The British have an expression I've heard frequently in movies, one used when the upper-crusters were forced to lower their standard of living due to some unforeseen financial setback: "We must retrench!" We, on this side of the pond, use the term "tighten one's belt," but I do so prefer retrench. And even though it does not apply to our change of vacation venue, I will use it nonetheless to describe the fact that this year we have retrenched, hauling our beach gear from Ship Bottom to Beach Haven, from an aqua shoebox the size and shape of a stick of butter to a worn-out ranch house, circa 1960.
Our house is an embarrassment to the homes surrounding it. The huge gray monolith to the right, with its postcard-perfect garden and cute 'lil "beach this way" and "bay that way" signs, seems to be giving our tiny ranch house the cold shoulder. Kitty-corner on the south side of the street, a 40-something duo from NYC have finally moved into their three-story modern. The lot alone cost more than $750,000, making their khaki and stone tower worth about $2 million. How do people that young find that kind of moolah?
To the left, a family from North Jersey runs amok. There are so many people coming and going at all hours with surfboards, bikes, beverages and mysterious bags that, from our sunporch, we can watch as the reality show unfolds 24/7, an absorbing glimpse into a happy, complicated gang.
Also across the street is the house that intrigues me. It is a Stephen King Victorian, with odd torpedo-shaped finials and an air of history and cobwebs. The couple that own this house are in their 90s and in poor health. Their children do not want the rambling white clapboard with its battered shutters and creaky steps because it would be so costly to repair and renovate. So there it sits, quietly, filled with tales from old tars who lived on this island when it was rural and wild. The house is called the Sherbourne Farm and is on the historic register, but neighbors have told me it can and will be torn down to make way for seven new homes—some tasteful, some boastful, some just downright ugly. A thick barrier of pine trees keep most people from peering. I didn't even know the house was there until I walked the dogs by it one evening. Once discovered though, I kept returning, kept imagining what life must have been like back then.
In Beach Haven's historic district, there are many well-kept pastel Victorians with wide porches and sweet potato vine tumbling from window sill flower boxes. Over where we are however, there is such a mish-mash of architectural styles there seems to be no zoning, no regulation as to how tall one can build.
On my nightly bike ride, I've discovered a house that looks like a maximum security prison. It is a sprawling gray rancher, set back on the property and surrounded by a black iron fence and a white rock lawn, a semicircle tar driveway in front. Behind it is an empty pool protected by more fencing, a kind of gray mesh. There is nothing that says "vacation" about this house. The pink, multi-building compound across the street looks lived-in and filled with people and 10 cars tonight. Even the gargoyles look happy.
This is a neighborhood of multimillion-dollar homes, each one different. One looks like a Frank Lloyd Wright wannabe, the next something left over from old Mexico, with red tile roof and curling wrought-iron railings. One green uber-modern with a decaying tennis court has a "for sale" sign. Just for fun, we guess at how much an ugly house on the bay will fetch. Later, I spied its price in the local paper: a cool $4 million, if you're interested. It has several buildings attached by a row of what appear to be motel rooms, each with a different-colored door. On the bay, a large swimming pool bubbles quietly, staying clean and hopeful for possible buyers.
Riding toward Holgate, the houses become more homogeneous and diminish in size, save those that hug the bay. A person could get lost looping through these streets, passing by beige bungalow after tan duplex. Ahead of me, I see a strange Dutch Colonial, its brown roof drooping toward the street. It looks like a startled loaf of bread. Was that the effect they were hoping for? As I circle through a trailer park, I see and hear multiple gatherings lit by tiny paper lanterns or firepits, everyone outside enjoying the evening, libations in hand.
When we moved to the Mo'town house we currently live in, Taylor shook his head and said "these are all tear-downs." He was referring to the ranchers that line the streets leading downhill to . He has been right. Several houses on Kenwood have been torn down and replaced by stucco monoliths that loom over the one-story houses surrounding them. On Colonial Avenue, two modest homes on the first block have been tastefully redone, while on the second block, my friend Julie's house is gone.
Of Julie's house, I have intimate knowledge, snapshots from holidays and more mundane, everyday events. I remember sitting on the plush turquoise carpeting when she brought her dog Susie home from the pound. I can still see my father holding my oldest son, his first grandchild, in his lap, grinning behind his bristly gray mustache. Every single time I drive up Somers Avenue, be it a short trip to work or a quick ShopRite run, my head turns instinctively toward Julie's house, expecting to see the familiar brown rancher with the carport. Instead, I see a new house and new lives. My feelings are mixed. I'm happy for the family that lives there now in their much larger house, sad all the ghosts of my past are no longer roaming that particular plot.
Architecturally, Moorestown is filled with hidden gems and proud Victorians, wee ranch homes built for employees of RCA, small bungalows, rambling estates and the occasional eyesore. Beach Haven and Moorestown have managed to hold on to the past, and preserve the decorum of times long gone. What did old Mount Laurel look like? What about Maple Shade or, for that matter, any of the other towns that line Long Beach Island? Who knows? , making it a picturesque and charming introduction to our town. It , but it certainly is beautiful. I am hopeful it will stay that way.
The Sherbourne Farm? By this time next year, it may be nothing more than a footnote in Beach Haven history. What a loss.