VENTNOR — Drive south down Ventnor Avenue from Atlantic City, and before too long the brick and concrete streetscape of apartments and businesses opens to a wide boulevard of expansive lawns and palatial homes.
You have entered the St. Leonard’s Tract.
In a sea of high-rises and McMansions, the eight-block stretch of the St. Leonard’s Tract in the middle of Ventnor is unique among shore neighborhoods for many reasons, from the large, expansive lots to the variety of architectural styles.
Wrote A.C. Reporter columnist Howard Berger in 1958: “In a modern age, when progress (has) stripped communities of many landmarks, emerging unscathed from a battle that swept away places past generations took pride in, and standing invincible and ready to meet all challenges seeking to destroy its stable beauty, is the St. Leonard’s Tract of Ventnor — the showplace of Absecon Island.”
And that was before condos.
The tract’s history dates to before Ventnor was incorporated, when the area was mapped out in 1896 while it was just another remote, dune-strewn stop on the trolley south from Atlantic City. As homes were built, on streets named for English dukes, 30-year restrictions and covenants were placed in deeds that limited development on the mostly 50-by-125-foot properties to single-family homes. Those restrictions also barred hotels and boarding houses — not to mention bone-boiling factories, piggeries and hospitals.
Save for a brief lifting of the rental bans, those restrictions became permanent when the St. Leonard’s Association was incorporated from 1921 to 1923. So, for the past 90 years, the atmosphere of the tract has stayed pretty much the same — though not without its share of battles.
The association has fought zoning issues ranging from subdivisions to more offices to a large deck planned atop a garage. The main issue was that it would overlook a number of backyards, not the fact that the deed restrictions limited space atop garages to “a living area for servants.”
The tract’s deed restrictions have no legal power in Ventnor, said code enforcement official Jim Agnesino, but the association’s members — representing about 150 of the tract’s 300 or so properties — have not been shy in having their voices heard.
“We can’t override the city of Ventnor, but we always go to planning meetings, zoning meetings, and try to persuade them to keep (the area) not so tightly packed,” said association President Linda Zapp. “With enough powerful people backing you, you have a say in government. One person comes out, it doesn’t stop anything, but with the backing of everyone, it makes a difference. There’s power in numbers.”
Zapp and her fellow officers have brought the association into the 21st century, creating a detailed database of properties and residents, a Facebook page — “This was when you had to be a person to be on Facebook, so we called it ‘Leonards Tract,’” Zapp said — and continuing the tradition of annual social get-togethers and charity fundraising, such as the $3,000 donated this month to Ventnor Little League.
“Developers are just thinking about the money,” Zapp said. “We’re thinking about being here. We experience the tract every day. And more and more of us are locals, living here 100 percent of the time.”
The Zapps’ home, a shingled, canalside building once known as Derby Hall, has a colorful history dating to when it was a private yacht club.
“It opened in 1907 by people who raced boats from the Ventnor Boatworks,” Bernie Zapp said. “One (legend) is that they ran liquor out of this house. There’s a door under the deck just a few feet from the bay, so boats can offload and store liquor under the deck. It’s a tremendous storage area. It has got to be 1,000 square feet.”
As befitting a place where large quantities of booze may have been located in the ’20s, “Allegedly, President Warren Harding stayed here,” Zapp said.
Another visitor was songwriter Irving Berlin, said near-lifelong resident Maxine Stonehill. “He lived in a house that belonged to the governor (Walter Edge) at Oxford and the beach. It’s no longer there.”
Despite some differences, such as apartment complexes and motels along the Boardwalk — built because the high-water mark of the ocean had shifted since the tract was laid out, creating more nontract land along the beach — “It actually hasn’t changed that much,” Stonehill said. “It seems to have gone on for generation after generation. Just the faces have changed.”
One place where the faces soon will change is at the home of Loretta Sawtelle, which has a “For Sale” sign on the lawn.
“We’ve lived in it 49 years, and we raised up all our family there,” Sawtelle said of her home on South Derby Avenue. “My husband’s 85, and I’m 80, so our children are a little concerned about us staying in the house and climbing up and down stairs at our age. ... We’ve had a long history here, and we’ve really enjoyed it.”
While “not real enthusiastic” about the association, she said, the neighbors all tend to get along — though today, only about a third of her block is made up of year-round residents.
“We all say hello, we’re all friendly,” she said. “But nobody gets too involved. It used to be you’d know who your neighbor was, who their children were, and if you didn’t know where your children were, you could go ask them. It’s not the case these days. Everyone is pretty private.”
Her home is on the market for “$100 less than what the assessment says, $749,000,” she said. What did she originally pay for it?
“About $30,000 in 19-sixtysomething,” she said. “A long, long time ago.”
Another home on the market is on the 5900 block of Ventnor Avenue, said Farley and Ferry Realtor Mary Lou Ferry.
“It’s one of the premier locations in Ventnor,” Ferry said, “Not only for the uniqueness of the homes — and there are very diverse properties — but the fact is that there are a lot of properties with larger lots, at 62.5-by-125, and that’s very attractive to families and people who like space. It carries a lot of weight in the market here.”
The property, once owned by Florida U.S. Sen. George Smathers — described in a 1979 article as “the swinger-friend of the late President Kennedy” — is listed at $799,000, she said, “a fantastic offer for the property, because it’s on a double lot.”
But where will its owners, the Boncaris, go after the sale? Not far at all.
“Oh, they just love Ventnor,” Ferry said. “They don’t want to be anywhere else but Ventnor, and the St. Leonard’s Tract. They just want to get a little closer to the beach.”
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