The Paragon Park Story

Paragon Park opened to the public on Saturday, June 10, 1905, transforming Nantasket Beach for the better part of the 20th century. Billed as a “miniature world’s fair,” the 10-acre park built by the Eastern Park Construction Company was, in fact, fashioned in the image of an actual fair – the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The Chicago event introduced the concept of the “midway” of attractions now common at amusement parks and carnivals (known then as the Midway Plaisance), and inspired the construction of hundreds of enclosed parks across the country, many of which took their names from the “White City” nickname of the whitewashed buildings that surrounded the Columbian Exposition’s central lagoon.

Paragon had its own saltwater lagoon, which surrounded a central electric tower that rose 110 feet into the sky, by far the largest structure at Nantasket Beach. The park featured wild-animal shows, shooting galleries, performances by natives of far-away lands, “a foolish house, the dragon’s den, the haunted swing, the laughing show, an arcade and man smaller buildings,” according to the opening-day press. “Nothing like Paragon Park has ever before been seen near than Luna Park at New York,” The Boston Globe enthused, referencing the world-famous amusement center at Coney Island.
George A. Dodge, a Boston businessman who had made a fortune selling whalebone, a substance that was used for so many products that it has been called the plastic of its day, was the prime mover behind the construction of Paragon. As recounted in his 1922 obituary, a friend of Dodge’s invested in what became known as the Nantasket Steeplechase, a collection of amusements licensed from Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park that was built on land leased from the Old Colony Railroad.

Coney entrepreneur George C. Tilyou, one of the most prolific showmen at the turn of the 20th century – rivaling P.T. Barnum in that regard – created a system in which his patented inventions (with cheeky names like “Funny Stairway,” “Earthquake Floor,” “Third-Degree Room,” “Cave of the Winds,” and “Revolving House of Delusion,”) became the basis for the fledgling amusement industry in America. The centerpiece of the complex – a metal track on which riders raced their horses against each other, based on the old English horse race through the countryside, usually with a distant church steeple as the finish line – was only part of the show. Tilyou’s inventions were so commonplace that fun houses of differing sizes became known as “a steeplechase.”

Within two years, however, the friend needed financial help, and turned to Dodge, who invested in the venture and then launched grander vision of a larger, self-contained amusement park on the vacant land surrounding the Nantasket Steeplechase and the adjacent Old Mill attraction. Dodge assembled a group of investors to form the Eastern Park Construction Company and leased several acres from the railroad company. This land, combined with the Rockland House hotel atop the hill in the rear, would become the basis for Paragon Park.

The park opened to rave reviews. Its layout and format modeled those of Luna and Dreamland at Coney Island, with an ornate front entrance and exhibitions from foreign lands surrounding the lagoon and electric tower. The Palm Garden restaurant, function facility, and performance hall at the base of the hill drew guests of the surrounding hotels and larger parties of conventioneers, corporate dinners, and class reunions. The entertainment at the Palm Garden rivaled that in the city; in fact, Paragon was on the same circuit as Boston theaters and showcased nationally known performers in addition to the in-house song-and-dance troupe.

Within two seasons, however, Paragon was falling short of its financial projections, Eastern Park’s investors wanted to abandon the concept. Dodge believed in his vision and bought out his partners in 1907.

Dodge threw himself into making the park a success, changing exhibits each year and adding to the mix of rides and attractions. The first major fire at Paragon struck in 1911, leveling all of the buildings from the entrance south along Nantasket Avenue to what would become Park Avenue. In the aftermath of the fire, a new dance hall and roller coaster were constructed in the front of the park. The roller coaster, known as the Green Streak, replaced an earlier, figure-8 model that had been located at the rear of the complex next to the Palm Garden.

Only a few years later, another fire would wreak havoc at Paragon. By the time the flames were extinguished, the Green Streak was a shambles, as was the signature front entrance and much of the park facing Nantasket Avenue.

The 1917 season would bring with it major changes at Paragon. A new stone-carved front entrance designed by Hugh Cairns would add elegance to the Nantasket Avenue side. Hilarity Hall, a funhouse akin to the Steeplechase, was built next door, and a dance hall that later became a roller rink, toy store, and video arcade. But most significantly, Dodge looked to make an impact with the new and improved park. He contracted with the Philadelphia Toboggan Company to build the tallest roller coaster in the world, Paragon’s 98-foot Giant Coaster.

