Beautiful Historic Ocean Grove NJ, is a seaside resort town boasting street after street of beautiful, highly ornate Victorian buildings.
This is the town that gives gingerbread ornamentation its name.
Sadly on March 13, 2010 a devastating 4-alarm fire struck Ocean Grove NJ.
The fire burned through nine structures, six were destroyed including the Manchester Inn B&B at the heart of Ocean Grove.
While this catastrophe cannot be undone, there was always hope that these buildings would be rebuilt with utmost accuracy as places such as Warsaw Poland were rebuilt after being destroyed during WWII. And today anything is possible.
Now four years later, the buildings destroyed by fire have been rebuilt.
As these buildings have been rebuilt, many other Victorian buildings in town have been remodeled. This construction has resulted in many changes to Ocean Grove over the years.
Good bye historic Victorians, welcome Disneyland
To the tourist visiting Ocean Grove I am sure they are amazed by the fancy gingerbread covered buildings everywhere they look.
However, to someone who knows old buildings and how they are designed, this quaint, picturesque town is slowly morphing into a Disneyland of plastic want-to-be Victorian architecture. Similar to a movie set, architectural features wow the viewer as a distraction from noticing bad building design and poor construction.
There are still many gorgeous wood Victorians with their original wood windows or accurate historic replacements that still glorify Ocean Grove. However, fires and insensitive “home improvements” open doors to bad design – changes that conflict with the original design and architecture of the building.
The Manchester Inn is Born Again
The Manchester Inn B&B was first constructed in the 1870’s.
In the 1920’s, the Inn was enlarged by connecting to the neighboring house and creating a new facade, resulting in one building.
This appears to be the Manchester Cottage to the right on this 1881 map of Ocean Grove.
Above are two Sanborn Maps above showing the Manchester in 1890 and in 1905.
The shapes are based on the foundation.
A dotted line defines a porch.
Numbers depict the number of floors.
- The road seems to have been widened by 1905 as you see the front property become smaller.
- The rear of the Manchester expanded and attached to the neighboring house.
- The neighboring house (later combined with the Manchester) added a side porch (dotted line depicts a porch)
The 1930 Sanborn Map to the right shows the two buildings combined into one with a full front porch across the front.
Also by this time, the Manchester expanded into another house behind it, extending it back to the next street.
Unfortunately this map is difficult to read.
The Google Earth view is from September 2010 – six months after the fire.
The ruins have been removed and property is cleared making way for new construction.
In reconstructing the building after the fire, both buildings hidden for years under a single facade, were planned to be rebuilt.
The design was to be based on old photographs and historic information.
This sounded like great news!
Here is the sign that was posted in front of the 2 homes’ new construction for the Manchester Inn.
Click on the image to enlarge it.
When I saw this sign, I was thrilled! Not knowing it was just a lie.
Here are the two homes rebuilt and reborn!
The house on the left sure is a stunning Victorian. A show-stopper for all passing by unless they take the time to look more closely!
As shown on the early Sanborn Maps above, these two 19th century houses became one in the 1920’s. Now after the fire there are two houses once again.
Let’s take a closer look at that fretwork (gingerbread).
Ocean Grove Disneyland Victorian
As I said before, the Victorian buildings look magnificent to the average person with an untrained eye.
This is the point I want to make. This is where Victorian architecture morphs into Disneyland. A contemporary perversion of traditional design.
While I appreciate the effort made to bring back these homes, I am greatly disappointed. As with many other buildings in town, both new construction and “renovated” historic homes, lack architectural integrity.
In traditional architecture, scale and proportion of individual elements and their relationship are strictly followed. To understand more about this I refer you to my Aesthetics page .
Let us look closer at this house.
Click to enlarge.
As you can see from the old/new combined photo it appears that company doing the work basically did a nice job. However!!!!
Is there anything you notice that looks a bit “off”?
Look at the balustrade (railing) in the historic photo. There are three floors of railings. The first floor is mostly covered with Wisteria vine. Look at the other two and see how nicely they work with the building.
Now look at the railings on the new construction – scroll up, I’ll wait! The railings are not in proportion with the building. The new railings are much higher.
