The Asbury Park boardwalk. In one word, iconic. About a mile of New Jersey history. The Casino. The Palace. The Carousel. The Paramount. Tillie the Clown. Convention Hall. The Berkeley Carteret. The Stone Pony and Bruce Springsteen. Mrs. Jays. The list goes on and on. But there’s one building that almost never gets any mention. One building that is just out of frame on so many famous pictures of the boardwalk. One building that, as I walked along the boardwalk countless times in the last 34 years, was a mystery to me. It stood, seemingly married to the Casino, a partner but still alone. Lonely. Dark. Abandoned. Forgotten. Mysterious. Long fenced off and closed to the public, it rises at the southern end of the boardwalk, behind the Casino and adjacent to Wesley Lake, like a monolith to the dark side of the history of the town.
The Steam Plant.
The east side view of the exterior of the central chimney.
Many of you know it as “the old steam plant.” It is interesting how it doesn’t have an “official” name, so it’s always preceded by “the old.” We don’t say, “the old Paramount Theater,” or “old Convention Hall” yet those buildings are both older than the steam plant. A remnant of technology long gone and forgotten, entering operation in 1930, it has been marking the southern end of the boardwalk for 84 years now. In that time there have been fires, floods, hurricanes and superstorms, political and social upheaval, economic rise and fall, riots, wars, and shipwrecks at her feet. Asbury Park has risen, fallen, and is rising again. And still it stands. Unchanged. A monument.
The “icons” of the boardwalk had one major design flaw. As Asbury Park struggled to compete with the likes of Atlantic City, and New York, the buildings on the boardwalk lacked a major convenience during winter… heat.
So, in the hope of attracting patrons all year round, in the late 1920’s Asbury Park Mayor Clarence E.F. Hetrick commissioned the steam plant. Famous architects, and icons in their own right, Warren and Wetmore from New York, were hired in a very controversial no-bid contract to build the steam plant. Of course, they designed the building to complement their other work on the boardwalk- the Convention Hall/Paramount and the Casino were also designed by this team in the Beaux-Arts style of the time (they also designed the Berkeley Carteret Hotel in the 1920’s). Warren and Wetmore also claimed such accomplishments as the Helmsley Building, The Commodore Hotel, the NY Biltmore Hotel, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Grand Central Palace, and many more now historic buildings. So, their pedigree and qualifications were a given. When you look at the four buildings together, the design consistency is obvious. In fact, the steam plant was an almost identical design to a library they built in Louvain, France with its tall, slanted tower. And while classic now, one can see that they fit the 1930’s like a glove. (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the entire boardwalk was revitalized in this style?)
The Northeast view from the solarium. The Casino to the north, the “inkwell” beach to the east.
This is the view of Wesley Lake from the roof of the Steam Plant. I wish I could come back and take this when the light was better and the construction was complete.
The original proposed location for the steam plant was to be adjacent to the municipal sewer plant on Eighth Ave., near the boardwalk. But Mayor Hetrick saw a way for it to serve a dual purpose. One must remember the era in which it was built… the 1920’s and 30’s. “Things” were not as they are today, unfortunately. Mayor Hetrick saw the opportunity to bolster his constituency a bit with the location of the steam plant and Casino. Since the Casino originally extended onto and over the beach like Convention Hall still does, the steam plant’s location, shape, and size blocked the view of the beach to the south and east from the rest of Asbury Park. It created a “private” beach that was designated “blacks only.” This beach was nicknamed “the Inkwell” and was not visible from the “whites only” beach north of the Casino to Convention Hall. As I said, times were different. This was also convenient because the City of Asbury Park ran the steam plant and Casino, and Mayor Hetrick staffed both buildings with African American workers, further segregating them while also providing jobs. Sadly, discrimination was alive and well in the 1930’s, as was political corruption.
So, in 1930, the steam plant became operational. Little is written about it or what was inside. And, at least in my research, it is not known how long it was in operation or if the equipment it started with was what it ended with. As it was described to me, it had at least three massive tube-type boilers, approximately 20x8x15 feet each, covered in a silver material with brick and asbestos fireboxes. The whole operation was fed by four fuel tanks adjacent to Wesley Lake (where the Casino parking lot is located now), each holding 15,000 gallons of “bunker” oil- so thick it needed to be heated just to flow from the tanks. (Bunker oil is literally the bottom of the barrel in the oil refining process. The only thing thicker, or cheaper, is the tar used in roads. Thus, it was often used in large boilers in steam plants and aboard ship.) I do not know if it used public water or siphoned water from Wesley Lake to fill the boilers and make steam. I would imagine lake water would be risky as it could bring many impurities into the boilers requiring additional maintenance, expense, and down time. But locating the steam plant next to the lake may have also given it a convenient source of water. And I’m sure excess water was dumped right back into the lake. The steam output of the plant was delivered in pipes that ran in a concrete tunnel adjacent to the boardwalk, from the steam plant north four blocks to the Paramount Theater and Convention Hall. Along the way, the Casino complex, the Natatorium (a massive indoor pool, long gone) and other buildings received steam heat.
If you look carefully near the bottom, center, you can see where the bunker oil supply pipes once entered the building.
Every time I walked by the building, I would wonder what the interior looked like. How were the boilers situated? How many people did it take to operate the plant? When I entered the steam plant for the first time, I was amazed at how simple it was. A central chimney was surrounded by what appeared to be three pads where the boilers were located. A high, ornate ceiling, held the massive brick structure above. The central chimney is huge and had to handle the thick black exhaust that resulted from the large boilers burning a dirty fuel. With today’s environmental laws, there is no doubt that this plant, as it was, could not operate today.