Although he and Eastern Park sold off the Rockland House as part of their 1907 separation, Dodge later bought the Pemberton Hotel and Pemberton Inn, adjacent hotels at the farthest end of the Hull peninsula. In 1912, Dodge opened the Hotel Georgian in Park Square, an upscale nightspot in Boston’s theater district that he operated until Prohibition forced it to close in 1919.

At about the same time, Dodge decided to scale back from running Paragon on a day-to-day basis. In late 1915, he had leased parts of the park to fruit peddler David Stone and fellow hotelier Albert A. Golden.

Beginning with the 1920 season, Stone and Golden took over management of the entire Paragon operation, leasing all of the rides and concessions controlled by Dodge. It was a complicated transaction, as Dodge still was leasing the property from the railroad, and subleased the operation to Stone and Golden.

The two men would face their first challenges early in their tenure. On September 20, 1922, George A. Dodge died from Bright’s Disease at a hospital in New Hampshire. Over the winter, Stone and Golden began working on how they would secure the continuation of Paragon. David’s son, Joseph, entered into negotiations with the Old Colony Railroad to purchase the land under Paragon. Shortly after railroad executives signed the paperwork the following March, fire broke out in a paint shop at the park.

On March 28, 1923, flames ripped through Paragon, causing $500,000 in damage and destroying much of the southern end of the park and the cottages along the way toward Atlantic Hill. David Stone lost two houses on Rockland House Road in the fire; others involved in area concessions lost their homes and businesses as well.

It would be two years before Stone and Golden would be able to assume full control of the park, canceling the lease that had been signed in 1919 and making improvements to the fire-ravaged amusement center. Their 1928 purchase of a Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel would become the centerpiece of the park, replacing concessionaire John J. Hurley’s previous carousel in the same location.

The year 1929 is significant in American history as the beginning of the Great Depression, and its impact also was felt at Nantasket Beach. A Thanksgiving Day fire at nearby Nantasket Pier destroyed most of the fleet of steamboats that carried passengers to and from Boston. While the fire didn’t physically touch the park, its effects on the economy and the prospects for the resort were profound. The Nantasket Beach Steamboat Company struggled for several years before declaring bankruptcy; the Old Colony Railroad suspended train service in 1932, substituting buses to and from the Nantasket Junction depot in Hingham. Within five years, the rail line was abandoned forever. Part of its track bed would later be incorporated into the footprint of the amusement park.

The financial difficulties of the Depression weighed heavily on Paragon’s operations. In 1931, David and Rose Stone created the Paragon Park Operating Company to hold their ownership interest and shield it from creditors. Debts incurred in the purchase of the park from the Dodge estate were extended; banks and creditors alike were leaning heavily on the owners of the park. Even the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 did little to improve things, although the ability to obtain liquor licenses made it manageable.

During the 1930s, part of the Giant Coaster was rebuilt and a brightly colored Art Deco main entrance was erected in 1937. War rationing and blackout drills during the 1940s put more strain on the park’s operations. The Stone family, by now in sole control of Paragon’s operations but still sharing ownership of the land with Golden, suffered losses in 1946 and 1949. First, patriarch David Stone died during the off season in Miami; three years later, his oldest son, Joseph, died in the middle of park’s 1949 season. Younger brother Larry, 30, and mother Rose, 73, were left carry on the management of the family business.

Although the Stone and Golden partnership to operate the park had dissolved around 1925, ownership of the land remained divided until 1951. The Stones took control of the main Paragon property, as well as its rear parking lots and warehouse, while Golden retained the section of former railroad bed that would later house the Turnpike Cars ride and the Magic Mine Train. He also would own the row of storefronts along Nantasket Avenue from the front entrance northward to Fascination, although to most observers, the separation was not noticeable.

Paragon’s next major milestones arrived in 1963, when three separate fires swept through the area. The first, termed a “roaring inferno” by the Hull fire chief, ripped through the Arcade Bazaar and Funland, a toy store and group of attractions just up Nantasket Avenue from Paragon. Damage estimates topped $300,000. About a month later, a huge blaze destroyed much of the roller coaster, the front entrance, and concessions along the front. Crews worked around the clock to rebuild the Giant so that it could open that season. Fire struck again in the fall, destroying the Chateau ballroom at the rear of the park. Lost in that fire was much of the holiday inventory of Toy-A-Rama, a seasonal store in Paragon’s former roller skating rink that competed against the Arcade Bazaar.

