07/22/2014 12:03 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Tour Lucy the Elephant, America's Most Prodigious Pachyderm

Elephants have long been the highlight of circuses and sideshows across America, so it's totally fitting that the world's largest fake pachyderm, affectionately known as Lucy the Elephant, is one of the main attractions in the three-ringed circus that is Atlantic City. As if her size wasn't impressive enough, she's been keeping watch over the New Jersey beach for over 100 years. 

Lucy the Elephant was the brainchild of wacky land speculator James V. Lafferty, who cooked up the idea of building an elephant-shaped building to help him sell nearby property. In 1881, he applied for and was granted a patent to build a building "in the form of an animal, the body of which is floored and divided into rooms ... the legs contain the stairs which lead to the body ..." Patent in hand, he wasted no time constructing the 6 story giant with the help of Philadelphia architect William Free. 

Lucy is a big girl, at 65 feet high, 60 feet long, and 18 feet wide. It's estimated that she cost between $25,000-$38,000 to build, which covered the 200 kegs of nails, 4 tons of bolts and iron bars, and 12,000 square feet of tin to cover the outside as well as the nearly 1 million pieces of wood that make up her skeleton. During her lifetime, she has served as a restaurant, business office, cottage, and tavern. Despite occasionally being referred to as the "Elephant Hotel," Lucy was never actually used as a hotel -- although there was a hotel next door called "The Elephant Hotel of Atlantic City."

Lucy wasn't the only elephant building Lafferty constructed. There was one dubbed "The Light of Asia" that was built in Cape May in 1884; it was torn down by 1899. The other was located at Coney Island and was known as the Elephantine Colossus -- it was twice the size Lucy and housed a 31-room boarding house in its body, a cigar store in one leg, and  (like Lucy) an observation deck up top. It also, for a time, had a museum, souvenir shops and a grand hall in its left lung area and telescopes in its eyes. Also, it being a hotel at Coney Island, the Elephantine Colossus was also frequently used as a brothel. For two years, before the Statue of Liberty was built, the Elephantine Colossus was the first thing immigrants saw when they landed in America. Rather fitting, I'd say. Sadly, the behemoth burnt down in 1896, leaving Lucy the only pachyderm novelty building left standing.

Being on the beach, Lucy has survived multiple hurricanes that have left her buried in the sand and with tusks scorched by lightning strikes. She's been nearly burnt down by rowdy tavern patrons and saved from near destruction by concerned citizens who managed to raise enough money to preserve the landmark. Visitors can still walk inside the quirky building even today. Tours of Lucy the Elephant take you up the spiral staircases in her leg and through her body to the howdah observation deck on top, which offers panoramic views of the Atlantic City skyline and Atlantic Ocean.

Lucy the Elephant, World's largest fake Elephant

For more authentically American oddness, check out our guide to Offbeat America!

Header via Wikimedia Commons