Waltz Through Time

 

They built this town in the Jersey swamps,

Beside the Egg Harbor River,

And the wind can blow and the snow can Come, but Belcoville will not shiver.

They have a loading plant there, too,

Run by the B.L.C.

It loads the shells that do the work,

With the boys across the sea.

- from a 1918 poem published in a local newspaper

The United States had been engaged in World War I for one year when Bethlehem Loading Company located a plant on a tract of 10,000 swampy acres stretching from below Mays Landing to Petersburg. A new town formed around the plant, a company town, a steel town. Its marching orders: munitions for American troops fighting in European trenches.

Atlantic City architect Vivian Smith not only designed the town of Belcoville, but oversaw its construction as well. It emerged with its own post office, school, and newspaper, and boasted a theater, a bank, and a bowling alley. The area today is known better for bed-and-breakfasts than concussive blasts.

Architect Smith was well suited to both types of environments. His grandest buildings helped define the skylines of Atlantic City and Ocean City. His more modest structures fit hand-in-glove into their surroundings, yet retained a distinctive flair. Smith created living and working spaces that were both functional and memorable.

He was an Ocean City native (born 1886), and he would design his hometown's most iconic sites. First, though, a teenage Vivian Smith went to Philadelphia to work as a draftsman. There, in the first decade of the 20th century, he absorbed the emerging modern cityscape and dreamed of designing hotels and office buildings of lasting impact. But his imagination tugged him away from the large urban centers and back to the seashore.

In 1914, Smith designed for Ocean City a city hall of classical sweep and decorative intricacy. Its beaux-arts look of columns and casements, pediments and pilasters, combined power and refinement, and its layout never gave way to stiffness. City halls were local symbols - not merely places for civic meetings - and Smith understood the concept. Years later, he gave the new Ventnor City Hall a neighborhood warmth with its brick exterior and wooden beams inside. "The idea was to put a municipal building in a residential setting," an architect overseeing the building's restoration said several years ago.

Ventnor City Hall was built in 1928 and, a year later, the Smith-designed Ocean City Music Pier unveiled its solarium, loggia, and concert hall. With the mammoth task that was Belcoville now part of history, and the booming 1920s at hand, Vivian Smith had caught the wave of seashore expansion. Elsewhere in Ocean City, the terra-cotta roof of his stately Flanders Hotel loomed above the sands. In Ventnor, where he was living, his sense of fit and proportion was embodied by the Community Church, whose rising stone and huge stained-glass window still blend, rather than clash, with the neighborhood.

In Atlantic City, where he maintained offices in the Guarantee Trust Building (and later, the Real Estate and Law Building), Smith fashioned landmarks and less heralded structures. He designed the main auditorium of Chelsea Baptist Church, whose "Christ Died for Our Sins" sign has long towered over Atlantic Avenue. The old Elks Club building on Virginia featured a mansard roof and a porte-cochere. The Senator Hotel's sky cabana overlooked the beach block of South Carolina. Perhaps Smith's showiest building was the imposing Breakers Hotel on New Jersey, its rooftop garden and regal entrance facing the Garden Pier.

Many less conspicuous Vivian Smith buildings also were part of the fabric of Atlantic City, including Hotel Donato (near current City Hall), the compact Crailsheim Apartments (Illinois Avenue) - both gone -and numerous other apartments, hostelries, stores, and office buildings noted for comfort as well as taste. Smith buildings were livable, user-friendly; their easy elegance set a seashore standard.

When Smith died in 1952, moderne was becoming the watchword in architecture. Symbolic design and decorative detail yielded to bold and boxy with no frills. The majestic Breakers fell in 1974, and many other Vivian Smith buildings have since vanished, though the Ocean City trinity of Flanders, Music Pier and City Hall remains. Spruced up by restoration, they convey the power and grace their architect intended.

For a different sense of Atlantic City's past, take a stroll to the southeast corner of North Carolina and Atlantic, where the sturdy copper canopy of Smith's former Segal Fruit Building has greened after decades in the salt air.

The building now hosts new vendors. Segal's prized "Fancy Fruits" are no longer delivered here.

Jim Waltzer's Tales of South Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.

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