New York City is known for a lot of things, but beach destination isn’t generally one of them. When I moved to New York City at age 23, for example, I didn’t know that one of the city’s borders happened to be with the Atlantic Ocean. It took me a couple of years to fully comprehend the concept of taking the subway to the beach.
I certainly didn’t know about Rockaway, and even more certainly, I had no notion of the dozen-plus grand resorts that once dotted the beach there. The history of Rockaway often gets lost in accounts of both New York City and of famous beach resorts in general, but in the last half of the 19th century, the Queens peninsula became one of the most coveted of oceanfront destinations, not only for city residents, but for people from around the country.
The Rockaway Beach Hotel was built on the largest scale of them all, and for a short time in 1881, it was the biggest hotel in the world. Taking up the stretch of beachfront between present-day Beach 110th and Beach 116th Streets, it had several hundred rooms and “over 100,000 square feet of piazza,” according to the 1918 book, History of the Rockaways from the Year 1685 to 1917.
Many of those resorts ultimately burned down, while others closed when better transportation options opened the peninsula up to the middle and working classes, leading the rich to seek out beaches further afield from the city. The Rockaway Beach Hotel met perhaps the most ignominious fate of them all. It only partially opened for one season, and just three years after it was finished, it was torn down and sold for parts.
In the 1950s, largely thanks to the urban planning of Robert Moses, new roads, housing projects and beach facilities elsewhere converged to send Rockaway into a period of decline. In the past decade or so, the peninsula has seen a surge in popularity, especially with surfers and hipsters. And presently, the swath of beachfront that once held the world’s largest hotel looks like this…