MAY 2008 » RECENT PROJECT

Historic Charm

An 1896 Queen Anne cottage is reborn as a bed and breakfast on the New Jersey shore.

Project: Williams Cottage Inn, Beach Haven, Long Beach Island, NJ

Builder: Perennial Homes, Beach Haven, NJ; Jim Blahut, owner

Architect of Record: Ford Architectural Group, Ship Bottom, NJ

By Martha McDonald

When Jim Blahut was a child spending his summers in Beach Haven, NJ, he often rode his bike past a beautiful 1886 Queen Anne cottage. He didn't imagine that it would become an important part of his future.

Fast forward to 2002. Blahut and five of his family members got together and acquired the 6,000-sq.ft., three-story cottage, which was, by then, in terrible condition. "We decided to take a chance on the ‘old lady,'" says Blahut, founder of Perennial Homes in Beach Haven, a summer resort town. Five years later, in 2007, the cottage reopened as a bed and breakfast, with most of its original details, interior and exterior, carefully refurbished or re-created, often using new materials to mimic historic patterns.

"We later found out that the building was slated for demolition when we got it," says Blahut. "It's a landmark in town, so we didn't want to put a band-aid on it and try to flip it. It is one of many Queen Anne-style summer cottages on the island that were designed by the Wilson Brothers of Philadelphia. We realized that if it was a business, it could carry its cost. So we came up with the idea of making it into a bed and breakfast. The idea is for it to stay the way it is and to stay in the family for generations. The revenue will be used to maintain the house."

With this goal in mind, Blahut and his team spent about a year and a half planning and obtaining permits and three years in construction. To start, the decision to create a bed and breakfast meant that bedrooms had to be designed and bathrooms had to be added. The family decided to create eight bedrooms, each with appropriate private bathrooms. "Because it was a large house, we were able to find the space for the bathrooms," says Blahut. "However, creating appropriate bathrooms that matched the décor of the house was a challenge. Summer cottages of the 1880s didn't originally have bathrooms that meet modern standards, if at all."

The interior design was done by another family firm, the professional design team of Blahut & Rosenblum (Ken Blahut and Debra Rosenblum) of Philadelphia, PA. The decision was made to give each bedroom and bathroom suite its own theme. "Many of these older homes were owned by social elites who traveled and brought items back to create themes in their own homes, so we decided to use that concept as a vehicle to set apart each bedroom," says Blahut. The eight suites are known as the Dome Room, Asian Room, Blue Room, Garden Room, Opulent Room, Angel Room, Rose Suite and the Aviary.

One of the goals was to make the bathrooms coordinate with their corresponding bedrooms. As a result, the new bathrooms include features such as bamboo wainscot, polished-slate showers, river-rock floors, five-ft.-high wainscot capped with a corbelled shelf, and basket-weave honed marble flooring.

In addition, the marble and other natural stones used in all of the bathrooms were highly customized. To create an historic appearance and to keep the budget down, Blahut bought most of material in 12x12-in. tiles and set up a cutting station in the basement. "We milled our own tile and polished the edges by hand," he says. "The result was that every tile looks slightly different and authentic to the building. This allowed us to get the high-end material without breaking the budget."

Once the new bathrooms were created, the rest of the house was refurbished to take it back to its original appearance. All of the walls were re-plastered and repaired, all of the original doors were kept and restored, and the wood windows were replicated by Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co., Inc., of Wausau, WI. "This is a beautiful, spacious house," says Blahut, noting that the ceilings are 11½ ft. on the first floor, 9½ ft. on the second floor and 8½ ft. on the third floor. "The third-floor windows are 7 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide; they go right to the floor. The scale and proportions are awesome. A typical window is 3½x6 ft."

The moldings in the house were all heart pine that had originally been shellacked and later painted many times over the years. In all of the public spaces – the entry parlor, the dining room, reading room, the staircases and the second and third floor foyers – the molding was stripped and refinished with amber shellac. The original floors were kept and were re-sanded and finished with four coats of tung oil.

