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Castle in the Sand

The Marlborough-Blenheim and its place in Atlantic City history

by David G. Schwartz

Castle in the Sand

The smashing success of Resorts International in May 1978 sparked a heady period in Atlantic City's history. Every day, it seemed, developers rushed forward with new and grandiose plans for remarkable casino hotels that would restore the luster to the ocean-side resort. Often, though, these plans meant the demolition of older buildings. One of these, the Marlborough-Blenheim, was truly historic, and its loss is still felt today.

This ornate hotel began, like most classic Atlantic City hotels, far smaller than it eventually became. In 1901, hotelman Josiah White III and his son John bought a near-Boardwalk site on Ohio Avenue which then housed the Sacred Heart Academy. The next year, they opened the Marlborough House.

The Marlborough House, named for the Prince of Wales's home, was designed by William Lightfoot Price, a ground-breaking architect who would also build the Traymore. Its subdued Queen Anne-style design made it a pleasant, though unexceptional, addition to the Boardwalk. Contrary to some reports, the Marlborough was not the first Atlantic City hostelry to offer indoor hot and cold running saltwater—that distinction belongs to the Luray Hotel, a Kentucky Avenue property also owned by the Whites that was destroyed by fire in 1902.

Also in that year, the Marlborough's neighbors on the Boardwalk, the Children's Seashore House, moved to Richmond Avenue and the Boardwalk. To the consternation of the Whites, an amusement company acquired the property and erected a roller coaster on it. While today roller coasters are actively promoted as part of some Las Vegas casino hotels, at the turn of the century hoteliers viewed them as unattractive and likely disturbing to their guests.

On the site, the Whites built a new hotel, the Blenheim, in 1905-06, retaining Price's firm Price and McLanahan to design it. With the Blenheim, Price made an unparalleled aesthetic and engineering statement. Famed inventor Thomas Alva Edison assisted in the innovative use of reinforced concrete in the hotel's construction, and its Spanish or Moorish theme, along with its signature dome and chimneys, represented a distinct step forward from earlier, classically-influenced, building designs. It was about as different from existing hotels as Tropicana's Quarter is from, say, the Shore Mall. It was also the Boardwalk's first "fireproof" hotel and the first to feature a private bath in each room.

Together, the Marlborough-Blenheim complex was a Boardwalk centerpiece for decades, and the White family remained influential. Charles White, one of John's brothers who helped run the hotel, served as mayor of Atlantic City and a state senator.

In the 1960s, the Marlborough-Blenheim added motel wings, conference rooms, and a new pool as its operator, Josiah White IV, continued to run it with the same determination as his grandfather. The advent of casino gaming in 1976 seemed to promise brighter days for the hotels. Reese Palley, an active booster of casino gaming, bought the hotels in 1977 and announced plans to preserve the Blenheim half of the hotel and to replace the Marlborough with a modern 750-room casino hotel. Palley succeeded in having the Blenheim placed on the National Register of Historic Buildings (which would translate into tax savings of over $1 million a year), but he soon stepped aside as Bally Manufacturing bought a controlling interest in the project.

Bally then switched architects and announced plans to raze the Marlborough, Blenheim, and the adjacent Dennis Hotel to build a sprawling "Park Place casino hotel" featuring an octagonal 385-foot hotel tower. Preservationists were aghast, but Bally cited the difficulties of bringing the old structures up to code.

Ultimately, Bally chose to keep the older, less historically significant Dennis while consigning the Blenheim to implosion; it and the Marlborough fell victim to progress in 1978. The next year, Bally's Park Place opened as a 51,000 square-foot casino complex tacked onto the renovated Dennis Hotel, becoming the city's third casino hotel. Eventually, Bally's added its hotel tower, and the casino has outgrown its Park Place roots, adding the Wild Wild West casino and absorbing the Claridge and taking the name "Bally's Atlantic City."

Today, the Marlborough and Blenheim are little more than fading memories. When the Blenheim was imploded, more than a historic structure was lost—Atlantic City lost some of its personality. Hopefully, a new wave of development will re-establish Atlantic City as a unique seaside resort with architecturally-significant edifices.

David G. Schwartz is an Atlantic City native and the director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. His second book, Cutting the Wire: Gambling Prohibition and the Internet, has just been released by University of Nevada Press.