Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Old Cottage and the Sea - Part 1

Ocean City Camp Meeting Cottage (ca. 1885), Ocean City, NJ
Before Hurricane Sandy

It was only 10 a.m. and I was already exhausted. I awoke at 4:30 that morning and immediately turned on the television coverage of Hurricane Sandy, a huge storm system bearing down on the New Jersey shore. By 5:00 I was fully dressed and sitting with my coffee in front of the television, switching from station to station, intently monitoring the weather maps.

At first absent-mindedly, I started to tidy up and put things away while I listened to the reports – first one small task, then another. Almost subconciously, I gradually shifted into full-fledged evacuation mode, increasingly consumed by a desire to get off the island as soon as possible. I dreaded being trapped in an endless line of evacuees snaking up the Garden State Parkway.

I started securing the patio first. I put the new slat bench into the rear building, but there was nothing I could do with a heavy mahogany lawn chair. I turned it over and left it next to the back wall. I hoped that there the wind wouldn't catch it - or that it wouldn't float away. I took down the little birdhouse and dumped out the last of the seeds onto the concrete. I hoped some little bird would take advantage of this snack before the storm hit. I took the little stone gargoyle from its perch on a stack of flagstones and moved it onto a high shelf in the storage closet. I hoped his protective powers would retain their effectiveness while he was cooped up in there. There was a whole lot of hoping going on.

I hadn't intended to be so hyper about this storm. I am usually pretty cool during such crises, very efficient, practical. But overnight, my anxiety levels had begun to rise. That day - Saturday - the Governor declared a day of “voluntary evacuation.” On Sunday it became mandatory. I took a shower, and started to pack up my duffle bag, my computer, and my cameras.

Everything moveable that I could wrangle up the stairs was now on the second floor, or at least in the new kitchen addition, which had been built up on pilings and was fully FEMA-compliant. I fretted over putting the artwork on the floor there next to the sliding door, but figured that if they got wet, I would have a lot more to worry about than a few prints. I turned off the water, but forgot to turn off the electric main, which would have been a good idea. Typically the city turns off (or loses) power during coastal storms. I worried about what would happen if it turned on when the electrical outlets were still wet.

I left my little cottage at 10:30 Saturday morning and headed north to prepare to ride out the storm in my home in north Jersey. The slowly-moving storm's first high tide arrived on Sunday night, washing through many of the empty streets of Ocean City. By Monday's high tides, the bay would have gurgled into the first floor of my little cottage, inundating the upholstered frames of two brand new couches and moving up the empty bookshelves. If it gets up the to third shelf from the top, all the books will be lost. But then, if the water gets up that high, the kitchen, the electrical panel, appliances, and HVAC systems will also be under water. It promises to be one of the worst storms since the early 1900s, reports say. But for me – well, it's my first real flood. And I was nervous.

The Cottage

When I bought the cottage in Ocean City some 11 years ago, it was in sad shape. It was one of the original twenty-two camp meeting cottages – the “wooden tents” – that had replaced canvas tents during Ocean City's early years. The City was founded as a Methodist camp meeting by the Lake Brothers. Some people call my cottage “a Lake House.” It was built around 1885.

The Ocean City camp meeting became became so popular that the area around the large wooden tabernacle that sheltered the preachers grew into a summer city. The Lake brothers, not inclined to become city managers, sold off most of the land around the tabernacle, which incorporated as the City of Ocean City. The wooden tents were sold off and moved to other parts of town by their new owners in the late 1900s. My cottage has stood on the same spot where it came to rest some time around 1905.

The few remaining Lake Houses that exist in Ocean City are not easily recognizable. It's not like Ocean Grove, another Methodist Camp Meeting community farther north on the Jersey shore, where much grander versions of the typical cottage are still grouped together near the Auditorium, their 2-story porches ornamented with effusive gingerbread. No, Ocean City's more modest cottages were sold off and carted away by their new owners. Today, they are spread out around the city, having been altered over the years to meet the needs their new owners.

After the closing, I began the transformation of my little foothold at the Jersey shore. The house was so small that no project seemed overly complicated or daunting. Vinyl siding covered everything, including the ceiling of the front porch, which was sagging from the weight of ice water that had leaked in through the roof. My son and I took crowbars to the vinyl siding that spring, discovering original wood clapboard and decorative wood shingles underneath. The deck and railings of the upper front porch were so rickety that I forbade anyone from stepping out on it until they were repaired.

The Cottage before exterior renovation (2002).

During the summer, I had the porch rebuilt with the design help of a friend who was an historic architect. I painted the clapboard  a soft yellow. The pitiful jalousied windows on the second floor, where the winter wind blew in through the gaps created by missing glass louvers, were replaced with 6-light awning windows. I sent the detritus left by the previous owner off to the recycling center, charity flea markets, and the dump. I repaired the interior trim, hung bamboo roll-up shades, and painted everything white. The mice, which had enjoyed free rein there for several years, finally found other digs. While not perfect, the house was now at least habitable.

It stayed that way for several years, until finally the kitchen and bathroom wing at the rear of the building – a decrepit single story affair with long shed roof that tilted off to the side – started to leak, sag, and generally fail. With the help of an architect and several friends who kibitzed from the sidelines, I designed a 2- story kitchen addition with a large master bedroom above, along with a full bathroom and lavatory-laundry area on the first floor. It was all perfect.

Elevated rear addition (2011).

I decided to take a break before renovating the historic part - it had been a long time since I was able to enjoy the house without interruption. It's fortunate that I waited. I learned a lot in the interim. Buildings at the coast need a very different treatment than buildings inland.

Designing for a Flood

Because Ocean City is part of the federal National Flood Insurance Program, all new construction must meet the requirements for flood mitigation under its “storm mitigation plan.” New residential structures must be elevated about the Base Flood Elevation (BFE), as determined in those famous FEMA flood maps that we've heard so much about lately. In my part of the island, the BFE was about 4 feet above the adjacent grade level, or 10 feet above high water mark at high tide. The future addition would be built to comply, but the historic cottage was exempted from strict compliance. The first floor of the oldest section, however, was built just a few inches off the wet sand.

We had discovered this condition when a section of the dining room floor had given way and I commissioned the floor to be rebuilt. Once it had been opened up and my Irish contractor and I understood the situation, we decided to rebuild the floor to resist moisture and mold, if ever flooded.

The neighborhood had been flooded at least once before, according to the neighbors. I'm sure it happened many more times than that in years past. Most of the older houses on my block had been built there in the first decade of the 20th Century on concrete block foundations about 2-3 feet high. Not as high as today's standards require, perhaps, but still a measure of protection. My little cottage, however, did not enjoy even that minimal safeguard.

Dining Room with mahogany flooring (2011).
Our plan for the dining room floor was based on my experience in Louisiana after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. I spent three months there in early 2006, working for FEMA as a historic preservation specialist. I had seen what happens to buildings after a flood. Mold is the big enemy: it can be extremely toxic, if left to grow unimpeded. And it LOVES to grow on absorbent materials – fabric, soft woods, paper.

As a result, we designed the structural system and subfloor with pressure-treated (PT) wood, which resists moisture. Instead of the usual layer of paper between finish floor and subfloor, we lay down PT sleepers to allow for air to circulate between. Finally, we laid a finish flooring of tongue-in-groove mahogany, which is moisture and decay resistant, and does not “cup” (deform) after it has been saturated. And it was beautiful.

Little did we know that our theories about its “flood resistance” would be tested so soon.

(Link to Part 2)


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