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Group forms to preserve historic house from demolition

Staff Writer

The race is on to save the historic William Sandlass House on Sandy Hook from demolition.

A group of Monmouth County citizens has recently incorporated as the Jersey Coast Heritage Museum at Sandlass House (JCHM), a nonprofit.

The group’s goal is to halt the demolition of the house that is located in order to create a museum and cultural center that celebrates the house’s history as the first and only remaining structure from the grand Highland Beach Excursion Resort on Sandy Hook.

Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long supports the group’s effort and would like to include the house in Sea Bright’s Master Plan for redevelopment.

The house has a rich history as explained by Rick Geffken, president of JCHM.

“The Highland Beach Excursion Resort, founded by William Sandlass Jr., opened in the summer of 1889. William Sandlass Jr. built the ‘Great Switchback Rail Road’ [coaster] modeled on designs by Marcus Thompson, an early builder of roller coaster rides,” he said.

The resort was an immediate success and drew tremendous crowds. The Highland Beach Excursion Resort was the first day-trip destination for people in northern New Jersey and New York City and was accessible by steamship, train, and later on, by automobile.

“The Sandlass House, the central element to the famed Highland Beach Excursion Resort, is all that remains of that magical place,” added Geffken. “As a society, we have lost too many of our heritage buildings and subsequently regretted those losses. Let’s not lose another one,” Geffken said.

Sandlass had the Rail Road coaster dismantled after four years, and its timbers were reused to construct the William Sandlass House. It served as both his residence and headquarters for his Highland Beach Resort for the next 50 years.

The Sandlass House is the last remaining structure of the resort (in later years known as Sandlass Baths), which ceased operations in 1962, when the state of New Jersey acquired the property and house in eminent domain proceedings.

The property and house were eventually transferred to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1979. It sustained some damage from superstorm Sandy in October of 2012, and the National Park Service (NPS) determined it no longer needed the historic house and applied for the demolition funding six months ago.

According to Geffken, “The timeframe is tight, we have roughly six months to intervene and stop the demolition process. The house is under imminent threat right now, and the wheels are in motion to save it.”

Scott Nicholl, a partner and architect at Nicholl Field Design in Holmdel, recently had the opportunity to tour and examine the house and found the building to be quite remarkably sound, despite its ocean-facing location.

“I was happily surprised with the structural stability of the original house after walking through the current site, ” Nicholl said. “Aside from issues relating to roof leaks and some previous concerns with additional support for the chimney, I see no reason why this house couldn’t stand for another 100 years if the right steps are taken in its preservation. The state of the house in its present location proves its resilience to harsh climates and natural disasters.”

Geffken believes that this mission will lead to a positive result for many.

“We believe saving and restoring the Sandlass House with private funding is a win-win-win. Taxpayers win when the National Park Service puts aside its expensive plans to demolish the house. The National Park Service wins when the renovated Sandlass House and grounds at the entrance to the park provide another attraction for visitors and additional parking spaces. Sea Bright wins because the museum and cultural center we envision at the Sandlass House will be a wonderful asset in its Master Plan for redevelopment.”

The JCHM group has plans to meet with U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Monmouth, Middlesex) to gain his support in their request to the U.S. Department of the Interior to desist in their plans to demolish the house.

“I’m sure Congressman Pallone will help us once we show him our plans to save and renovate this historic treasure on Sandy Hook,” said Geffken.

Chris Brenner of Fair Haven, a trustee of the JCHM, created a documentary video on Highland Beach Excursion Resort. It is available for viewing at www.destinationspast.com or via YouTube by searching for Highland Beach New Jersey. The film has been shown at many local venues, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive in favor of saving the house from demolition.

“Everyone who sees this wants to know what we can do to save this wonderful artifact from the golden days of the Jersey Shore. We’ve lost so many other historic buildings in Monmouth County; we have to save this one,” said Brenner.

The officers of the Jersey Coast Heritage Museum are  Geffken (president), Jeff Tyler (vice president) and Susan Sandlass Gardiner (secretary/treasurer).

Founding trustees are Jay Anderson (Rumson), Chris Brenner (Fair Haven), Sean Moran (Rumson), Hank Sandlass (Rumson) and Frank Smith (Stamford, Connecticut).

The organization welcomes inquiries, volunteers and tax-deductible donations from all who will assist helping to preserve this symbol of a shared heritage.

“The Sandlass House is a national treasure, the once and future Gateway to the Jersey Shore and, once restored, a Beacon of Welcome for everyone,” said Geffken.

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