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From Food To Freak Shows: Coney Island’s Unsung Childs Restaurant

coney island usa organization building

The former Childs restaurant building on Surf Avenue and 12th Street is today home to the organization, Coney Island USA, but the building’s role in Coney Island’s amusement area extends much further back. The building was originally constructed in 1917 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style for the Childs restaurant chain, a cafeteria-style restaurant founded in the 1880s in lower Manhattan which eventually grew to have over 100 locations in America and Canada. This building was the first of two Childs restaurants constructed in Coney Island; the other building on the Boardwalk was designated a landmark in 2003 and is currently home to Lola Staar’s Dreamland Roller Rink.

The Childs restaurant chain was the creation of Samuel and William Childs. They revolutionized the American restaurant chain by creating a uniform look to each of their branches in order to make their restaurants recognizable. Their “brand” relied heavily on the portrayal of their establishments as sanitary, clean, and modern; the interiors were outfitted with white tile floors and walls, and even the waitresses and other workers dressed in white uniforms. The Childs brothers were also the fathers of the modern cafeteria, influencing another bygone NYC chain, the Horn & Hardart Automat.

Childs served as a family-friendly eating establishment in the midst of the oftentimes rowdy Coney Island until the mid-1940s. After its closure, the 1917 building became the home of a nightclub and restaurant known as the Blue Bird Casino. In the 1950s, the building changed uses again when it became David Rosen’s Wonderland Circus Sideshow, a legendary Coney Island attraction.

The sideshow tradition continues in the building today with Coney Island USA’s Sideshow by the Seashore, a traditional ten-in-one circus sideshow. Coney Island USA operates many other Coney Island favorites out of its building, including the Coney Island Museum, the Mermaid Parade, and other annual programs and events. For many years, Coney Island USA was just a renter of the former Childs Restaurant building, that is, until a few years ago when, with the City’s help, it purchased the building and made it its permanent home. Coney Island USA has since undertaken a restoration of its ground floor exterior and interior, revealing long-covered storefront arches and creating the Freak Bar.

Although not immediately endangered because of the good stewardship of Coney Island USA, the building should be recognized with NYC landmark status. MAS has joined Coney Island USA in asking the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the former Childs Restaurant as a landmark, along with many other structures in Coney Island’s amusement area.