In the aftermath of the April fire, Paragon reopened without its signature front entrance. Silver-colored flagpoles stretched across the entrance, now enclosed by chain-link gates that would swing inward. Buildings were rebuilt quickly in utilitarian style – flat-roofed, single-story concrete block structures that were fire resistant but lacked the grandeur and artistry of past architecture. The coaster itself was shortened in order to be ready by the Fourth of July holiday, with its final circular turns left off the drawing board in the interest of time.

As Paragon lumbered along, relatively little changed during the following two decades except the names and locations of some of the rides. When Rose Stone died in 1969, the park lost one of its most familiar figures and its last link to the days when Dodge was still active in the park’s operations.

The park’s next transformation would not come from fire, but from Mother Nature’s wrath. The Great Blizzard of 1978 put the park under six feet of water as the Atlantic Ocean and Hull Bay converged on the Hull peninsula and left a wake of destruction. The park’s owners were challenged in a way they hadn’t been previously, as cleanup from a fire is relatively straightforward – the burned and damaged areas are removed and replaced. But they would find that recovering from a flood was entirely different. Some items, such as the motors and machinery of most rides, arcade games, prize inventory, needed complete replacement, while the buildings themselves needed to be dried out.

Games manager Myron Klayman, the brother-in-law of owner Phyllis Stone, was a selectman in Hull at the time of the storm, and recalled serving dual roles in helping the town clean up from the disaster while also directing crews at his employer. With the Stones out of town on vacation, disaster duty fell to Klayman. He remembers seeing wooden picnic tables – so heavy that it usually took four men to move them – having been heaved over an eight-foot fence and carried by the raging tides to the other end of the park.

Miraculously, Paragon opened on time for the 1978 season, but not before family matters would complicate the family business. Larry and Phyllis Stone decided to divorce, and Klayman, caught in the middle of a dispute between the owners, found himself looking for a new job after 30 years. At about this time, a movement within the town of Hull to legalize casino gambling complicated Paragon’s status within the town vision for the future. Was it destined to become a cornerstone of the casino economy, or was its presence an obstacle to further development? The question would never be fully answered, however, as the 1982 election of gambling opponent Michael Dukakis as Massachusetts governor sealed the fate of any casino dreams.

By then, the Stone family found itself in an unfamiliar position: unsure of how long the park could survive. Larry and Phyllis Stone found little common ground in their day-to-day management. Neither of their two children expressed an interest in carrying on the family business. With the economy still climbing out of a recession, they faced stark reality – years of deferred maintenance and the rising popularity of larger theme parks meant that significant investment would be required to modernize Paragon and make it competitive as a destination. The price of a new ride was now in the millions, and the cost of liability insurance for thrill parks continued to climb.

As each season ended, friends and family recall the Stones saying privately that it would be the last; they no longer had the energy to devote to such a draining enterprise. Rumors occasionally surfaced of a potential buyer showing interest, but as each winter’s gossip gave way to spring’s warmer temperatures, Paragon’s gates swung open to welcome the crowds.

All of that changed in 1984. The Massachusetts real estate market blossomed in the mid-1980s, and the factors that in the past had limited Paragon’s ability to expand now gave it extra value – it was sandwiched between two bodies of water and the views that came with them. Chester Kahn, a condominium developer whose summer residence was one block away from the Stones’ Hull home, floated the idea of turning Paragon into a high-rise condominium complex. Kahn already knew that the town’s zoning rules for the park property lacked a key ingredient: a height limit. He proposed twin 18-story towers, each double the height of the world-famous roller coaster’s first hill.

The developer’s interest prompted the Stones to agree on something – they both were tired of running the business and the $5.5 million purchase price would give them enough money to comfortably retire. In late 1984, they accepted Kahn’s offer.

News of the developer’s interest appeared in December 1984 in a place that was unlikely to attract attention – a column in the pages of The New England Real Estate Journal, a trade publication generally seen only by those in the real estate industry. One of its readers tipped off the local paper, The Hull-Nantasket Times, which went to press a day early to officially break the news on January 2, 1985 that a condominium developer planned to tear down Paragon Park.