One of the interesting discoveries on the interior was a servants' staircase that was restored. "We didn't even know it was there," says Blahut. "When we pulled one of the closets out, there it was. It had probably been filled in the 1950s to create a hall closet."

Another interesting aspect of the project was the ceiling of the Dome Room. "As a kid I always wanted to go in the room that tops the corner turret," says Blahut. "When we first went through the house I was disappointed to find the room had a simple, flat 8-ft. ceiling." When the plaster ceiling was removed, he found a complexity of cross braces and supports designed to resist the outward thrust of the dome. Blahut's solution was to run a pair of steel cables through the lower perimeter of the roof's hip rafters, and then truss the underside of each of the eight faces of the dome to adequately dissipate additional lateral loading due to wind. "Now this room has a ceiling line that reflects what is suggested when observing it from the street below," says Blahut. "It is truly the crowning jewel of the house."

The chimney presented another challenge. The original house had a single chimney chase to service the three original coal-burning fireplaces. Blahut called in Chimney Savers of Hillsborough, NJ, to rebuild all of the flues and refurbish all three fireplaces.

Most of the work, however, was done by Blahut and his workmen. The interior molding, for example, was cut on site. While the original milling was done by an outside contractor, Blahut decided to purchase a molder and to run his own moldings for the interior. "It worked out really well," he says. "We could always create a couple more molding lengths if we needed them, and believe me, we did."

Because it had been a summer cottage, the house didn't have heat, so it had to be added. To avoid baseboard heating, the design team decided to use a hot-water radiant system under the floors. When the plaster ceilings were pulled down, they were able to install new plumbing, electric and radiant heat throughout the building. Every room also has its own high-velocity air-conditioning system and its own thermostat. "We tried to provide all of the modern accommodations without compromising the authenticity of the house," says Blahut.

On the exterior, two-thirds of the large 12½-ft.-deep wraparound porch had been filled in. Blahut's team reversed this and was able to determine the original construction without too much trouble. "We were able to replace whatever was missing with exact copies," he says. "We didn't have to guess what was there."

There was no guessing with the siding and trim either. "When we got the house, it had asbestos siding and aluminum coil wrapped over the trim and other details," says Blahut. "When we removed all of the more recent installations, the original materials were still there. Even though there was a great deal of deterioration, it was only a matter of replacing it with something that matched the original as opposed to guessing what it was."

Instead of original materials, however, Blahut used new materials for the siding, molding and roofing. A high-end fiber-cement product by Nichiha USA of Norcross, GA, was used instead of the cedar clapboard siding. "It exactly matches the ½-in. thickness of the original," says Blahut, "and it is durable, stable and holds paint exceptionally well."

When it came to the exterior wood trim, the solution was to replace it with cellular PVC trimboards from AZEK Building Products. This was used to reproduce the dozen or so exterior molding profiles and all of the other details on the exterior, including the decorative fan pattern on the gables, corbels, the soffit beadboard and other scrollwork. Blahut selected AZEK trimboards because they work like wood and are maintenance free, an important consideration because the house is only 450 ft. from the ocean.

The new roof is made of a synthetic wood shake from Enviroshake of Chatham, Ontario, Canada. Designed to look like and install like wood (and to weather to a silvery gray), it is a composite made of recycled plastics, rubber and cellulosic fiber materials.

Another roofing challenge was solved with the help of historic photos. The 9-ft. spire originally on top of the onion dome on the corner turret had been gone for many years. Blahut used a 1901 photo and was able to re-create the spire using architectural foam and fiberglass.

"The beauty of this job is that we really restored the house to its original detail," says Blahut, who studied architectural engineering at Penn State and always had an interest in older homes. "When I started Perennial Homes, I couldn't understand why older homes fell out of favor, but I realized it came down to the maintenance cycle.

"I always wanted to go back in time and see one of these older buildings when they were new. We see them with rotted siding, peeling paint and vinyl windows. My goal was to take this house back to the state it was in when it was first built. It was a tug of war figuring out how to accomplish a low-maintenance cycle without compromising aesthetic quality. I think it worked out really well." 

 

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