When Nucky Johnson ALLEGEDLY ensconced Al Capone at the Ritz Carlton during the Mobsters’ Convention of May 1929, the Beaux Arts hostelry at Iowa Avenue and the Boardwalk was the toast of Atlantic City. Eight years old, it was still the newest of the beachfront hotels (the Claridge would claim that status the following year), and Nucky himself leased the entire ninth floor for the purposes of living, loving, and local hegemony.
Seashore history is slippery — some accounts place Capone and his fellow delegates at the President, and Nucky’s digs on the Ritz’s eighth floor — but by any measure, the 1920s roared extra loud in Atlantic City. In later decades, that exuberance yielded to war, decline, and demolition before legalized gambling reincarnated the resort. All but a few of the grand Boardwalk hotels fell to the wrecking ball, the Ritz being one of the survivors. Barely.
“It was in a deplorable state [by 1980],” says Herb Hartman, whose Boardwalk Realty in the refurbished Ritz Condominium sells and leases units at the site. “[Rehab] allowed us to see the potential in the building.”
That potential has been realized with 322 residences and six commercial suites in the privately owned, present-day Ritz, which joined the condo ranks in 1982. During the past eight years, its vintage luster has been restored, and new appointments and facilities added. Nucky likely would have approved.
The Ritz debuted in June 1921, a streamlined red-brick rectangle with 600 rooms and an approximate price tag of $6 million. (It may have been as high as $8 million.) The New York architectural firm of Warren and Wetmore, which shared in the design of iconic Grand Central Terminal (popular handle: Grand Central Station), brought the Parisian flair that was Beaux Arts (think symmetry, flat roofs, arched windows, sculptural detail) to their conception for the new Ritz-Carlton, a name that bespoke class, elegance, and, well, ritziness. W&W also had designed updated versions of the local Shelburne, St. Charles, and Ambassador hotels, the last situated right across Iowa Avenue from the Ritz.
“[The architects] were ahead of their time,” says Hartman, referring to the oversize windows and multiple views that distinguished the hotel rooms.
The interior was a meld of marble, expensive furnishings, and high spirits. The hotel’s Merry-Go-Round Bar offered reasonably priced drinks to draw a lively crowd packed onto a carousel under a canvas awning. A special elevator ferried beach-goers to the sea. One floor sported several rooms dedicated to pantry service.
Indeed, the Ritz catered to both the well-heeled and strollers off the Boardwalk. With Nucky regularly entertaining political, showbiz and gangland celebrities, the Ritz was party central for many years. New York’s natty Mayor Jimmy Walker favored the Ritz, as did perennial seashore songstress/comedienne Sophie Tucker. Metropolitan opera star Lawrence Tibbett serenaded Boardwalk audiences by belting arias from his beachfront suite. Card sharks sequestered themselves in designated rooms for big-money games.
Two decades later, the stakes had changed. Starting in 1942, the Ritz served a three-year hitch for Uncle Sam, as did its fellow beachfront hotels — the Army Air Force had commandeered the town for training, as World War II raged in Europe. In the fall of 1945, AAF Redistribution Station No. 1 restored private ownership to the Ritz, but the postwar public marched to a different beat.
The 1950s and ’60s brought budget-conscious motels to the Boardwalk, while expanding air travel ushered many vacationers to distant destinations. Atlantic City and its palaces had aged. In 1958, giant hotelier Sheraton purchased the Ritz-Carlton for just $4.25 million. Under new ownership a decade later, the hotel converted its rooms to apartments.
As the old structures vanished and casino-hotels took hold, the Ritz stood its ground and went condo, dropping the “Carlton” from its name per the parent company. Since 2002, its youth and swagger have been restored.
“We’ve been putting it back to the way it was,” says Carol Hartman, president of the condominium association, co-founder of Boardwalk Realty, and Herb’s mom. “It’s an ongoing project.”
That’s been going strong. Lobbies and staircases display a regal bearing once more. Burgundy-velvet draperies and period furniture have returned, and marble floors have been refinished. A $3.5-million swimming pool and health club, added in 2008, strikes a modern chord. Outside, $500,000 in CRDA money — plus fine workmanship and careful attention to old photographs — has transformed the building’s Boardwalk façade from a frumpy strip of mismatched awnings and bad colors to a uniform richness.
Currently under consideration for a berth on state and national historic registers, the building seems a surefire candidate. What government official would have the temerity to vote thumbs-down, with the ghost of Nucky hovering in the salt air?
With interest in the Ritz increasing on a national level due to the popularity of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, which is based on Atlantic City in the 1920s and revolves around the fictional character Nucky Thompson (based on the real Nucky Johnson), the Hartmans have started to offer tours of the building where Nucky once lived, partied and held historic meetings.
For a tour of the Ritz, contact Herb Hartman at 609-345-2062.