Fred Hess & Son; Atlantic Foto Service, et al. .
45 black and white photographs, of which 35 are ca. 8 x 10 inches, the remainder snapshot-sized. Many are linen-backed and nearly all in very good condition or better, a few with creasing or small chips. Thirteen negatives are also included. Most photos are credited in the negative to one of two prominent Atlantic City photography studios—Fred Hess & Son and Atlantic Foto Service.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Atlantic City, New Jersey was one of America’s most popular vacation destinations. Following the model of British beach resorts, Atlantic City’s developers began in the 1880s to construct long piers extending off the Boardwalk, where visitors could stroll, dine, and enjoy games, rides, concerts, shows, and other amusements. The greatest of these was Steel Pier, which was constructed in 1898 and at various times dubbed “An Amusement City at Sea,” “A Vacation in Itself,” and “The Showplace of the Nation.” After fire damaged the pier in 1924, a local real estate investor and showman named Frank Gravatt purchased the structure and set about renovating it and adding new attractions. He expanded the exhibit space at the pier’s entrance to 20,000 square feet and leased it to General Motors, who used it to showcase their latest models—which were still enough of a novelty to draw large crowds when the exhibit opened in 1926. The images in this archive document the extensive renovation of Steel Pier in progress, showing workmen, equipment, and different stages of the job (both exterior and interior) over a two-month period. There are also photos of the installed General Motors Exhibit, the pier at night, and crowds on the pier and beach after the renovations were completed. The majority of the images are stamped on the back with the name of Philadelphia architect William F.B. Koelle, who was commissioned to build “The Home of the Century” – a model home filled with state-of-the art appliances and furnishings—on the Pier in 1936. Although we have not found any published report of Koelle having been involved in the 1926 renovations, this collection suggests that may have been the case. Koelle had a well-documented interest in the automobile industry, and there are three photos in this archive of drawings signed by Koelle that show slightly different concepts for signage on the General Motors Exhibit and other businesses along the pier. Koelle also operated as a general contractor and may have done so for this job. In any case, the collection offers valuable visual documentation for the history of this important American tourist destination.