MARGATE CITY, New Jersey (WPVI) -- When you walk the beach in Margate City, New Jersey, you're greeted by an unexpected onlooker: Lucy the Elephant.
Rich Helfant, Executive Director and CEO of Lucy the Elephant, says that "everybody knows Lucy and everybody loves Lucy."
"She's just the cutest elephant in the world," he says.
And Helfant has been working for decades to keep America's oldest roadside attraction forever young in Margate. Growing up in Margate, he says that Lucy has been part of his whole life.
"I actually started raising money for Lucy in seventh grade when we were saving her from the wrecking ball," says Helfant.
That was 1970, and since 2000 he's served as the Executive Director and CEO of Lucy.
"She's older than the Statue of Liberty," says Helfant.
Compared to other monuments, Lucy's age really puts the elephant's history in perspective.
"There's a life to this structure. It's almost unexplainable, but it's more than just a building," he says.
Taking a guided tour feels like a step back in time.
"Lucy was built in 1881 by a Philadelphia developer whose name was James Lafferty," says Helfant.
When visitors are inside Lucy's belly, they can view artifacts and photographs of both her life and restoration. The Save Lucy Committee, Inc. was established in 1970. It has worked to fund a few restoration projects over the last fifty years.
"We just finished a 15-month $2.5 million restoration of her exterior skin," says Helfant. "She's completely brand new now on the outside."
The on-site gift shop helps to fund Lucy's upkeep.
"And it has anything and everything you can think of that's elephant-related," he says.
It's run mostly by volunteers, like the Imbers. This is their 8th season helping in the gift shop.
"We enjoy it very much," says Suzan Katz Imber.
Her husband, Barry Imber, says he enjoys interacting with visitors who come from all over the world.
"How could you not visit the biggest elephant in the entire world?" he asks. "It is one of a kind."
Helfant says the most gratifying part of preserving Lucy for the next generation is seeing the looks on kids' faces. "They're so in awe of her," he says.
He says it's heartwarming to see the improvements that have been made to Lucy over the years, knowing how far they've come from the 1970s to today.
"We've made a tremendous difference in Lucy's life," he says.
Lucy the Elephant is turning 142 on July 20th and "Lucy's multi-million-dollar makeover" birthday celebration is being held on-site Saturday, July 22 from 10am to 8pm. It is the largest fundraiser of the year for the National Historic Landmark.
For more information:
Lucy the Elephant
9200 Atlantic Ave.
Margate City, NJ 08402