A.C.'s little house on the prairie sells for $530,000

Vera Coking's rooming house at 127 S. Columbia Place in Atlantic City New Jersey. (Steven M. Falk/Staff photographer)

ATLANTIC CITY - Vera Coking finally cashed in. And like the rest of Atlantic City these days, the price came at a steep discount.

The white boardinghouse that Coking could have sold for millions to Donald Trump years ago fetched $530,000 Thursday at a lackluster auction in the shadow of a now-hobbled Trump Plaza.

With a 10 percent commission price, the winning bidders, Atlantic City lawyer Pat Agnellini and Stanley Realty Co., will pay $583,000 for the three-story property.

Agnellini declined to identify himself at the auction except to state the obvious - that he was not representing Donald Trump. He later came forward to say he was the buyer of the iconic property, at a fraction of what Trump was willing to pay.

"I don't exactly know what I'm going to do with the property yet," Agnellini said. "Beyond that, I have no comment."

Coking, who purchased the house for $20,000 in 1961, became a folk hero after turning down millions from Trump, who wanted her house for a limousine staging area for the Trump Plaza.

She had stood firm while Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione built an iron structure literally up and over her house. Perhaps most significant, Coking successfully resisted state efforts to take the property by eminent domain.

The winning bid came after about an hour of action in the parking lot separating Trump Plaza from the 29-room boardinghouse owned by Coking.

Some onlookers suggested that the home be preserved to honor Coking's fight; others, specifically Trump Plaza employees, hoped the winning bidder would also buy the casino, slated to close Sept. 16. (Unlikely, said Agnellini.)

The house had been listed for $995,000 for about a year. For a time Thursday, as auctioneer Oren Klein dipped his opening bid price below $200,000, it seemed nobody wanted to bid at all.

"It's a piece of history," he urged the group of potential bidders. "You're in the path of progress."

At another point he said, "This woman didn't fight for nothing. There is a lot of value here."

Indeed, the property sits tantalizingly close to the site of the new Bass Pro Shops and is one block from the Boardwalk.

Klein speculated that the owner of the property might eventually sell to whoever takes control of the Trump Plaza property.

Coking, 91, now lives in a retirement home in California. For decades, her refusal to sell helped define Atlantic City - a place where casinos were supposed to lead to an urban renaissance, but one that frequently called upon citizens to sacrifice in the name of further casino development. Many called her a hero. Others blamed Atlantic City's failings on the difficult climate created by holdouts like Coking.

The sale price nearly matched the property's assessed value of $580,000, but fell far short of the asking price of $995,000, and was a fraction of Trump's alleged offers from years before.

Among the losing bidders was a contractor from Hammonton who said he was also trying to buy the tower of Trump Plaza, and Ned Sakhai of New York, who said he wanted to turn the property into a go-go bar.

Members of the family listened in on the phone to the auction and approved an opening bid of $175,000, below the stated minimum bid of $199,000. They did not respond to efforts to contact them.

Trump said this week that there was no convincing Coking.

"She could have lived happily ever after in Palm Beach, Fla.; instead, she was an impossible person to deal with," Trump told the Associated Press.

In addition to millions of dollars, Trump said, he had offered Coking housing for the rest of her life in one of his properties.

But Coking never wanted to sell. Her family has said it was never about the money. She simply wanted to remain in the home she had bought with her husband.

The auction attracted a small gathering of onlookers, including several employees of Trump Plaza, a once-dominant casino now scheduled to close Sept. 16. It presages next week's high-profile auction of the Revel casino and hotel, also expected to sell at a deep discount.

Lois Chiles, visiting from New Haven, Conn., said the home was historic and should remain as a tribute to Coking. "She's a model," she said. "She stood her ground."

The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority spent five years trying to force Coking to relinquish the property through eminent domain. A judge ultimately sided with Coking.

Glenn Zeitz, the attorney who represented Coking in the eminent-domain case, said her fight set an important precedent for New Jersey homeowners.

"She's a heroine," he said Thursday. Any public officials who think she obstructed development in Atlantic City, he said, should "look in the mirror."

"They had an opportunity that was squandered," Zeitz said. "That's really what happened. Imagine what they'd done if they'd really reinvested in the city. It's a shame."



What Vera Coking and her husband paid for the 29-room boardinghouse

in 1961.


Price fetched

at auction.


Asking price.


Amount Donald Trump offered

as recently as several

years ago.