'A Look At Classic American Architecture By The Sea'
Interview With Maria Ritter
Written and Photographed by Gina Fothergill
click here for additional photos
After a brutal winter in NYC and most of the northeast, I was excited to return to our favorite summer getaway spot - Bayhead at the New Jersey Shore. A longtime friend and design colleague, Maria Ritter originally introduced me to this historic, seaside town when most of our city friends were running for the Hamptons. Here she speaks of the architectural charm in Bayhead and why she calls this place her home.
The sky jumps out in my favorite cerulean blue, and I immediately feel happy. White sandy beaches border midnight blue and emerald green tones that bleed into the sea. I can't remember the last time I saw an uninterrupted horizon line like I see before me now. Having grown up in RI, I immediately fell in love with this quiet summer haven. Only 1.5 hours drive from NYC, this little gem is filled with extraordinary nature and beauty. Dolphins jump past as beach goers stand in amazement. Osprey are visible in the bay with nests spanning 3 ft, and whales were reported swimming in the area only a week before. Together with Mantaloking and Point Pleasant, Bay Head completes the Jersey Shore's affluent "Gold Coast".
As we drive into town you can't help but notice all of the US flags and national decor streaming from house to house in preparation for the Fourth of July. The view evokes a feeling of tradition, pride and patriotism. Simultaneously, construction noise is in the air as so many houses are still being repaired, rebuilt, and raised after Hurricane Sandy, almost 2 years ago now. As we pull into the driveway of our ocean front cottage, I realize that there is an empty lot to the left. We were told that the house was washed out to sea the day of the Hurricane Sandy, with more than 100 others. And like this empty lot, many haven't even begun to rebuild.
The Bay Head Historic District, listed in the New Jersey and the National Registers of Historic places in 2005, includes over 550 contributing structures (over half of the town's buildings) making it one of the largest historic districts in New Jersey. Bay Head's historic district is architecturally significant for its large collection of well-preserved Shingle Style, Stick Style, Colonial Revival and Queen Anne Style structures.
All the variety that falls within the Shingle Style nomenclature is apparent here: asymmetrical forms, wide porches, gambrel and gable roofs, rambling lean-to additions, free form shingled surfaces and classical columns. The Shingle Style was primarily a high-fashion style designed by architects rather than builders. It had begun and reached its highest expression in seaside resorts of the northeast, such as Newport, Cape Cod, eastern Long Island and coastal Maine, resort areas already familiar to the wealthy buyers willing to commute from Philadelphia or New York to enjoy the benefits of seaside living.
Gina: How would you describe your summers growing up here as a child?
Maria: It might sound cliche to say 'idyllic and carefree' but, it really was. We spent hours playing on the beach and body surfing. Our parents gave us the freedom to explore and we rode our bikes everywhere. On rainy days we played hide and seek, read comics, and played countless games of Monopoly. There were few TV's and obviously no computers or video games. Doors were never locked and we openly popped in on our friends to say hello. Bay head still has that friendly small town feel which I love so much. Each morning I walk the dog and finish with a swim. Everyone around here shouts, "Good Morning!" whether you know each other or not.
Gina: One of my favorite things to do in Bay Head is to ride bikes through all of this amazing architecture. How would you describe the traditional beach house decor you saw growing up here? All of the furniture was chosen purposefully second hand, so there was no worry about sand and wet bathing suits. Because of the cacophony of furniture styles, everything in each room was painted the same color and referred to as 'the blue room', or the 'yellow room', etc. I think because I was exposed to this re-use and recycle mentality growing up, that I find such beauty in mixing the old with the new. Also, most beach houses had outdoor showers, which is still very common, so you can rinse off after the beach before coming into the house. That is still my favorite beach house feature.
I can see that the severity of Hurricane Sandy is still quite apparent almost 2 years later. Having lived here through the storm, how would you describe the the devastation in Bay Head?
Maria: Sandy has left an irreversible scar on our town, and even more so on our sister town, Mantoloking. Ninety percent of Bay Head was either damaged or flooded, though we only lost a few houses. Montoloking unfortunately lost about ninety percent of the houses on the barrier island side (more than 100) and some of the grand old shingle style houses were completely destroyed. Luckily, most of the rebuilding done thus far is in keeping with the original architectural 'language' of the town. But long term, there is still so much to do. More than half of the retailers along Bridge Ave have still not reopened.
Gina: What is the biggest challenge this town faces on the road to recovery?
Maria: The biggest challenge for us now is figuring out how to protect this seaside landmark. Most of Bay Head survived because of the 14" rock barrier that is buried beneath the dunes. However, for Mantaloking and the north end of Bay head, there is no protection. We are now in the process of raising money to build a similar man made structure but it is very costly. A lot of beach front owners have put in their share but more than half of the dunes are non profit so we will have to rely heavily on donations to make this happen.
Gina: You returned to Bay Head as a full time resident after 911. What makes you call Bay Head 'home'?
Maria: After 20+ years of living in NYC I needed to find some balance. And for me that was returning to nature and feeling part of a more intimate community. I still walk and bike everywhere and love the same sense of village life that I had in the city. And of course there is the ocean...