By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Beautiful flapper girls sashayed on the red carpet at the Flanders Hotel, while debonair gentlemen exuded Great Gatsby-esque charisma in their tuxedos and top hats.
Did someone say they saw Rudolph Valentino and Greta Garbo?
Perhaps not, but the historic Flanders Hotel staged a centennial gala Saturday night every bit as glamorous as the Roaring Twenties style that marked the landmark building’s grand opening in 1923 on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
The sold-out party of 500 revelers celebrated the hotel’s 100th anniversary, as well as its survival amid decades-long economic upheaval and ownership turmoil that culminated in its temporary closure in 1995.
“This architectural marvel has withstood a lot of adversity and hardship to still be standing after 100 years,” Peter Voudouris, president of the Flanders condominium association board, said in remarks to the crowd in the hotel ballroom.
After a remarkable recovery over the years, the Flanders “couldn’t be in a better place” financially now with its hotel bookings, number of visitors and other key aspects of its business operations, Voudouris noted.
The Flanders operates as a hotel, even though the 232 units are condos. Voudouris estimated that a record number of more than 100,000 guests visited the hotel rooms, banquet facilities, supper club, restaurant, spa, fitness center, retail shops and other amenities in 2023.
As part of the celebration, Mayor Jay Gillian presented Voudouris with a ceremonial piece of the Boardwalk. Gillian paid tribute to the Flanders “team” that has allowed the hotel to survive and thrive.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen the Flanders like this,” Gillian said, alluding to the hotel’s splashy grand opening in 1923.
In the 1920s, the upscale resort hotel was conceived by the town’s business and political leaders as a way to transform Ocean City into a major player in the Jersey Shore’s tourism industry. Over the years, its tony surroundings attracted not only a steady flow of tourists, but also celebrity guests that included Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, among others.
Re-creating the Flanders’ flair of the 1920s, partiers came dressed for the occasion in all of their Jazz Age finery Saturday night. As if they were Hollywood stars themselves, they strolled up to the hotel on a red carpet and were greeted at the entrance by tuxedoed doormen.
Adding to the glitzy atmosphere was a collection of vintage automobiles lining 11th Street in front of the hotel entrance.
Doug Jewell, who owns the Air Circus retail shop on the Ocean City Boardwalk, hammed it up while posing for photos in front of the cars. Jewell wore a 1920s-inspired outfit consisting of a raccoon fur coat, bowler hat and gentleman’s walking stick.
“I couldn’t find my spats, or else I would have worn them, too,” Jewell joked of the decorative footwear popular among men of that era.
Women dressed the part of the famous flapper girls in short skirts, elaborate headpieces over their bobbed hairstyles and heavy eye makeup. As an extra touch, some of them carried the extra-long cigarette holders favored by women in the 1920s.
Mary Diehl’s flapper girl outfit included a red sequined dress, a feather-topped headpiece and a flowing strand of pearls.
“It’s the whole nine yards,” Diehl said with a laugh about her getup.
Diehl’s husband, Jeff, was dressed as a Prohibition-era mobster in a black shirt, white tie and black fedora.
The Diehls live in Allentown, Pa., and own a condo at the Flanders. They said their outfits were inspired by the Prohibition-era speakeasy that operated in the hotel’s “Catacombs,” a maze of seven expansive rooms located underneath the building.
“I’m definitely transformed into a flapper girl. There was a speakeasy here and I’m right in character,” Mary Diehl said.
Dianne Bottino, of Absecon, and her daughter, Megan Bottino, of Baltimore, were also dressed as flapper girls. Megan, who is a historian pursuing a doctoral degree, said she went to great lengths to make sure her black dress, headpiece and makeup accurately reflected the flapper girl era.
“They really love the headpiece,” she said of the public’s reaction.
Ralph Clayton, 89, a local businessman who lives in Beesleys Point, recalled how he, as a youngster, would either hitchhike or take the train into Ocean City so he could swim in the Flanders’ huge pool complex, which is no longer part of the hotel.
“For a dime, you could get on the train and come into Ocean City,” Clayton said of the long-ago trips from his then-home in Palermo.
Clayton, accompanied by his friend, Dot Tochterman, of Ocean City, was stylishly dressed for the centennial celebration in a black felt bowler hat.
Clayton’s 1912 Ford Model T and 1915 Wurlitzer band organ were part of the display of vintage automobiles parked in front of the Flanders.
The pool complex fondly remembered by Clayton included three salt water swimming pools belonging to the Flanders: an Olympic-sized main pool, a kiddie pool and a deep-water diving pool.
Decades later, the pools outlived their usefulness. They closed in the late 70s and the land was filled in with sand. The three-acre site was eventually sold and Playland’s Castaway Cove amusement park rose in front of the hotel.
The redevelopment of the former pool complex was just one of many changes at the Flanders during its transformation over the years.
Built at a cost of $1.5 million, the Flanders was Ocean City’s biggest private construction project at that time when it opened on July 23, 1923, during the exuberant Jazz Age era.
But even the hotel’s early years were not without challenges. Only six years after the Flanders opened, the stock market crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression. The Flanders also survived Ocean City’s catastrophic Boardwalk fire in 1927.
After its halcyon days, the hotel began to struggle with the evolving tastes of contemporary vacationers, multiple bankruptcies, the crippling expense of maintaining an aging infrastructure, legal battles and a change in ownership in the mid-1990s.
At one point, the Flanders fell into foreclosure and was forced to shut down on May 8, 1995. By late 1995, a new owner bought the property and converted the hotel rooms into 95 condominiums.
Although the Flanders’ transformation into a “condotel” had promise, the property was saddled with outdated facilities, structural problems, fire code violations and other liabilities that threatened its existence.
At one point, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs declared the building as unsafe and wanted to close it down in 2005 unless repairs were made, according to a press release that recounted the hotel’s history.
However, the Flanders began its slow recovery in 2005 after the property came under the collective ownership of the condo owners and Peter Voudouris was appointed president of the condominium association board.
Voudouris was successful in securing a $2 million construction loan from Sun National Bank to begin repairing the crumbling infrastructure and adding new amenities.
During his remarks, Voudouris also credited his wife, Arlene, for the hotel’s dramatic turnaround, including her role in overseeing the hotel’s physical appearance and the numerous ongoing popular events she created.
Arlene thanked family members, friends, the Flanders’ employees and other supporters for helping to make the hotel the success it is today. She described it as the Flanders extended family.
“This place is a giant family. When people come in, we say, ‘Welcome home,’” she told the guests at the centennial gala.