Spectacular in appearance and success, the Boardwalm's majestic Blenheim Hotel now may become even more spectacular in failure. For like the towns of the Old West, the massive Moorish-style hotel, "the" grand hotel in Atlantic City, refuses to die.
A palace away from home for princes and counts, stars of the stage and the silent and talking screen, the 72-year-old Blenheim was added to the country's National Register of Historic Places last Aug.23. To qualify for the National Register, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Interior, buildings must have unique historical and architectural significance.
Being on the National Register does not mean a building cannot be torn down. Rather, register status provides a building's owners with a big "tax incentive for preservation and/or renovation and a tax disincentive for demolition," says William Lebovich, a spokesman for the Office of the National Register of Historic Places in Washington.
What follows is a rough chronology of efforts to put the Blenheim on the register for tax benefits, efforts to take it off the register so as not to be penalized for tearing it down with a curtailment of tax benefits, and efforts of some people ready to try to put the Blenheim back on the register if it is taken off.
On March 14, 1977, the distinguished White family, which built the Blenheim in 1906, announced that the hotel had been sold to Reese Palley, an Atlanti City art gallery owner, and an associate. Palley promised to preserve the Blenheim, which was named after Blenheim Castle, home of England's Duke of Marlborough. After much time and effort, and after winning the support of the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, Palley finally succeeded in placing the lardly Blenheim on the National Register on Aug. 23.
Later last year, however, Palley realized that instead of owning a beautiful, palace-like hotel, he probably had a white elephant on his hands. He discovered that the hotel's heating and air-conditioning bill alone might put him into bankruptcy, despite the tax benefits he could get for renovating the hotel because it was on the National Register. So Palley leased the property for 99 years to the Chicago-based Balley Manufacturing Co., the world's largest maker of slot machines. The hotel is now closed.
The terms of the lease allowed Bally to do anything it wanted to the hotel. The company seriously considered renovating the Blenheim, putting on a large addition, and turning the whold thing into a hotel-casino complex. But after much deliberation, it decided to raze the grand old structure and start from scratch because this would be the most economical thing to do. Anyway, the Casino Control Act required that all casino hotels have at least 500 rooms. The old Blenheim had only about 200, and many of these did not even meet the act's room-footage requirements.
In March, Bally lawyers filed briefs with the Office of the National Register, alleging that a "procedural error" was made in the processing of the Blenheim application for the National Register. Bally lawyers also allege that the Blenheim does not have enough historical significance to qualify for the register. If one or both of these questions are ruled in Bally's favor, the building will be stricken from the list.
Spokesmen for the Office of the National Register have indictated that the Blenheim, the world's first large reinforced-concrete structure (Thomas A. Edison personally came to Atlantic City to supervise the preparation of the concrete) definitely will not be stricken from the register for a lack of architectural significance. State officials agreed with this assessment. It was also learned that even if there was a procedural error, some state officials are ready to renominate the property again.
A spokesman for Bally in New Jersey said he could not speculate on what the company would do if the Blenheim remained on the National Register.