so here we go.

Sigmund Freud once said that Coney Island was the only place in America that interested him. I’m sure he could have found plenty of Coney Island devotees who would have agreed with him. Coney Island has been drawing people to its shores since the mid 1800’s, starting with the wealthy, who summered in large hotels, and walked the beaches, occasionally dipping a toe in the surf. By the beginning of the 20th century, Coney Island was well on its way to becoming the most famous and infamous, amusement park in the world, mixing middle class entertainment and fun, with the bawdy and sleazy.

The wide open beach and the sea brought them in, but the rides were the draw in the amusement parks. The owners of the three big parks; Luna Park, Steeplechase Park and Dreamland, as well as the smaller independents, spent millions of dollars inventing and building rides that would be different, better, faster, scarier, higher, longer; whatever it took to bring the crowds to the rides, not once, but again and again and again. By the 1920s, Coney was home to millions of people of all income levels, who could just pay a nickel to take the subway, and another nickel to buy a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous.

The first roller coaster in Coney Island was built in 1884; a single track train that descended from the top of a hill and rolled to the bottom, but it wasn’t until 1927 that the Cyclone made its debut. The Cyclone was designed by engineer Vernon Keenan. He and builder Harry C. Baker built the coaster for Jack and Irving Rosenthal, who operated it for many years. Of the nearly two dozen roller coasters built at Coney, it is the only one that has survived all these years.

Technically speaking, the Cyclone is a gravity ride, with six fan turns and nine drops, the first plunge is ninety feet, just 22 feet off the perpendicular. It’s an engineering marvel. The three linked cars, which each hold eight passengers, are heavy enough to propel the coaster to breakneck speeds of 68 mph, which is fast for a roller coaster, and enable it to speed through the entire course by itself. The cars are hauled to the top of the first plunge, and are on their own after that.

The tracks are wooden with steel supports tied to horizontal tie bars and riveted steel bracing. It is one of only a few remaining wooden track coasters in the US. The resilience of the wood, the distinctive sound it makes, and the aesthetics of the entire structure make it a national treasure. Since the City’s building code now prohibits the building of timber supported roller coasters, the Cyclone is irreplaceable. In spite of that, it was almost lost.

By 1968, the coaster, like Coney Island itself, was in bad shape. It was shut down in 1969. The City condemned it, and in 1972, was about to tear it down, to accommodate the expansion of the NY Aquarium, next door. Fans of the Cyclone started a “Save the Cyclone” campaign, and it was saved, leased to Astroland for $57K per year. Astroland had the Cyclone refurbished, and it reopened in 1975. Even when Astroland closed in 2008, the Cyclone survived.

Because of its rarity, the design, and its iconic place in New York City history, the Cyclone was made an individual landmark by the LPC in 1988. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1991. Long live the Cyclone! GMAP

(Above photo: jag9889 for Flickriver.com)

1940s postcard: Westland.net

Photograph: Empireguides.com

Cyclone from above. Photograph: thecoastercritic.com

5 Comment

  • rh

    I used to live down the block from the Cyclone, right across from the aquarium in Brightwater Towers. I could hear the screams coming from the coaster and the sea lions doing their thing well into the night. Loved it!

  • ilovestoops

    I’m such a wuss – I get scared just looking at the photos and reading the description of the ride!

  • Just reading it makes my palms sweat! Nonetheless, I do try to ride it at least once a year.

  • slopefarm

    Love the Cyclone. Finally got my daughter on it this year; she loved it. Also, my sister — for which she’s sworn she will never forgive me. What’s great is that it feels like history when you ride it — if you are used to modern coasters, you will be shocked at how bumpy and neck-rattling the ride is. But I think the true marvel is just how much speed, how many sharp drops and sharp turns are crammed into so little acreage. It is a mini-miracle of smart urban design.

  • slopefarm

    Love the Cyclone. Finally got my daughter on it this year; she loved it. Also, my sister — for which she’s sworn she will never forgive me. What’s great is that it feels like history when you ride it — if you are used to modern coasters, you will be shocked at how bumpy and neck-rattling the ride is. But I think the true marvel is just how much speed, how many sharp drops and sharp turns are crammed into so little acreage. It is a mini-miracle of smart urban design.