The top of the hand rail on a typical house should NOT be above the window sill. That makes the railing a height of about 24”. See how low the historic hand rail is? It’s probably about 24” high.
Actually, if you look at the design in the new building, the railing appears to be stretched for the extra height.
Having a railing that low (24″) is prohibited by Building Code unless the building is historic. This building is not historic but a reproduction, so unfortunately code wins out. We know this is a requirement and a safety regulation but no matter what, a railing that high looks bad on any house.
In a town like Ocean Grove, one would think an exception could be made. This is both the fault of the Architects and a weak Historic Preservation Commission for allowing them to make such a mess and bully lawyers representing the owner. Although most of us are accustomed to seeing ugly high railings, when looking at a house and comparing, you will see how much better an architecturally correct railing looks.
To really understand this and see for yourself, visit my Porch Page . There are more details about railing height and comparison photos to help you understand the importance of a properly designed porch.
The architect was aware of the height issue and the way this building code problem was approached was OK. The design however shows a railing that lacks cohesiveness.
Below is my recommendation for handling this railing to make it both architecturally correct for a historic building and code compliant. The best remedy however would be for building code to make an allowance and do it the original way.
- Make the top of the railing window sill height. Beef up the hand rail by adding a sub-rail. See how thin the builders railing is? Extra trim for a stronger and prettier appearance should be added, otherwise it looks like it came right out of Home Depot!
- Beef up the Foot Rail by adding an apron.
Now you have sawn balusters in the center that are not stretched and better match the historic photo; a hand and foot rail with extra trim to appear thicker and historically accurate.
Look and compare.
Now the part I don’t like is making the railing conform to code. By adding an upper railing and painting it black or the body color, it will be minimally visible and not effect the architectural design and scaling.
In reality the code does NOT require a railing when the porch is so low. Railings ARE required on the other floors so it is best to make each floor match.
A Design to Make your Railing Last
There is another change I would make.
A porch takes quite a lot of abuse from the weather and should be designed to make it last as long as possible.
Here is a photo of the current foot rail.
It is flat and rain water will collect on it. You know why we don’t want that!
Maybe the builder will get more business when the rail rots out.
An Important Piece of the Porch is Missing!
A porch is constructed with a floor and a roof. In this case the roof also becomes the next floor above.
Both the roof and floor are supported by a beam. There are posts that hold up the roof. These posts sit on the floor and support the beam that the roof or floor above rests on.
Simple and basic – this applies to a every building – historic and contemporary.
Your inner senses expect to see this visual support even if the house is made of cardboard.
Well – look at the image to the right. This beam (the entablature) is missing on the 2nd floor.
The posts are attached right to the bead-board ceiling appearing as if they may poke through the ceiling at any moment.
How could this architectural blunder happen? Would you want your house to look like this?
The scroll-work is attached the same way. You would never see this on an old building. Drive around and look.
Let’s look at this picture again. Do you notice a different problem?
Notice the porch posts extending up from one floor to the next.
They don’t line up!
Is this the first time this builder designed and constructed a porch? Are they vandalizing other buildings in town?
The best way to explain these mistakes is to look at this diagram to the right.
The posts should be aligned from floor to floor by the center line.
As you see in the photo, the designer did not know that either!
This is basic architecture and basic construction.
The architect should specify the correct design and if he does it wrong, the contractor should correct that.
If the contractor messes up the architect should make him correct the problem.
Could volunteers from the beach without any design or carpentry background have built this house?
Get ready for the next photos – it gets worse!
Is this house crooked?
You don’t need to be a carpenter or need a ruler to see this problem. My first thought was that when they built the 2nd floor there was a strong ocean breeze blowing everything to the left. A center post too far to the right proves that theory wrong. I would also think the builders were intoxicated but Ocean Grove is a dry town.
One post is correctly lined up and the other four are not.
Someone paid 1.5 million for this great work by PHJ Architects & Contractors of Spring Lake.
Notice the side windows.
Doesn’t it look strange that they are located so close to the end of the building?
This building originally had shutters. If one were to add shutters there would be no room for them.
Now imagine yourself inside this house or your own.
