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Save Tillie

Editorial cartoon of the long goodbye (1998), by Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Breen of the Asbury Park Press. Used by permission of Steve Breen. view larger image
Compare Asbury Park today to the postcards of 1888, when the Palace first opened, and you'll find virtually nothing from then, except the street grid laid out by Asbury's founder, James A. Bradley.

Rescue of the 16-ton Tillie mural under the direction of Gary Loveland of Universal Fabricators, Jackson, NJ (June 2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
That's a tragedy for Asbury Park, because at the very time the city was struggling to regain its footing after a long decline, renovated historic places were becoming a very big deal. According to a New Jersey State study, tourists stayed longer and spent more at renovated historic sites than they did anywhere else. The study also showed that developers who renovated historic buildings cut costs, created more jobs, and pumped more money into the local economy than by constructing anew. Even the federal government was helping, by offering a tax credit to defray the cost of renovating buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, such as the Palace.

From 1984 through 1997, the City of Asbury Park's waterfront plan called for a revitalized housing and entertainment zone near the ocean. The plan marked many waterfront buildings for demolition, but not the Palace. The Palace was in a special category of buildings designated for renovation and reuse. Even after 1988, when the Palace closed, the master plan continued to call for an entertainment zone at the Palace and the Casino. On May 21, 1991, the City signed an agreement with waterfront developer and the new Palace owner Joseph Carabetta to transform the entire "Palace block" into a "family amusement facility."

Rescue of the 16-ton Tillie mural under the direction of Gary Loveland of Universal Fabricators, Jackson, NJ (June 2004). Photo copyrighted by Frank Saragnese. view larger image
Then the storm clouds blew in. Carabetta's construction business in New England went belly up, and the ripple effects brought work on the Asbury waterfront to a screeching halt. For the next decade, the waterfront stagnated, setting the stage for a City Council election that produced a Council whose members promised to get the project going again. That was not to be. Several new Council members saw the waterfront as an avenue toward personal enrichment. Their dealings with developers led Mayor Kenneth "Butch" Saunders (tax evasion) and Councilman James Condos (mail fraud) to federal convictions, based in part on secretly made tape recordings by a third council member, while a fourth member was barred by conflicts of interest from voting on most waterfront issues.

Into this mix came Save Tillie, a new preservation organization comprised of Bruce Springsteen fans, amusement park fans, and friends of Asbury Park. It formed in July of 1998 when an interior mezzanine overhanging the Skooter room at the Palace collapsed and city officials launched a campaign to pressure Carabetta into demolishing the Palace. Save Tillie initially stood for rescuing Tillie, the iconic mural painted by Worth Thomas, at the time of demolition, but later expanded its goals to include renovation of the entire complex.

Removal of the Bumper Car mural by Universal Fabricators, Jackson, NJ (June 2004). Photo copyrighted by Carl Beams.
Save Tillie's initial examination of the Palace soon showed that the city's push for demolition was based on nothing more than a visual examination of the collapsed mezzanine, hardly enough to justify the demolition of a historic structure. With preservationists pressuring the city to drop its demands, and with Carabetta refusing to pay for demolition, the City changed tactics: it asked the State of New Jersey for an interest-free loan to pay the cost of demolishing unspecified waterfront buildings. In a meeting with angry Save Tillie members during December of 1999, City Manager Wilbur Russell emphatically denied that the City was seeking money for Palace demolition. "I'm doing everything I can to try to save the Palace," Russell said. When the loan was approved, the Palace was on the hit list.

That's where it might have ended, with a rush to demolition. Bids were accepted, but before the contract could be awarded, Save Tillie announced that the Palace would be inspected for structural integrity by an independent inspector from Robert Silman Associations, a New York City firm with a long history of restoring historic buildings. In April 2000, the Silman inspection report described the Palace as a viable candidate for renovation, a finding which led Save Tillie to seek, and secure, a spot for the Palace on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places. With the rug pulled out from under its bureaucrats, the City blinked, and cancelled the bids.

In time, City Manager Russell left office and voters replaced Saunders, Condos, and two of the remaining three Council members in the May 2001 elections. The new Council committed itself to realizing the dream of waterfront redevelopment, minus the ethical failings of their predecessors. Within six months, the City had come to terms with a new group of developers, and in the hope that new developers would bring a new attitude, more than a thousand Save Tillie members and supporters sent personal appeals to the lead developer, Glen Fishman, on behalf of the Palace. None were ever answered. Instead, Fishman and others in the development group wasted no time revealing their contempt for the Palace. Entirely ignoring the Silman Associates inspection, refusing to accept a free offer of temporary shoring and bracing, and rejecting alternatives that were both cheaper and more in tune with the times, the developers from Asbury Partners demanded the right to demolish the Palace.

Removal of the Bumper Car mural by Universal Fabricators, Jackson, NJ (June 2004). Photo copyrighted by Carl Beams.
Kate Mellina, the Council's most consistent advocate for fair play, pressured the developers to allow a search for a Palace buyer. Reluctantly, they agreed but added three stipulations that doomed the search: the Skooter wing of the Palace would be demolished, not sold; the asking price would be jacked up to astronomical levels; and the sale price and conditions were non-negotiable. Nine groups of prospective buyers toured the Palace, several with serious interest, but all rejected as outrageous and unprofessional the developers' terms.

The Palace's last hope rested with New Jersey Governor James McGreevey who took the oath of office promising to faithfully uphold the laws of the state. Had he done so, the Palace would be standing today, protected by historic preservation provisions in several state laws. McGreevey instead turned a blind eye on preservation and gave the state's blessing to the developers, over the objections of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation New Jersey, the Asbury Park Historical Society, the Save Tillie preservation campaign, and public comments in favor of the Palace that outnumbered opponents by a factor of 900-to-1.

The more than 1,000 Save Tillie members (nearly all from outside Asbury Park) spent six years actively involved in Asbury Park. During that time, Save Tillie members provide new furniture to the Boys and Girls Club, provided books to the Asbury Park High School Library, supported activities of the Asbury Park Historical Association, spent hundreds of hours cleaning the streets and sidewalks around the Palace as part of Councilwoman Mellina's Asbury cleanup campaign, made financial donations to the Center of Asbury Park and to the Asbury Park Homeowners Association scholarship fund, created and sent a historic preservation mailing to every Asbury Park household, and convinced the U.S. Postal Service to honor Asbury Park by issuing a Tillie pictorial postmark, only, in the end, to have the Asbury Partners - McGreevey partnership pull the welcoming mat out from under them.