By Jay Cook
Hidden in the shadow of the Highlands Bridge, the average beachgoer might be surprised to know they drive by one of the oldest houses on the Jersey Shore on the way to Sandy Hook.
With both its first and second floor windows shuttered, tall grasses consuming the yard and the banks of the Shrewsbury River only a few hundred feet away, the William Sandlass House has seen better days.
Yet for one local historian, the building – which in his eyes is a jewel of Jersey Shore history – must stay, no matter what.
“We can’t afford to lose another historic building in Monmouth County,” said Rick Geffken, president of the nonprofit organization Jersey Coast Heritage Museum (JCHM) at Sandlass House. Geffken also writes occasional historical features for the Two River Times.
The William Sandlass House was part of a day-trip complex, which opened in 1888 as the “Highland Beach Excursion Resort,” the great-grandfather to the modern-day beach trip those in the tristate area have come to cherish.
Owned and operated by entrepreneur William Sandlass Jr., the resort once stood where the Highlands Bridge now stretches from Highlands over to the barrier peninsula. Bungalows, boats and amusements were all daily staples at the Sandy Hook getaway. Most notable of all the attractions on site was “Great Switchback Railroad,” a late-19th century rollercoaster made of wood.
Although only one of the many buildings that made up Highland Beach Excursion Resort, the Sandlass House – built in 1893 – was home to the Sandlass family, and later became the company’s headquarters.
Built from the timbers of the dismantled “Great Switchback Railroad,” the building has stood on Sandy Hook for 123 years despite being completely moved once, experiencing two land ownership changes and suffering damage from multiple hurricanes.
In 1962, the state seized the entirety of the Sandlass property through eminent domain to create Sandy Hook State Park, the precursor to the National Parks Service’s (NPS) management of the area.
As the years passed, more and more of Sandlass’ houses and buildings on Sandy Hook were taken down, until it changed hands again.
“Over the next few years, they knocked everything down but that house, and in 1979, the state sold it to the federal government,” said Geffken.
In the eyes of JCHM, the building once was, and still is, key to Garden State history. Now, talks ranging from demolition to relocating the building somewhere else are coming from the NPS Gateway National Recreation Area, and according to Geffken, his group is doing their all to keep the home as it is.
“We intend to raise private funds to save what is the most historic building left along the Jersey Shore, when it comes to people’s entertainment and amusements,” he said.
Geffken and JCHM have received support for their efforts from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to keep the building upright and protected.
Last month, Pallone sent a letter to Jennifer Neresian, superintendent of Gateway National Recreation Area. In the letter, Pallone noted his successful interactions with JCHM and asked that “I respectfully request that any request for demolition funds be put on hold indefinitely while conversations regarding the preservation of the Sandlass House continue.”
Despite ongoing conversations to keep the Sandlass House, it is interesting to note that the building is not on any type of historical registry list on Gateway National Recreation Area or in Monmouth County.
To receive that protected status, Geffken had to send a letter authenticating the history of the home to the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office. Geffken wrote the story of the Sandlass House with Susan Sandlass Gardiner, now a Maryland resident, who grew up in the building.
Although the documents were mailed over the summer, Geffken has yet to receive any word, thus forcing him to reach out to another Monmouth County official, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-NJ).
“Sen. Kyrillos met with Rick Geffken of Jersey Coast Heritage Museum at Sandlass House and we discussed their proposal to save this historic piece of Monmouth County,” said Tony Perry, director of legislative affairs for Kyrillos. “We have already reached out to the State Historic Preservation Office within the Department of Environment Protection to assist in getting a certification of eligibility so they are able to raise private funds and donations to save the Sandlass House.”
While JCHM is covering their bases on the large scale, Shore residents believe this fight is worth waging.
“Because of its proximity to Sea Bright, what happens there definitely impacts Sea Bright, and there’s certainly some synergy with some of the things that Sea Bright’s working on to improve and expand on public access,” said Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long.
Long has been involved with the discussions between JCHM and Gateway National Recreation Area, and believes a common-ground exists. She noted how the history at the Sandlass House will forever be connected with Sea Bright.
“When you look at the Sandlass House and what it represents, Mr. Sandlass was clearly a trailblazer for the Jersey Shore day-trip,” said Long. “His Sandlass House was the precursor to our beach clubs here in Sea Bright.”
From the hills in Highlands, which has looked down onto the Sandlass House since the day it was built, a member of Twin Lights says there is an economic advantage to keeping the home.
“The Twin Lights will always be sort of the main calling card in this area, but the more we can build around that, the better off everyone else is,” said Mark Stewart, a trustee to the Twin Lights Historical Society.
Stewart observed that the Sandlass House and Twin Lights could be a great driving force for an uptick in heritage tourism in Monmouth County.
“Once we get people to this area, very often they want to know where they should go next,” he said. “Where they can eat, are there any other interesting places around here. That would be a natural extension of what we do.”
For Geffken, who actually spent his first 14 summers in a Sandlass bungalow at Highland Beach Excursion Resort, keeping the Sandlass House just makes a lot of sense.
“There’s a nexus here of Twin Lights, Highlands Historical Society, Fort Hancock, Sea Bright and the Sandlass House,” he said. “These things are all historically tied together.”
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