Whimsy Still Reigns in Coney Island
di Domenico + Partners new transit building plays on amusement’s past

Coney Island’s new subway portal building brings renewed life to its surrounding entertainment community, reinvigorating a playful architectural heritage. Designed by New York City-based di Domenico + Partners, the Stillwell Avenue Portal Building links the NYC Transit Coney Island Terminal and Surf Avenue, a major thoroughfare in the world-famous beach and amusement neighborhood. Replacing an outdated, one-story arcade and transit connector, the new 33,000-square-foot building will bring one story of vibrant year-round and seasonal retail and restaurants, two stories devoted to housing the New York Police Department’s District 34 offices, and additional office space for affiliated transit groups such as signal maintainers.

That Coney Island mystique
Referencing Coney Island’s colorful past as an amusement and beach community, the building playfully reinterprets the “Playland” style. Constructed of sand-colored panels that suggest brick, the building looks like a large sandcastle, complete with flags and a tower. “What was previously in this location was just a portal to the subway,” says di Domenico partner Andrew Berger, AIA. “Our intent was to bring back the flavor, fun, and mystique of Luna Park as an architectural folly at the heyday of the amusement era. The new Portal Building makes the Coney Island subway stop an important transportation location as well as a fun place to arrive at the beach.”

Echoing the historic Luna Park’s lighted spires and minarets, the Portal Building’s façade and tower is strung with low-wattage LED lights, making it a prominent landmark. Its southern entrance also honors the community’s architectural roots through incorporation of a terra cotta parapet preserved from the original building. According to the architect, the parapet was painstakingly removed, archived, restored, and replaced because they felt that it was important to preserve its history of place. The parapet, which runs nearly the full length of the building, has been recommended for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Says Berger, the parapet “defines the Surf Avenue façade of the building and establishes a portal to the interior retail spaces and the transit connections beyond.”

Making public transit fun
Rising above the parapet is a large steel-and-glass clerestory that references the frame of the subway terminal to the north and allows light to infuse the space below, reducing dependence on artificial lighting. Commuters and tourists are greeted by sun-drenched, skylighted spaces and local artist Robert Wilson’s 300-foot-long translucent installation entitled, “My Coney Island Baby.”

Composed of silk-screened archival images of popular Coney Island icons—a hot dog, the Cyclone roller coaster, the Parachute Jump, and the Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel—that are sandwiched between glass bricks, the 17-foot-high curvilinear installation runs along the eastern side of the Portal Building. The work was commissioned by the MTA’s Arts for Transit program, which strives to make public transportation more inviting and pleasurable.

Enhanced transportation and security
Berger notes that, given the heightened awareness and sensitivity to security concerns in recent years, the Portal Building features many state-of-the-art security technologies, including obvious measures and deterrents such as CCTV, abundant well-lighted spaces, and the visually prominent NYPD storefront.

The architect also points out that that the Portal Building is part of a major transportation plan to improve the overall quality of service and provide new services and vigor to this beach community. Discussing the need to keep the building’s retail spaces vibrant and lively during off-peak months, he says that, “Hundreds of thousands of people move through this space in the summer. It was important that the retail and services in the building provide a dynamic and positive energy throughout the year.” Working with the MTA Real Estate group, di Domenico decided to combine franchise retail and restaurants with the “seasonal, Mom & Pop arcade operations.” The seasonal retail will include the traditional beach-town mix of candy shops, newspaper stands, souvenirs, and beachwear—“a piece of the boardwalk within the interior street,” says Berger. The franchise retail will anchor the exterior corridor and provide interest from the main thoroughfare.

—Heather Livingston

Copyright 2005 The American Institute of Architects. All rights reserved. Home Page


All photos and renderings courtesy of di Domenico + Partners.

Did you know?

• The all-American favorite, the hot dog, was invented at Coney Island in 1867 by Charles Feltman. Its place in Americana was secured in 1916 when Nathan Handwerker opened Nathan’s Hot Dogs at Coney Island.

• Although the roller coaster has dubious origins that are sometimes ascribed to Russia’s Catherine the Great, Coney Island’s La Marcus Thompson built what is arguably the world’s first roller coaster in 1884, the Switchback Railway.

• In its heyday, Coney Island had three famous amusement parks: Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland. Steeplechase opened in 1895 and boasted a Ferris Wheel draped with incandescent lights. Luna Park opened on May 16, 1903. Designed by the “erratically trained architect” Frederic Thompson, the park bucked the Beaux-Arts tradition and featured multitudinous spires and minarets as well as lines, shapes, and colors that were in constant flux. In 1907, the park was illuminated by nearly 1.5 million electric lights at a cost of $5,600 per week. Dreamland opened in 1904 and featured wide avenues and a lagoon with views of the ocean.

• The Riegelmann Boardwalk , built in 1923, was another first for Coney Island. Instead of limiting property on the beachfront to private owners, the boardwalk opened up the beach and democratized the beach-going experience for all visitors.

Source: The American Experience: Coney Island.

Refer this article to a friend by email.Email your comments to the editor.Go back to AIArchitect.