While sad, the news contained one ray of hope – a final season for nostalgia-filled fans to say goodbye. Within weeks, however, Kahn-Quinn and the Stones had moved up the closing, deciding that opening the gates to souvenir-seekers, litigious loiterers, and potential vandals was too risky. The sale was set to close in March, only a few weeks away.

Without even knowing it, we’d had our last ride at Paragon Park.

During the next several months, the town of Hull was in turmoil. Each week, it seemed, brought a new development proposal. Real estate interests were inspired both by the removal of what some considered the “honky tonk” amusements and by the zoning loophole Kahn’s plans had exposed. Condominiums already were under way on Atlantic Hill and Telegraph Hill, as well as at Spinnaker Island, but in the months following the Paragon announcement, new plans were floated – Nantascot Place, River Crossing, and the former Showboat Mayflower property on George Washington Boulevard, Ocean Place, SeaWatch, and Murray Plaza along the beach, the Hall Estate, Damon Place, and the former Worrick Mansion (which would burn to the ground in 1986) on Atlantic Hill, Milford Street, Marina Beach, and One A Street at Waveland, Mariners Landing, Sunset Arms, and the Boathouse at Allerton.

Paragon fans were getting used to the idea that there would be no final season. Many made the pilgrimage to photograph the park for the last time, and members of the American Coaster Enthusiasts visited to see the Giant, at one time the world’s tallest coaster, before it met its fate. But another group of preservationists began to think about how memories of the park could be saved, and fixed its gaze upon the antique carousel.

A “Save the Carousel” effort began in earnest in February, with local residents lobbying Larry and Phyllis Stone to keep the merry-go-round intact, and keep it in Hull. Within a few weeks, Kahn announced that the developers would ride to the rescue and keep the ride operating, either on-site or at a separate location within the town’s borders.

What wouldn’t be kept in town, however, were the rides and equipment that now stood in the way of the Plaza at Paragon Park. On Wednesday, June 12, 1985, hundreds of former employees, nostalgic patrons, and park operators from around the country braved a rainstorm to watch as bids were placed on each part of the park, from ticket booths and ride equipment to signs bearing the Paragon name. One bidder paid $25 for the entire lot of rainbow-colored trash cans.

The most visible prize at the June auction didn’t attract the highest bid, but garnered the most attention. Mark Mason, the manager of the Wild World amusement park near Baltimore, paid $28,000 to buy the Giant Coaster, and promptly announced plans to dismantle the ride piece-by-piece and have it rebuilt in time for the next season. Paragon fans rejoiced that incredibly, two of the signature pieces of Paragon Park would survive its imminent death.

Selling the 18-story development to the public was a harder task than the developers had imagined, however, and by fall, even with a compromise reduction to 12 stories, Kahn and Quinn faced stiff opposition. The developers said they’d received at least 100 deposits from potential condo buyers; evidence, they said, that the market existed for high-rise units overlooking the ocean and the bay. Many in Hull remained unconvinced. After spending months being battered in the public realm, Kahn and Quinn abruptly changed course. In late 1985, they canceled the development all together, and announced that they would sell the beloved carousel at auction 28 days later.

Preservationists swung into action, mounting a publicity and fundraising campaign that drew awareness but far less than the nearly $1 million valuation that had been suggested for the 57-year-old carousel. Activist Judeth Van Hamm Wiers, who had initially raised the issue in February and started the fundraising drive in earnest in November, pulled together three local businessmen who pooled their resources to submit the winning bid of $598,800 — only $1,200 short of their credit limit – in dramatic fashion at the auction.

The carousel moved down the block the following spring, by which time the developers had returned with a new plan for a seven-story, 112-unit brick building fronting Nantasket Avenue. In the ensuing real estate crash, the developers would lose control of the property and never realize the plans for a second building at the rear of the site.

“Carousel Under the Clock,” as it was known, operated as a private business until 1996, when the three businessmen who purchased the ride at the auction decided that they needed to recoup their investment. A second – or was it actually the third? – “save the carousel” effort was launched, but this time the result would be the formation of the non-profit Friends of the Paragon Carousel and the purchase of the antique merry-go-round for $1.1 million.

The Friends operate the carousel next door to the former railroad station, and in 2013 opened a small museum of Paragon memorabilia. The storefront includes the workshop of James Hardison, the artist who is painstakingly restoring each of the 66 wooden horses, where visitors can watch the continuing efforts to preserve the remnants of Paragon Park at Nantasket Beach.