Destinations

The Legendary Beach Favored by New York's Greatest Families Gets a Revival

Now, the crowds are finally returning.
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It’s official. Rockaway, New York has been “discovered.”

Athletes, hipsters, bikers, Moma P.S1, and families sick of sitting in traffic on the L.I.E have fallen for the skinny peninsula at one end of Long Island. Not an hour away on the new ferry (wifi, open bar) await miles of wide, sandy beaches and boardwalk, the city’s only legal surfing, superb Uzbek dumplings and the chance for a Patti Smith or whale-sighting. Rockaway is an "It" destination for 2017.

And yet, there is still little if anywhere to stay. Ugly high rises mar the view in places. If you truly want to summer here in style, you’ll have to do some time traveling. Because of course, Rockaway has been “discovered” before—and not just by the native Canarsee (who called it “Recouwacky”) or the Dutch, English, Irish—but for one glittering summer, by the highest of high society.

1830. John Leake Norton, married to a sister of Governor George Clinton sees the spot’s resort potential. He buys the homestead of Joseph Cornell, the area’s first white settler, and persuades a group of the city’s wealthy and well-connected to finance, at then the huge sum of $43,000, the area’s first hotel. This is followed by the construction of a shell road (now the Jericho Turnpike) which cuts through meadows to shorten the journey—several hours just from Brooklyn.


Above: Rockaway Beach’s boardwalk today. Below: The boardwalk in the late 19th century.

In the interim, Manhattan has a sudden outbreak of cholera. Panic ensues. The moment the Marine Pavilion opens in 1834, the rich and famous flock to its massive, breezy piazza. “…coaching to Rockaway became extremely fashionable,” writes Bellot in History of the Rockaways. “Beautiful teams of horses attached to elaborate ‘tally-ho’ turnouts made the journey in fine time, and noted sportsmen vied with each other in the excellence of equipages.”

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Along with the Astors and Vanderbilts listed as frequent guests in the hotel register are Schemerhorn, Gillette, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the painter, John Turnbull and journalist/song writer/poet George P. Morris (who penned an “Ode to Rockaway”). The patrons are surely dressed in the latest styles which for both sexes means a silhouette that is broad on top and cinched at the waist. To achieve this, even men wear corsets as well as calf length frock coats and the first pants with fly front closures. Tall hats, sideburns, and moustaches are de rigueur.


Above: Blake Lively shooting a scene for Gossip Girl at Rockaway Beach. Below: Beachgoers in fashionable swimwear circa 1897.

In his diaries, Philip Hone, then mayor (and an investor in the Pavilion) describes the resort’s many “delights”: Champagne dinners, balls, trotting matches with prize, and best of all, the latest fad to reach America, sea bathing. Horses attached to wooden bathhouses carry the guests through the waves, allowing women to maintain their Victorian modesty. Suffragist Amelia Bloomer is already advocating for reforms in female clothing but alas, a lady essentially just swaps one gown for another.

Both versions have the puffy “leg of mutton” sleeves so in vogue in the 1830s, but the bathing costume is made of a dark, flannel which will not turn translucent when wet and has weights sewn in the hems to keep the skirts from floating. Their hair, middle-parted, is elaborately braided and kept beneath hats or bonnets to ward off the sun. Gloves and stockings are also common swimwear. In their long-sleeved wool bathing suits, the men are freer if just as soggy.


Female bathing costumes had weights sewn in the hems to keep the skirts from floating.

The wild success of the Marine Pavilion (coupled with the advent of the railroad) soon spawns construction plans for hotels of all classes. Perhaps, desirous of exclusivity, the upper crust moves on.

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“A banquet-hall deserted” is how Hone gloomily describes the Pavilion by 1835. “The establishment, gotten up and supported at so great an expense, has been neglected by the New Yorkers, with the exception of my family and connections and a few others….The fashionable people of our city have preferred the Virginia Springs, Saratoga, Newport and a place they call Sachem’s Head, to a house of their own possessing advantages greater than any other.”

For one summer, “We had a pretty sight at Rockaway.”

Jill Eisenstadt is the author of the novels From Rockaway, Kiss Out and Swell (just out from Little Brown’s Lee Boudreaux Books).

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.

* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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