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As Quiet as a Grove

A seaside N.J. village keeps faith with its tranquil beginnings as a religious retreat.

By Angus Phillips
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page C02

When Marylanders head for the beach, they go "downy ocean." Up in New Jersey they make their way to the "shewer." In either case, it can be a jarring experience, punctuated by traffic jams, greasy food, noisy nights and moldy, overpriced accommodations, even in this shoulder season after Labor Day.

Then there's little Ocean Grove, N.J., with none of the above.

The stock of Victorian houses in Ocean Grove, N.J., has sparked a recent restoration boom. (Angus Phillips)

This patch of sand and sea on the Jersey coast, 40 miles south of Manhattan, is so quiet some laughingly call it Ocean Grave. But then what's so awful about hearing nothing but waves beating on the sand from your breeze-cooled hotel room all night? For that matter, what's not to like about clean, tidy digs overlooking the Atlantic for $100 a night in high season?

From our small hideaway at the 80-year-old House by the Sea last month, we could gaze east to an aqueous horizon right from the bed or get a different perspective to the south from the throne in our private bath. We got a corner room, lucky us.

What's missing in this picture? Quite a lot, actually. Most rooms in the old hotels of Ocean Grove, founded nearly 150 years ago as a seaside religious camp meeting, are small and don't have TVs, air conditioning or phones. Beer, wine and liquor are not sold in town, there's no movie theater or fast-food restaurant, and on Sundays it's considered bad form to hit the beach before noon, when church services have ended.

So it goes in God's Square Mile, another nickname Ocean Grove has acquired since its founding by the bearded Methodist Rev. William Osborn in 1869. Plunked down between battle-scarred Asbury Park to the north, which today looks like downtown Beirut after decades of urban strife, and the neat little town of Bradley Beach to the south, Ocean Grove has had its ups and downs but is on a roll these days as its small, Victorian-style hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are gobbled up and refurbished at a hurried pace.

Much of the revitalization came in the past 25 years, after the church-run Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which still owns almost all the land in town, lost its iron grip on beachgoers' behavior. Courts ruled in the late 1970s that using police to enforce church rules, including no bathing on Sunday and no cars in town on the Sabbath, was unconstitutional. In the old days, everyone had to drive out the town gates on Saturday before midnight and leave their cars outside till Sunday was over. On Jan. 1, 1980, control of Ocean Grove was ceded to Neptune Township, and the rules were eased.

Since then there have been two unexpected influxes. First came a gaggle of mildly disturbed people who flocked to Ocean Grove's low-cost, off-season rooming houses when the federal government slashed assistance to mental institutions in the early 1980s. Then a number of gay people arrived, lured by the tolerance of the locals and the availability of Victorian architecture in need of a refit. Both groups settled in in modest numbers, and the churchgoing spirit of the place soldiered on. Ocean Grove remains a peaceful, pretty place where folks still wish you "good morning" unbidden and plenty of vacationers attend some sort of religious service every day.

At the center stands a cavernous, 6,500-seat, 110-year-old wooden place of worship called the Great Auditorium. Inside is a 10,000-pipe Hope-Jones organ that spurs the faithful to song on Sundays, while every Saturday night until mid-September and sometimes during the week the stage is occupied by such family-friendly entertainment as the Smothers Brothers, comedian Bob Newhart, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and a wildly successful annual doo-wop extravaganza.

Nestled alongside the Great Auditorium is Ocean Grove's signature feature, a scattering of more than 100 canvas tents that have harbored vacationing pilgrims since the 1800s. The tents flank narrow, grassy walkways. All have been added to over the years, with wooden cabins tacked onto the back for extra sleeping space. There's a long waiting list for leases on the tents, which are owned by the Camp Meeting Association. Tents are rented by the season, and many families have held onto their leases for decades. Most are reverent churchgoers, but the waiting list is open to all. Strolling down the lanes among the tents, issuing and receiving greetings from folks on the tiny, pin-neat porches, you wouldn't know if it was 1904 or 2004.

Most of the hotels and guesthouses line the last block of east-west streets leading down to the beach, and almost all have porches where older guests while away their time in rocking chairs. These streets were designed to foster sea views. The closer you get to the water, the greater the mandated setback of the building. The master-plan stagger gives everyone on the block some glimpse of the sea. Prime accommodations, though, are in the old wooden hotels along Ocean Avenue, which face directly onto the beach, whose waters are warm enough to swim into October.

Folks familiar with the Jersey Shore know there is a peculiarity about beaches here: Access in summer is not free. You must buy a $6 ticket every day to get on (season passes and hotel discounts also are available), and at each stairway off the boardwalk a guard is posted under a beach umbrella. But after Sept. 12, the lifeguards are gone and beachgoing is free.

The beach itself is, well, the beach, not much different from Ocean City, Rehoboth or Chincoteague. There are nice breakers some days, not much surf on others, lots of kids with boogie boards, plenty of zaftig middle-aged folks in beach chairs reading novels and a reasonable supply of eye candy in the form of healthy lasses and lads in skimpy Speedos. There is no dress code on the beach, praise the Lord.

The real appeal of Ocean Grove is the absence of commercialism. The wooden boardwalk is lined with old iron streetlamps, with no concession stands or advertising. The only building directly on it is a small, open-air youth worship hall where teenagers gather each summer morning at 9 for a get-together. Up Ocean Pathway next to the Great Auditorium, little kids and adults have separate, similar meetings in small tabernacles of their own.

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