By Rick Geffken
It’s easy to look past the forlorn house on Sandy Hook as you loop off the bridge from the Highlands and head toward Gateway National Park. Haphazardly boarded up, it’s surrounded by unkempt seagrass and the flotsam of relentless tides and time, just a dilapidated old hulk waiting to collapse.
Not many realize that this old building is a vital link to the very creation of the Jersey Shore. Our famed Atlantic coastline attracts thousands of vacationers each summer. We take it for granted that these revelers have been coming to our beaches for relief from the heat and humidity and to our resorts for entertainment just about as long as anyone remembers. “It’s always been this way,” is our common refrain.
But if it wasn’t for the determined vision and industry of an entrepreneur named William Sandlass, the Jersey Shore might look a lot different today. And that deteriorated structure? Well, it was the headquarters of what Sandlass called Highland Beach, and it may be just weeks away from demolition.
Prolific author and respected Monmouth County historian Randall Gabrielan has noted “Highland Beach, or Sandlass’s, is important because the public and recreational New Jersey ocean shore began there. Various places now claim, nearly all without merit, that ‘the Jersey Shore begins here.’ But for the better part of a century, the Jersey Shore began at Sandlass’s.” This was the model for all subsequent resorts, Keansburg to Cape May.
The Jersey Shore was becoming a nationally known vacation destination in the early 20th century. Four movies directed by D.W. Griffith, filmed at Highland Beach, added to its fame. The Highland Beach resort had a gravity railroad, pavilions, bathhouses, rowboats for rent, beaches on the bay and the ocean, a hotel, a restaurant, and a boardwalk. A “Bamboo Bar” in that old house, bowling alleys, and a summer bungalow community completed Sandlass’s family-friendly resort. (I spent the first summer of my life in one of those bungalows, rented by my parents in 1946.)
Four years ago Susan Sandlass Gardiner, granddaughter of William Sandlass, joined with several other ardent preservationists to form a coalition intent on moving and repurposing the historic house. Getting right to the point, they called it “Save Sandlass.” The group determined to muster the funds and public support to preserve this last remnant of Highland Beach. It was the keystone building in Highland Beach’s contribution to a notable cultural movement lasting from the turn of the century through World War II — the development of Jersey Shore recreation for the masses.
Gardiner, who now lives in Maryland, and her brother Hank Sandlass of Rumson have a deeply personal interest in preserving this part of Jersey Shore history. It was their family home during the 1940s into the 1960s. Save Sandlass has the broader imperative for its mission – “to turn the tide in recognizing the importance of this history because demolishing the house would eliminate the last element of a major social movement, vitally important to our region.”
Tides have indeed worked against the survival of this building since its construction in 1893 for use as a grocery store and billiards hall near the entrance to what was then Fort Hancock. The latest affront to the wooden-sided house was Super Storm Sandy, a major accelerant to the ruin of the abandoned two story dwelling. For 50 years prior to that devastation, the Sandlass House was a residence for employees of the National Park Service (NPS) working on Sandy Hook. It was minimally maintained during that period.
The NPS chose not to reopen it after Sandy. Instead, they asked the “Friends of Sandlass House” if they’d relocate the house from the Hook. Save Sandlass coalesced and began a campaign to search for a new location. Concurrent with the initial public enthusiasm generated by the group, the NPS submitted a request to the federal government for demolition funds because of the “indefinite status” of the building. For once, the precept “things grind exceeding slow” is a blessing.
Susan Gardiner notes, “Just as Jones Beach is associated with the automobile, Highland Beach is associated with steamboats and the railroad. In fact, this house is almost the last surviving element of this entire period of Shore recreation. Since the Peninsula House in Sea Bright burned down, the only things we have left with significant social aspects of the early seashore era in our local history are the Monmouth Beach Club, the Water Witch Club, and the William Sandlass House.”
Save Sandlass has done extraordinary research documenting the several permutations and relocations of the building. Old maps, sepia photographs, and deeds all show it was constructed in the middle of a sandy road on the peninsula. Astonishingly, the research strongly suggests that the house may have been built with the salvaged timbers and other elements of a switchback railway, after a design of LaMarcus A. Thompson. In 1884, Thompson patented and built the first railway, forerunner to roller coasters, in Coney Island. The William Sandlass House originally stood on the footprint of the Sandy Hook version of the Thompson thrill ride.
As the Highland Beach resort developed around it, the house was moved closer to the Shrewsbury River to accommodate the traffic in and out of Fort Hancock. The back-end of the building was a bowling alley for a time. William Sandlass and his family lived on the second floor when he converted the former store into the first “Bamboo Bar” in 1908. After 1945, the house was the residence of his son Henry and his wife Irene. Susan, Hank, and three other siblings have wonderful memories and stories of living in the bustling summer community while their father, Henry managed the bathing operation.
Highland Beach: Destinations Past, a film produced by Chris Brenner of Fair Haven, features the in-depth story of this lost resort. Photographs and memorabilia from Highland Beach, not seen in decades, appear throughout the production. The Atlantic Highlands Historical Society will host a free showing of Brenner’s carefully researched tribute to our shared Shore history on Wednesday, April 20th, at 7:30 pm. Consult their website www.ahhistory.org for details.
Susan Gardiner provides this update: “Save Sandlass has approached several municipalities and private businesses looking for a site partner to honor the history of this building for use as a visitor center, a history destination, or possibly a Museum of the NJ Shore. Its unique characteristics would make for a charming restaurant or a craft-brew business.” To date, no entity has committed to taking the house.
Save Sandlass welcomes any help for this important historical preservation effort. Contact the group via email at Save Sandlass@gmail.com, or by phone at 732-784-7616.
More on the Sandlass House:
Commentary in The Two River Times by Sean Moran of Rumson: The Sandlass House is Worth Saving.
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