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Seaside Style

Architect Cate Comerford restores and reinvents Ocean Grove, NJ, while contending with tent cities, tiny seaside lots and a powerful historical commission.
By Dan Cooper

Whoever said "they don't build 'em like they used to" never ripped apart one of the hastily constructed Victorian-era holiday homes in Ocean Grove, NJ; never stepped gingerly onto plywood in the midst of a deconstructed house being renovated by local architect Cate Comerford; never stood on its 2x4-in. floor joists set 24 in. on center and laid into 4x4-in. sills supported by small brick piers extending two ft. into the soil without footings; and never stood below the 2x8-in. ceiling joists spanning the width of the house without central support.

"Many of these original houses were put up as quickly as possible for incoming Methodist Pilgrims," says Comerford. "They're basically framed with a 4x4-in. sill and plate, sheathed with vertical tongue-and-groove beadboard, and every four feet there's a post – so there's barely any structure at all. When the iron nails rust through due to the salt air and the beadboard starts dropping off, the building loses its structural integrity and the whole framework gets wracked."

Comerford adds that because she cannot alter more than 15 percent of a building's exterior without obtaining a demolition permit, a painstaking, foot-by-foot preservation of the exterior is needed. "I've got a great carpenter," she says, "and he's very patient in building sturdy framing around the existing structural fabric. He pieces in the studs as needed and beefs everything up to code. The exterior will still look like it did in the 19th century."

Indigenous Design
Most of Comerford's projects are situated in and around Ocean Grove, and her practice is focused primarily within a two to three town radius. She has built her reputation on working within the stringent parameters of historic districts, and is known not only for her restorations, but also for creating sensitively designed new construction that blends imperceptibly with the indigenous seaside architecture of the Jersey Shore.

Ocean Grove itself was settled in 1869 as a Methodist retreat, a place where church members would summer in rows of tents by the sea. "The town is a model for all of the New Urbanists," says Comerford. "It was built as a walking town, and originally had three centers and no cars, of course, and the train station was just outside of town. A lot of planning went into the layout; as the last two blocks approach the beach, the setbacks get wider and wider. The planners thought that this would allow the healthful ocean breezes to move inland, and while it didn't necessarily work, this plan did give many more houses views of the water."

The "tents" are perhaps the most unusual type of structure in the town. The dwellings, which were erected in rows resembling a military camp, are actually tiny, late-19th-century frame cabins with tented additions to the front and rear. Originally intended for pilgrims of modest means, over 100 of these canvas and wood structures are still used as summer homes leased by church members. Their open layouts provide space for cooking, bathing and relaxing. All of the tents are centered around the massive Great Auditorium, an 1894 wooden structure that serves as a meeting house and concert hall. A typical leisure activity for the summering Methodists is walking up and down the rows, conversing with fellow campers.

In 2004, a row of four original tents was destroyed by fire, and Comerford was hired to rebuild them. "It was critical for me to maintain the promenade around the auditorium," she says. "I didn't want to alter the original plan, or the appearance of the tents. Fire code dictated that there be a two-hour fire wall between structures, and the building code also prohibited rebuilding the original plan due to setbacks, because there was no way we could build new houses that were only four to six feet apart. I designed a series of four separate tents that are conjoined like townhouses with party walls. There's really no significant difference in the appearance, and the promenade has been perfectly preserved."

Reinventing the Past
As the 19th century waned, Ocean Grove became less of a Methodist enclave and more populated by the general public. Many of the tent/cabins slowly evolved into more permanent structures, at first one story high, and then increasing to two or more. Builders in the later 1800s often incorporated the crudely built structures into larger houses rather than tearing them down and starting anew. As they grew, they were often adorned with ornate gingerbread-accented porches that covered their entire front elevations. Such was the case with Comerford's own home, which underwent an extensive architect-designed expansion in the early 1900s.

There is no trace of pre-1900 architecture in her home, and it appears to be an intact Colonial Revival. "When I began the renovation of my home, and we opened up the wall between the middle and front parlors, we found the typical wide arch that served as a pass through into a tent, along with the vertical beadboard siding," says Comerford. "This had been plastered over when the front room was added in the early-20th century. The upstairs was originally one room and some sleeping porches, and now there are three bedrooms and two baths. When I renovated, there was a ‘captured' fourth bedroom, accessible only by going through another bedroom. I took that captured bedroom and turned it into the master bathroom."

Many of Comerford's Ocean Grove projects entail replicating local architecture or adding to existing neglected structures. For a dilapidated, standard-issue frame house, Comerford removed a closed-in second-story porch while creating two new expansive open porches that are adorned with the trim and exuberant colors found throughout Ocean Grove. A cross-gabled addition adds a bedroom and brings a much-needed bathroom to the second floor while creating a side porch off the kitchen on the first floor.

