The Half Moon & The Canary

The Half Moon Hotel once graced the Coney Island shore with a salty elegance. Designed by George B. Post & Sons in Spanish Colonial style, it was built in a letter C shape with two wings and a court facing the boardwalk. The buff brick structure was 14 stories high, laurelled with various urns and finials, and rose towards a massive domed-tower bearing a half-moon-shaped weather vane.

Construction of the hotel was proposed by the Chamber of Commerce in 1925, its final and most ambitious attempt to turn Coney Island into a splendid seaside resort.  They envisioned a hotel that would satisfy the “pressing need for suitable accommodations” for high class patrons “similar to that which must now resort to Atlantic City.”

Opening its doors in the spring of 1927, it was named “Half Moon” after Henry Hudson‘s vessel that, according to tradition, landed on the very spot where the hotel stood (West 29th Street and Boardwalk).  The completed hotel featured decorative ornaments centered on nautical themes: relief busts of Hudson, a (Queen) Isabella Lounge and the Galleon Grille, along with murals portraying 17th-century Spanish port life. The hotel quickly became a beloved landmark for all visitors to Coney island; the island’s largest, highest and most unique structure, it dominated the shoreline and could be seen for miles around.

However, despite its aesthetic appeal, the hotel was a financial failure that never attracted the high class patrons that the Chamber of Commerce desired. By 1939, the legendarily timeserving Robert Moses wrote to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia describing the majority of guests at the Half Moon as “people of the smallest means” who would much prefer increased beach space.

To add insult to a soon-to-be insolvent history, in 1941 the Half Moon had a “special guest” stay there. His name was Abe Reles, Murder, Inc.‘s most vicious (arguably most psychotic) killer; he was staying at the hotel through the “courtesy” of the government.

Abe Reles

Facing execution for a string of murders, Reles decided to “sing” (or turned informant) for the government in their case against Murder, Inc. His testimony sent most of his fellow cutthroats to the electric chair. Everything was going famously for Reles until his blood-drenched ditties endangered the health of Albert Anastasia. Once a co-chief of homicidal operations for Murder, Inc., Anastasia had murderously risen to the highest echelons of the Mafia; unlike Reles’ former targets, Anastasia would be no easy task.

While the trial awaited its sole witness in the case against Anastasia, scheduled for November 12, 1941, Reles was placed under constant police protection. Six NYPD detectives set Reles up in a sixth-floor room of the Half Moon and guarded him around the clock. Sometime during the early morning of the 12th, Reles decided to do a “swan dive” through the window and landed on the roof of an adjoining building.

While it’s practically certain that the renowned killer was murdered himself, the case remains unsolved. Because police found a pair of knotted sheets dangling from his room, Reles was believed to have been attempting to escape. Due to the fact that these sheets were too short to reach anywhere near the ground, many believe that the police focused on this flimsy evidence as a convenient solution to Reles’ convenient departure.

Through the Great Depression, the Half Moon Hotel (along with Coney Island itself) sank further into debt and was transformed from hotel to hospital in 1949; it eventually became the Metropolitan Jewish Geriatric Center in 1954. The hotel was torn down in the early 1990s, sharing the same fate of many other Coney Island attractions. Unfortunately (but, nonetheless, nostalgically), through the sound of the waves lapping and the breeze dashing, Abe Reles’ informal epitaph often comes to mind: the “canary who sang, but couldn’t fly.”

Reles After He Checked Out.


Source: NY TIMES

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2 comments on “The Half Moon & The Canary

  1. Eddy says:

    I was born there in 1950.

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