How would you like to have a window shoved way in the corner?
While many windows today are picture framed and lack a crown on top and a sill on the bottom, this window is the designed correctly.
However, the casing is way too narrow! The casing should be 4-4.5 “ wide, not the 3.5 inch width.
A window design should not be based on the convenience and low cost of stock sized lumber.
Why does this matter? It matters to our inner senses. Structure, scale, and proportion go hand in hand.
Our minds are hard wired expecting to see an opening in a large wall (a window) supported by a reasonably sized frame (casing). Visit my aesthetics page for more info.
A builder that is supposed to be familiar with historic design should know what size a window casing should be. This house is not cheap and should not be cheaply built.
There is an additional problem with the windows installed in this house and many new homes today.
While the window colors look great, there is a problem with the color placement. It is a manufacturing design problem that is probably unnoticed by the buyer and really makes a big difference.
Windows are the eyes of the house and their design is very important. Click here to learn more about what you need to be aware of with new windows.
There are many other small issues I have with this building but will not go into here. The points stated about this house are the same for the newly constructed house next door (other half of the Manchester). Other homes in Ocean Grove and other towns are not immune to this.
The point I would like to make is that a historic house CAN be replicated. This house was replicated to a point that the fancy gingerbread distracts us from noticing the many basic and important design errors.
I hope the owner that paid $1,500,000 for this house did not expect a historically designed house. The burning of the Mainstay Inn and the other houses were a great loss. Disneyland buildings however need to be recognized for what they really are and not be credited as historic.
There is a Preservation Commission that is entrusted to, and should have been overseeing the construction of this building and the rehabilitation of the many other buildings in town. This commission can only do so much however when a developer’s henchmen control the board of adjustment.
Many Victorian buildings sadly stand out as Disneyland and not Ocean Grove. Through this article, hopefully the public will learn and become aware of the difference.
J Cortese says
Thanks so much the succinct description of everything that is wrong with this structure. It has been bothering me forever and most of the flaws you presented I pointed out to many people when they asked me why I hated what was built on the site of the old Manchester.
First let me set the record straight on a few points.
Many members of the Historic Preservation Commission were vehemently opposed to these houses as they were designed, but they were prohibited by the Board of Adjustment from testifying at the public hearings. Indeed, the objections of those commissioners echoed many of the points you have made in your article.The attorney representing this board was overtly rude to the husband of one of Historic Commisioners when he rose to speak during the session open to the public.
The developer of the property hired an attorney to represent his interests at these hearings, and she continually interupted people when they were trying to express their concerns.
The developer’s representatives testified that the reconstructed buildings would reproduce exactly all of the architectural details found on the original structures. Sadly, the end results prove that this is not the case. Only one member of the board of adjustment voted against the developement of the Manchester property and the whole procedure left me totally disgusted.To my knowlege, all of these procedings can be found in the public record.
That same developer has erected a similar travesty 2 blocks north on the site of another devastating fire that occurred a year later (nearly to the day). A monstrous ersatz “Victorian” condominium that looks like it belongs in Disneyland as well.
Believe it or not, most people in Ocean Grove complain that the Historic Commission is too strict! I personally think the guidelines should be even more stringent, and be fully supported by all municipal parties involved.
Ken Roginski says
Thank you so much for this information. It’s sad that a developer and their henchmen can control the board of adjustment. Making the public aware of this may prevent more desecration.
Architectural Observer says
Everything in our culture, it seems, has been distorted, dumbed-down or otherwise turned into a caricature of itself. While this mentality can be found literally everywhere, it is especially evident in the tourist-trap town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Once a beautiful and authentic nineteenth century resort town, this small city has now been cheapened in much the same way as what is seen in Ocean Grove. The average person has no idea of what true authenticity actually is and will never be able to learn from a visit to either of these towns until integrity and standards are valued more than money. Eureka Springs ostensibly has some sort of design review process to protect the historic character of the town but you would never guess it by some of the new construction which has been approved:
Ken Roginski says
This is so true. Authentic design has been altered over the years and today most people will look at historic architecture and assume it is an accurate design when it is not. This inaccurate design is then copied thinking it is correct.