Ocean City, New Jersey was still known as Peck’s Beach (after a Seventeenth Century whaler) when Parker Miller became the island’s first permanent resident in 1859, farming land near the corner of Asbury Avenue and Seventh Street to supplement his income as a nautical vessel insurance inspector. Across the street, in front of the real estate agency now housed in a tackle store dating to the 1920s, is the starting point of the Footsteps of the Founders Tour that is one of Jersey Shore Tours’ most popular. Just down the block is the Cedar Tree where three members of the Lake family and one other Methodist minister named Bill Burrell formally founded the Ocean City Association in 1879, while over the next few years these men built the first Tabernacle, a school, and several beautiful homes which still stand today.
Some of these buildings would doubtless have survived redevelopment, such as the Queen Anne style ‘Marrying House’ where Reverend Burrell performed nuptials for generations of local residents, or the building directly across Wesley Avenue built by Ezra Lake in 1881 that is now known as ‘Scotch Hall,’ after the women who purchased the site in 1910 to use as a rest home and then as a maternity hospital. However, were it not for the Ocean City Preservation Commission, which oversees their historic district, both smaller fishermen’s bungalows and historic structures like the Stick style Simon Wesley Lake House (built in 1880 across Fifth Street for the first head of the Tabernacle), might have been lost decades ago. Long led by local historian John Loeper, who personally rebuilt his “Northwood Inn” on Fourth Street in 1990, the Commission overseas about 250 properties according to a 2005 article in the New York Times.
Loeper, who is also renowned for his ability to spin a yarn about famous local incidents such as the wreck of the Sindia (which he argues was an inside job), has for the last several years been primarily focused on the community-wide effort to reconstruct the Fourth Street Life-Saving Station, built in 1886. When OC’s Historic District was formally approved in 1993 the Life-Saving Station was added at the last minute, despite it having long been converted to a private home that held lots of hidden areas, at least according to a longtime local (who had once played at the site) when she took my tour two years ago. At that point the building was still shuttered and the reconstruction had hardly begun, although last year I was lucky to bring a tour group by when the historic architects were on site, so could see much progress. Yet despite following media reports closely as the project neared completion, I was wholly unprepared for what I found when I accidentally stumbled upon a VIP tour given by Loeper last Saturday afternoon.
After chatting with Loeper a bit about the process of artifact acquisition and fundraising efforts, which he said required targeted networking and could not have been done “with bake sales,” several prominent residents and their families entered to begin the tour, such as Fred Miller (the good-natured gentleman who wrote the book on Ocean City and contributed funds for the Station’s hardwood floors). Loeper explained that the red linoleum flooring found in the entryway and the kitchen, along with a few other period elements and numerous authentic artifacts, established 1905 as the year of interpretation. While Loeper’s description of beach rescues was riveting, I was perhaps most interested in his discussion of purchasing unused can labels to ‘stock’ the pantry and buying brass in bulk to get one specific artifact. Loeper noted that there is still much work left to be done, such as renovating the unfinished upper floor, while highlighting state-of-the-art re-design elements including an ultra-modern fire suppression system and detailing possibilities for rotating exhibits in the dining room that was once the heart of the station. Indeed, thanks to Loeper’s efforts the future is bright for the nation’s best-preserved Life-Saving Station.