In another commission, Comerford retraced the efforts of architects past by expanding the single-story bungalow into a full-fledged two-story home while maintaining the traditional architecture of the neighborhood. This project won a local preservation award – the house's elevations are indistinguishable from century-old dwellings, belying nothing of its past.

Another project that necessitated a subtle hand involved merging two diminutive frame cottages from the 1920s. Comerford linked the structures with a rear addition that is barely visible from the street. Her intent was to maintain each structure's façade as a discreet building while making the property more functional for the owners.

Building a Village
Sea Breeze Village, a development encompassing an entire block in Ocean Grove, is a group of 20 new homes near the ocean. There are four different models in the village, each with its own unique façade. "These are built on the original 30x60-ft. tent lots, which are really just 1/24 of an acre," says Comerford. In keeping with the design vocabulary of the adjacent blocks, she employed motifs from the late-19th century. The houses are not large, roughly 2,500 sq. ft., and sell in the $700,000-$900,000 range, which may sound expensive until one realizes that homes near the beach in neighboring Elberon can fetch $6 million. "Ocean Grove has recently experienced an influx of New Yorkers who were tired of the interminable drive to the Hamptons," says Comerford. "Ocean Grove is an hour by car and two hours by train from Manhattan. It's become an attractive alternative to schlepping out to Long Island."

Comerford had wanted to keep the foundations as low as possible and maintain the tradition of the older homes, but was forced to compromise with the desires of the developers and homeowners, who wanted full basements. Faced with the need to allow for proper ceiling heights, especially on the first floor, she found that when this factor was coupled with the foundation requirements, it forced the overall heights of the buildings to rise. By carefully modulating rooflines and porches, Comerford was able to create a block of stylistically cohesive elevations – it takes a discerning eye to realize that these are not older homes. Comerford also skillfully created the façades, incorporating recessed balconies and fancifully ornamented porches, all hallmarks of Ocean Grove.

Outside of Town
In the more rural town of Chester, NJ, Comerford was commissioned to restore a simple 1890s farmhouse known as Hill House, which was to include a new garage. Careful to avoid the appearance of a typical suburban addition, Comerford referenced the New England tradition of connecting the barn or carriage house to the main building with a breezeway. "I did my best to make it look as if the footprint had evolved over time with each consecutive structure," she says. "The house was cased in aluminum siding and had endured neglect and inappropriate renovations. We removed all of this, restored it to an appropriate appearance and also replicated the old stone foundation on the addition.

"The dining room had a ceiling beam arbitrarily placed to one side of the room, probably placed there to take the bounce out of overstressed joists above. I added another beam, coffering the ceiling to give it some sense of symmetry. Kitchens are always a challenge, as the client desires modern amenities along with a historic feel – specifying tongue and groove for the cabinets and multi-light cabinet doors gave the whole room the appearance of a turn-of-the-century pantry."

Design Details
As an architect charged with working within the tight parameters of an historic district, Comerford revels in solving problems and being innovative while honoring the existing historic fabric. What she finds more challenging is being given a blank slate; currently she is designing an oceanfront house on an empty corner lot of the town's historic Ocean Pathway. Once the site of the Queen Hotel, Comerford feels the new structure must honor the prominence of the former hotel. "The Queen originally sat on this corner, and the Majestic Hotel sat on the opposite corner," she says. "They were the bookends of a magnificent wide thoroughfare that led from the sea to the massive Great Auditorium. How does a single family home carry that same weight?"

"Moving to Ocean Grove truly made me realize that the quality of the house and its design details are much more important than the quantity of the house," Comerford continues. "When you're dealing with miniscule plots of land where you can just about literally reach out and touch the side of your neighbor's house, you have to learn how to make a small house feel spacious and still maintain its privacy. I like to design flexible intimate spaces – a traditional dining room just big enough for the family's everyday use, yet making sure it has the ability to expand through a wide framed opening into an adjacent parlor when the company comes."

Comerford, who earned her Master of Architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, first worked for Eleanor Peterson, who herself was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright. There, she designed up-market residences, and eventually moved on to Roth Associates, where she honed her skills on institutional and commercial projects as well as residences. In 1995, she was named principal partner of the firm Studio Architects, where she oversaw projects at the The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She started Cate Comerford AIA, LLC, in 2000, devoting her efforts to traditional design and historic renovation. Her Camp Meeting Tents and single-family houses have been recognized with
a Beersheba Preservation Award from the town of
Ocean Grove. She was also awarded a certificate of recognition for significant contributions to the preservation and restoration of Ocean Grove's heritage and a community achievement award by the Chester, NJ, historical society.  

 

 

 
 

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