As you descend the stairs, the chimney greets you, to the right.
The windows, once beautiful and ornate, are all boarded up, the glass long gone. They were a similar style to what you see on the Carousel building today. The chimney is still open to the sky and I could see faint traces of sunlight that made it from the top all the way down to below ground level. The floor was dirt and partially wet. The sound of dripping water could be heard, but considering the condition of the building, I was surprised there was not more water. It did not even have a “musty” smell – no mold that I could see. This may be attributed to some modern drainage as I could see white PVC pipes had been installed to carry water away. Just the same, I’m glad to have been there on a somewhat warm day. Around the back of the chimney, where the third boiler was located, a small trench was full of water and I was told this was frozen over during winter.
The back of the chimney where another boiler was placed. Old winch or pumping equipment can be seen near the ceiling.
In the back corner was a small area with the remnants of electrical boxes and other equipment. I’m not sure it was big enough for someone to work in this area- possibly a storage or electrical closet. Along the walls, the broken ends of cast iron pipes disappeared to a destination long gone. One square opening was obviously where steam pipes sent winter warmth north to the buildings of the boardwalk. Along the western wall, I could see the remnants of twelve pipes that entered through the concrete- these have been removed and concrete patches were put in their place. However, below these patches I could still see where bunker oil had slowly dripped down the wall. These were the pipes that led out to the storage tanks (I’m speculating, but four tanks, three boilers, therefore, twelve pipes?). There were also pipes in the ceiling that sent over-pressure boiler steam up and out through ornate structures on the roof, which are still there to this day.
The chimney of the steam plant. You can still see sunlight streaming through from the large tower, above.
The top and front of the steam plant were not accessible from inside. Walking around the building to the front, there are boarded up windows which once housed concession stands. There are several historic photos that show these businesses in operation. A central outer staircase leads up to the solarium on the second floor- really the roof of the building. Fortunately, the owners installed a modern rubber roof here which undoubtedly has protected the structure from years of water damage. The roof area is large and overlooks Wesley Lake to the west, Ocean Grove to the south, the beach (the former Inkwell) to the east, and of course, the Casino to the north.
One of the alcoves on the roof of the steam plant.
The central archway on the roof.
The roof is dominated by the majesty of the central chimney, black near the top from years of escaping soot. The green decorative steam venting structures are still in place on the east and west sides. There are brick archways all around the building which lend to its 1920’s styling. There’s even what appeared to be an office area. Poking my head in through a large open window, I disturbed several residents who had made a nest… we grow sea gulls big on the Jersey Shore, and I’m not sure these would fit through the window- needless to say, I wasn’t going to find out. If you look carefully at some of the exterior photos, you can see where a lot of the brick mortar has deteriorated.
The view of the central tower from the roof.
This is where excess steam from the boilers escaped. Must have looked really cool…
This is where the history of the building goes a bit dark. I was not able to determine when the steam plant was finally shut down. Given its location right on the coast, I cannot imagine it was in operation during World War II. The bunker oil it burned would have been a valuable resource during war time and it certainly would have been a German target during the war. Whether or not it was operated after the war is unknown at this time, but it is doubtful considering newer technologies that were taking over (steam heat is very inefficient). I did hear from one person who grew up in Asbury Park in the 1940’s and he does not remember the plant being in operation even then.
View of the second floor windows from the solarium.
View of the detail on the east side of the plant.
Boardwalk view of where the concession stands once were.
What is known is that around 2007, a contractor was finally hired to remove the massive boilers and clean out the building of any hazardous materials, putting it in its current benign state, a shell of its original, industrial glory. When I first contacted the owners about photographing the building, I expected to get a “no way” response. What I got instead was a “we don’t usually allow that, but let’s see what we can do.” I would like to thank Madison Marquette for allowing me to have brief access to this historically lost building so that it could be documented for all time to come. I hope my pictures do it justice. I hope it is not forgotten, called an “eyesore,” or marked for demolition.
Future use of the building has not yet been determined. I certainly hope it stays as a structure marking the southern end of the Asbury Park boardwalk, for many years to come. A few years ago someone proposed turning it into an art gallery or a restaurant, but those ideas proved to be unworkable at the time. Maybe documenting the building in this way will bolster a little interest in its use and the right people and right ideas will come along as the rest of Asbury Park continues on its revitalization. If my pictures could be part of sparking that interest, wonderful. Hey, I think it would make a great photo studio, run by yours truly of course! But then again, when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The point is, it’s not too late for the steam plant. Despite the looks of the interior, this building can be revitalized and put to good use again. The structure is still sound, and its unique design lends itself to many uses.
There are still mysteries here- what it really looked like when she was new… the men that worked here, what 1930 was really like… I can picture dark smoke and steam spewing from the top, the noises of banging steam pipes, and loud oil-fueled fires heating huge tanks of water, the smell of burning oil- steam power is a living, breathing thing. I can see some of the workmen taking a break, looking out over Wesley Lake as families took a ride on the paddle boats, while they toiled in a hot, nasty environment wearing soot-covered overalls. I wish I could have seen her in all her glory. But I can only imagine.
So now, as I walk along the Asbury Park boardwalk, I see people looking at the traditional icons… tourists snapping pictures at The Stone Pony, another Yappy Hour at the Wonderbar, beach goers and sunbathers carrying lounge chairs, some zombies left over from another zombie walk at Convention Hall, yet another photographer taking a picture of the “CA SI NO” and lovers walking hand in hand…
But me? I cannot help but glance towards my new friend, the old steam plant. May she live long, and stand tall…