It is a house of beautiful spacious rooms furnished in exquisite taste and elegance, and will make a strong appeal to those appreciative of refined and comfortable conditions." That was the published review of the Essex and Sussex Hotel when it first opened in Spring Lake, N.J., in 1914. Those words apply today as the landmark oceanfront hotel reopens as a year-round rental residence for active adults.
Once considered a jewel of the New Jersey shore, Essex and Sussex was the summer destination for wealthy residents of both New York and Philadelphia, European royalty and even a U.S. president or two. The block-long hotel, named to acknowledge its stretch from Essex Avenue to Sussex Avenue, was designed as an L-shaped, six-story, wood-framed structure containing 412 rooms, two lavish lobby floors, full porches overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, an ornate dining room, kitchen, and library.
But the world changed after World War II, and when the Garden State Parkway was completed in 1954, travelers opted for far-off destinations. As neighboring hotels were sold and demolished to make way for high-end homes, the hotel continued on for 30 years, changing hands in the 1970s, playing a starring role in the "Great Gatsby" in 1974 and James Cagney's last film, "Ragtime," in 1981. It closed in 1985.
A new owner had ambitious plans to turn the hotel into 206 seasonal condominiums. The developer gutted the property, began adding new and extending existing balconies and tearing off the wrap-around porch. But bankruptcy drove the developer to abandon the hotel in shambles in 1990. That's when Hoboken, N.J.-based developer Applied Development Associates (ADA) stepped in.
In 1993, the group purchased the hotel with a plan to transform the 225,650-sq.-ft. property into 165 senior-living apartments. But it wasn't easy to turn the tide. Local residents opposed the reconstruction, and zoning regulations made it look as if the project would be swept out to sea. It wasn't until 1999 that a Superior Court judge gave the developers the go-ahead.
Because a faulty roof had left most of the building exposed to the elements, water damage had taken its toll. This enabled vandals of both the animal and human variety to do their worst. With the remnants of a failed project all around, including half-built walls in some areas and walls stripped to the base in others, the building team set forth with a diligent plan for success. It consisted of ADA, Cherry Hill, N.J.-based architect Kanalstein Danton Associates (KDA), and Leonardo, N.J.-based contractor AJD Construction.
Since the facility’s original ocean-facing entrance was not suitable for its Baby Boomer residents age 55 or older, a new west entrance was constructed.
The $15.8 million project received a Merit Award in Building Design and Construction's 19th annual Reconstruction Awards program.
An absolute disaster
"It was an absolute disaster," says Gary Kanalstein, principal with Kanalstein Danton Associates, commenting on his first viewing of the building. "Most people would have torn it down, but the Essex and Sussex is one of the last of the large hotel structures on the New Jersey shore and the team had the vision to restore it to its grandeur."
"In order to make this work while saving on costs and aggravation, it's important to set out a plan and for all to be confident in understanding what needs to be done and always be prepared for the unexpected," adds Allen Goldman, senior vice president with ADA. Together the team established a clear strategy under which they determined what was imperative for a senior-living facility, including the size and massing of the facility, functional arrangements of space, type of construction materials to be used, HVAC systems, electrical systems and the interior finishes.
Among the first objectives was an analysis of the existing site. This year-long process consisted of documenting and investigating all existing conditions using digital photography, as-built drawings and researching the construction of the Essex and Sussex in the early 1900s. Samples of the few existing materials were catalogued so a material match could be achieved.
This extensive cataloguing was necessary to perform work under the then newly adopted New Jersey Rehabilitation Code. Essex and Sussex is the first major rehabilitation project completed using the new code. Accepted by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, the code allows for the reconstruction and alteration of existing wood-frame structures by providing specific guidelines geared toward the preservation of such buildings. "This project would not have been possible without the code," says Kanalstein. "It enabled us to maintain the existing balloon wood frame structure, which other codes would have called for us to demolish — even though the building is built like the Rock of Gibraltar."
Since its release in 1999, the code has had a significant impact in upgrading structures in the state. "We've seen a dramatic increase in the rate of reconstruction projects," says William Connolly, director of the state's Division of Codes and Standards. According to Connolly, since the code's inception, projects involving existing structures have increased by 62% in the state's largest cities, and the state overall has seen an 18% increase.
A focus on seniors
With experience in senior design, KDA was geared to not only restore the structure, but also reconfigure the site to serve the needs of its tenants. "The original, ocean-facing entry has a beautiful staircase, which, while aesthetically pleasing, is not conducive to senior residents," says Kanalstein. As a result, the building now includes a new main entry and porte cochere on the west side. This allows for tenants to be dropped off at the door and provides additional parking.
The new, steel-framed porte cochere is attached to the existing structure and blends with the restored exterior. The façade includes a combination of brick at the base of the building, with stucco plaster and EIFS covering the remainder. The team also restored plaster accents at the exterior doors and windows, ornate wood trim and details at the fascias and friezes that accent the A-framed roof structure, and the copper gutters, downspouts, and flashing used throughout.
The building's garden level and first two floors include community spaces that have been fully restored to their original splendor with solid, 6-in., two-piece wood base molding and three-piece painted wood crown moldings with dentils. A solarium overlooking the Atlantic has been added to provide residents with additional views. Other amenities include a piano bar, library, multimedia room, beauty salon, art studio, computer room, and state-of-the art fitness center. "We retained the original size of the public spaces, which were originally designed for some 420 hotel guests, for the tenants of the 165 units — meaning there is a lot of room for tenants," Kanalstein observes.
A new main stairway with ornamental metal railings replaces former wood stairs.
The highlight of the restoration is the grand dining room. The developer chose to restore this room to its original splendor. Notwithstanding the fact that it was heavily damaged, ADA secured the services of a New York-based firm Architectural Restoration, which worked for seven months to replicate all of the plaster, castings and moldings. The fully restored dining room evokes the luxury and grandeur of the hotel as it must have appeared during its original opening in 1914.
Above the two floors of public spaces are four levels of standard rooms, including a level of two-story penthouses. All the units are sprinklered, have radiant heating, and feature private balconies overlooking either the Atlantic or Spring Lake. Standard units average 460 sq. ft., with the penthouses averaging 1,000 sq. ft. "These sizes are typical for senior housing," Goldman says.
Labor of love
The Essex and Sussex formally opened for occupancy in May. Even though the project went through some tough issues with the town, it has become a major attraction for residents of Spring Lake. In fact, upon its opening, the town's mayor offered his complete support to the success of the project. "This is the first project where those people working on it didn't want to leave — it truly was a labor of love," says Kanalstein.
"There's simply nothing like it in today's marketplace," says Goldman. "We set out to provide luxury residence for active adults and were able to restore an elegant historic landmark in the process — who could ask for anything more?"