Bed Check: On the Jersey Shore, beach bungalows past and present

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; 1:56 PM

In Highlands on the Jersey Shore, a small cluster of Victorian-style beach bungalows dominates the block like a row of Monopoly hotels arranged on a Candy Land board. The seven structures are so dollhouse-cute, you'll want to collect them all - a feat worth pursuing only if you have a week at the beach and don't mind packing and moving each morning.

The one-story cottages, called collectively Nauvoo at Sandy Hook, are eye candy from every angle. The exterior color palette is fetching and playful, like a rainbow that exploded and dripped over everything: aquamarine trimmed in maroon, soft lilac with lemon yellow, Atlantic blue with touches of red.

"I told Bill not to put the yellow one next to the red one, or it'd look like McDonald's," said Lynn Weber, who runs the lodging with her husband, a retiree from a chemical plant.

A tiny front porch hangs from each domicile, an ideal perch for watching the neighborhood cats at play or mulling your recreational options: swimming in Raritan Bay, off a bite-size beach; biking over the bridge to Sandy Hook, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area; plotting a seafood culinary tour of waterside restaurants, more than a half-dozen within walking distance.

Indoors, the bright, airy space offers enough elbow room for two, plus a mini-kitchen (fridge, microwave, large coffee pot, etc.), table and chairs for dining, and Bill's eclectic collection of salvaged finds, including art deco light fixtures, a minimalist painting of a tropical plant and a rattan lamp.

"Everything comes from garage sales, except the beds. We are one mile from [Jon] Bon Jovi's house and near Middletown and Rumson, where there is a lot of old money and Wall Street money," said Lynn, alluding to the high-end castoffs often unearthed in these chichi areas. "Our 26-inch front doors came from a torn-down mansion on Navesink River Road."

Out back, the cottages open up to a capacious courtyard dotted with umbrella-shaded tables and chairs, decorative pedestals and a fire pit, where Lynn has seen guests cooking their catches of the day and whole chickens stuffed with herbs. Between two of the buildings, the Webers stockpile used bikes - many rusty, one in particular with busted gears and weak brakes - for guests who wish to cycle about.

The bungalows, however, have not always been such charmers. In the 1920s, New Yorkers and other cityfolk used them as a weekend escape from the urban heat. The inhabitants shared a communal shower set in the center of the back yard. (The Webers replaced it with a spray of greenery.) When the Depression hit, the owners used packing crates to build walls, creating additional rooms that could accommodate more people. The cottages were eventually abandoned and later purchased by a company intent on turning them into Section 8 housing. That project failed.

When the Webers came across the 10 houses in the late 1990s, the structures were boarded up and dilapidated, the cinder block foundations crumbling from floods, the wood shingles masked by cheap plastic siding. During renovations, Bill removed 20 tons of asbestos and recovered dead animals from the crawl space. He has three more buildings to go.

On the night of my recent stay, I was the sole guest, my bungalow throwing a pinprick of light into the darkened surroundings. The town felt like it was holding its breath, not wanting to awaken any of its sleeping residents. But come morning, the hush was gone.

A party of eight arrived early, a caravan of cars weighed down by bikes, coolers, fishing equipment and beach toys. They infused the bungalows with life and activity, a continuation of a tradition that took a short break but is again back in style.

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