ATLANTIC CITY — “Welcome to the High Limit Lounge,” the sign says, leading to nothing.
That is, there’s nothing there now. What was once the casino floor at The Claridge is being transformed, piece by piece, into a 20,000-square-foot art gallery — the largest fine art gallery space in the world, gallery owner David Holtzman said — just one part of the building’s rebirth as a boutique hotel.
Glittering wall decorations lay twisted in a corner, as if it were a modern art installation of its own. A noodle bar just off the gaming floor sits empty. The former Casino Control Commission booth, raised to overlook the casino floor, will be Holtzman’s new office — once the cage is removed.
The changeover is an almost too-literal echo of the symbolic change many experts say the city itself needs to make — from gaming to post-gaming, or “the transition to the next stage,” as Mayor Don Guardian said this summer.
“This is what Atlantic City has to do,” Claridge spokeswoman Sherry Amos said as she walked through the work-in-progress gallery. “Different things. We have to reinvent ourselves, right?”
At The Claridge, that reinvention has many facets.
The Atlantic City Ballet is performing at the Claridge’s theater as Boardwalk Hall is renovated, including this year’s “Dracula” and “The Nutcracker Suite.”
This coming Memorial Day, the Garden State Discovery Museum is opening a branch at the hotel focusing on making Atlantic City history interactive for children, complete with exhibits on Lucy the Elephant and saltwater taffy. A photo on the wall surrounding the future museum space shows three young girls posing with the first Miss America, of 1924.
The hotel is also working with the city to use Brighton Park across the street for events, concerts and weddings.
“It’s just been sitting there,” Amos said of the park, located at the Monopoly-friendly intersection of Boardwalk and Park Place. “Nobody’s been giving it any attention.”
And November will feature the soft opening for The Holtzman Gallery at The Claridge, an offshoot of Holtzman’s gallery in Ventnor.
Holtzman guided visitors around the space, which sprawls across much of the old casino floor and up a small flight of steps onto the old high roller space above — even out onto the street, where a separate entrance opens up onto the Artlantic art park across Indiana Avenue and a free parking lot next door.
“Ninety-five percent of the art will be for sale,” Holtzman said. “And besides being a gallery, it will be an art venue. For the Garden State Film Festival in March, we’ll have a black-tie reception in the gallery. We expect to have a lot of events in here.”
The center of the gallery will feature art by Anthony Quinn, arranged through an exclusive deal with Quinn’s widow.
“He was a painter before he was an actor,” Holtzman said. “And he was painting since he was 8 years old. We’ll have huge sculptures, 10 feet tall, oil paintings, silk screen prints, things like that.”
As the renovations for the building’s future continue, a surprising glimpse of the past emerged from behind layers of casino trappings — the original red wallpaper from when the building opened in 1930.
“Marilyn Monroe leaned straight against that wall,” Holtzman joked. “Well, maybe.”
The discovery fits well with the hotel’s renovation plan: replacing the trappings of a 1980s-era casino, with its purply carpets and glittery decorations, with the elegant vibe of Prohibition — or really, the open flaunting of Prohibition.
“We’re really bringing back the nostalgia for that era,” Amos said. “And we’ll be continuing that theme and branding throughout the next year or two.”
The lobby is almost unrecognizable from how it looked just a few years ago, with a bar set up in the window where the cashier cage once stood. The hotel’s 500 rooms are midway through renovations, Amos said, with about half overhauled but others still looking for now like they did during the Caesars ownership era.
The 370-foot building, the “skyscraper by the sea,” is one of the last remnants of the classic, mid-20th century Atlantic City skyline that remains. Its neighbor, the Moorish Marlborough-Blenheim, was quickly demolished by Bally’s shortly after gambling began — lest the domed, minareted structure receive classification as an historic landmark.
The Claridge, favorite haunt of Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and a host of other celebrities of yore, jumped into the casino game in 1981, becoming the smallest casino in town. Many Northeasterners remember the Claridge’s old jingle — “The Cla-ridge Ca-sino Ho-tel: You’ll love our winning ways!” — but its location at the far end of Brighton Park, a distance from the Boardwalk, led to the creation of a bizarre, covered moving walkway connecting the boards with the Claridge and the Sands.
After years of being a part of Bally’s, the hotel was sold by Caesars Entertainment to Florida-based TJM Properties for $12.5 million late last year — sarcastically described by Robert Heller, president and CEO of gambling industry research firm Spectrum Gaming Capital, as a sale to an owner “who apparently didn’t see what happened to the Chelsea and thinks he’s going to do well.”
The Chelsea, the city’s first “boutique hotel,” has often closed midweek during the offseason. But for the Claridge, facing its first offseason after reopening this past Memorial Day, autumn will not only feature the opening of the Holtzman Gallery but of the renovated “Twenties” restaurant, overseen by Al Mariani.
The Ballroom — which hosted events during the Miss America Competition — sits just off the Southampton Room, a wood-paneled meeting space facing the ocean.
“We tried to keep as much of the original names as possible,” Amos said before heading up the elevators to the 23rd floor.
The Claridge’s roof, with its sweeping patio views and a two-floor penthouse crowned by a cupola, is the last part of the building slated to be renovated, although it’s still unclear what should go there — a lounge, a meeting space, a luxury unit or even a private condominium.
“The potential is so spectacular,” Amos said. “We want to do it right.”
From the windswept patio, the best view, surprisingly, is of the Claridge itself — completely reflected in the pink glass of the Bally’s tower next door, which went up where the Blenheim used to stand.
As casinos open and close around it, as construction alters and molds the city into whatever dream is currently in favor, the patio atop the Claridge is still the same site, the same patch of concrete, where flappers once watched the sun rise over the ocean; where men in tuxedos and their dates sneaked away to walk beneath the moonlight; where celebrities disappeared for a smoke after a long night before adoring crowds.
At least that all may have happened. It’s nice to think so.
And if a hurricane ever hit Atlantic City again, people who need to stay — officials, media members, emergency workers — are advised to avoid the modern structures, with their dangerous sheaths of glass, and batten down behind the bricks.
“The building is solid,” Amos said, the city stretching out in front of her. “It’s not going anywhere.”
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