1920s Atlantic City: the real ‘Boardwalk Empire’

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014. Filed under: Destination Guides Food Legendary Landscapes United States

Meyer Lansky, Al Capone and Enoch Johnson stroll the Boardwalk during the infamous gangster convention held in Atlantic City, May 1929.
Photo from book ‘Atlantic City 125 Years of Ocean Madness’ by Vicki Gold Levi and Lee Eisenberg

If you’re a fan of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, you’ll know that the character of Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is loosely based on real-life Atlantic City kingpin Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson. Treasurer of Atlantic County during Prohibition era, the real Nucky’s empire flourished in the racy, roaring 1920s.

View of Atlantic City.
Nucky Johnson lived at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the building at far right in this photo.

On my last visit to Atlantic City, I went in search of the real ‘boardwalk empire’ and found a few corners old Nucky would recognize:

The Boardwalk: Originally built to keep sand out of hotel lobbies, AC’s world-famous Boardwalk now extends nearly nine kilometers.  Dapper Nucky would never have gotten up before noon to surf or pedal a bike but he would recognize the rolling chairs for hire. Legendary music venue Boardwalk Hall was built in 1929 and has hosted performances by Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Lady Gaga, Kanye West. Other attractions have changed since Al Jolson was a lifeguard but the ocean breezes are still scented with vanilla fudge and salt water taffy.

Rolling Chair AC

View from a rolling chair, Atlantic City.

The Ritz-Carlton: Right on the Boardwalk at Iowa Avenue, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (1921) once hosted everyone from presidents to Al Capone. Designed by the architects who did New York’s Grand Central Station, the Ritz was famous for its revolving bar shaped like a carousel. Nucky lived and held court on the Ritz’s 9th floor, reputedly with a closet stuffed with cash. Today the Ritz is private condominiums but a peek into the lobby conjures images of the celebrities, gangsters and showgirls that once thronged it.

Old boarded-up bathing house on the Boardwalk.

Rumrunners’ houses: Prohibition-era Atlantic City’s vice industry was fuelled by illegal alcohol, brought in by smugglers who navigated the salt-marsh shoals by night. Many boats sped straight into waterside houses where boxes of booze could be unloaded secretly in garage-like docks. A few of these old rumrunners’ houses can be spotted in the marina at historic Gardner’s Basin. Visitors today can get there by jitney, Atlantic City’s mini-bus service, in operation since 1915.

Rumrunners’ houses in Gardner’s Basin. Note the drive-in docks in the dark houses.

Miss America Pageant memorabilia: The glamour of bygone eras is on display in the lobby of the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel, home to a collection of Miss America Pageant gowns, shoes and other memorabilia. The Sheraton’s lobby is first stop on the  Road to the Crown Walking Tour which celebrates the pageant and its return to Atlantic City. Don’t miss the beaded flapper dress and Lady Liberty headdress worn by 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, winner of the first-ever pageant, held 1921.

Sheraton Display

Miss America Pageant memorabilia at the Sheraton, Atlantic City.

Knife and Fork Inn: Boardwalk Empire fans will want to eat at the former gentlemen’s club and speakeasy where the real Nucky and ‘Commodore’ Kuehnle conspired over seafood and steaks. The Knife and Fork’s original upstairs dining room–complete with bottle-hiding banquettes and raid-warning wall buttons–was recreated as a set for the HBO series. I’ve eaten there several times; both the food and atmosphere are tops.

The upstairs dining room at the Knife & Fork Inn.

Irish Pub: When someone in Boardwalk Empire says they’re staying at the Elwood, they’re talking about 164 St. James Place, an address now called the Irish Pub. This mahogany-paneled tavern just off the Boardwalk serves good, casual food along with spirits and beer. In true Roaring 20s style, the bar never closes. It’s open 24 hours, 365 days a year. Rooms are still available; singles start at $25 a night.

The Irish Pub is open 24/7.

Lonely Planet named the Jersey Shore a Top 10 U.S. destination for 2014. Whether you take a 1920s theme tour or explore on your own, Atlantic City’s scandalous past is a big part of its appeal.

For trip inspiration, entertainment calendar and accommodation links, see Visit AC.


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