The little red house overlooking downtown Tuckerton, atop one of the only hills in town, has a quaintness seldom found outside of Norman Rockwell's New England.

But its red clapboard siding, waving American flag and steep, sloping roof belie the truth.

"It's a fabulous fake," says Nick Wood, folklife coordinator for the Tuckerton Seaport & Baymen's Museum.

The building, referred to as the Sunny Brae Saltbox or the Little Red Saltbox, is one of the oldest homes in town, but it's far from the genuine article.

Deeds show the house has existed off what is now Route 9 since 1825, although it's likely much older, dating to the early 1700s. In the 1960s, a historically minded resident rotated the house 180 degrees, so the back faces Main Street. It also was transformed from a simple one-and-a-half-story loft house into a saltbox - a style native to New England but completely foreign to New Jersey - with the addition of a back room and plunging roofline.

"There's not a lot of original material left," Wood said. "Obviously, the posts and beams are original, but everything else changed."

While such a transformation may seem blasphemous to today's historians, Wood said it was a passion project for its previous owner, Henry Tustin. Like much of the country, he was smitten with the colonial era in the run up to the country's bicentennial in 1976.

"To have an older building they could save in their own way was something to be celebrated," he said.

The structure had been used by families including the influential Bartlett family, who owned the larger Sea Captain's House nearby. But by the time Tustin had taken over, the house had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair.

He replaced rotted floor boards with wood salvaged from an old barn that was slated for demolition. The hearth, which would have been a no frills affair, had its bricks relaid and a beveled mantle was added. Tustin took a hatchet to the exposed roof beams to make them appear more rustic.

"It was not intended as a museum piece," Wood said. "It was intended as a residence, and at that time the colonial revival was popular."

Still, Tustin took his cues from history, if not the actual history of the house he was restoring.

Historically referred to as a "lean-to," the saltbox was a style favored by upwardly mobile middle class families of the 1700s, said J. Edward Hood, vice president of Old Sturbridge Village, a Massachusetts living history museum which has preserved a saltbox house from 1748.

"It wasn't necessarily the peak aspiration architecturally, but the most common one middling folks could achieve," he said.

Hood said saltboxes started with two rooms, possibly with a second-floor loft. As the family grew in size and wealth, a back room - often a kitchen - would be added to the rear of the house and the roof would be extended past the existing roofline.

In some cases, the loft would be extended to a full second story. Sometimes this build-out took many years or even generations to complete.

"People built as much house as they needed; you strike that balance between presentation and what you can afford," he said. "There were cases of people overbuilding and going bankrupt."

Despite more popular explanations for the saltbox's odd roofline - including tax dodging (a way for a two-story house to be taxed as a one-story) and aerodynamics (the roof deflected northerly winds up over the house) - Hood said the simple explanation is likely the best one.

Indeed, he said, many families chose to continue the expansion process by retrofitting saltboxes to be traditional two-story colonials.

The case of Tuckerton's saltbox, in which a historic loft house received a latter-day saltbox renovation, is rare. But Hood said it's not entirely unprecedented. At least a few traditional colonials have been transformed into saltboxes after the fact, he said, but they often develop structural problems over time.

"You see houses that were retrofitted to be a saltbox that have serious structural problems over 50 or 60 years," he said. "The rafters are too long, or there's not enough, or they're resting on an interim beam not meant to hold the weight that way."

Often makeshift building materials prove unreliable, Hood said. That was the case in a different home he saw, where the studs were found to have been recycled from a hinged rope bed.

As the general public turned its attention back to the colonial era during the 1876 centennial, and that interest endured through the bicentennial a century later, the saltbox style became emblematic of America's past. Hood said it became a readily recognizable style.

"It's one that continues to be recognizable to people as something that must be antique," he said.

Tuckerton's saltbox was birthed from that renewed interest in the past.

"It's hard to tell what's original," Wood said. "The material may be old, but that doesn't mean it was original to the building."

However, there are some things that are original, he said. The fireplace and staircase are both in the same place. Much of the structure remains, including the pegs that hold the beams in place.

But given the number of renovations most old homes undergo - the Sea Captain's House had several sections added over time - Wood said the 1960s revamp is not so drastic.

Recently, the building started a new life as the office of Tuckerton's mayor, George Evans, who moved into the little red saltbox last year. Several borough commissions also their hold regular meetings here.

"I make sure I'm always here when there are events in town because people do want to come in and see it," said Evans, who spends about 20 hours per week there.

It also served as command post during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Because it sits at the highest elevation in Tuckerton, Evans said the saltbox was the best place in town to sit out the storm.

"We looked at it this way: if it's lasted this long, one more hurricane isn't going to hurt it," he said.

Sitting in his new office, Evans can feel the history around him. He's grown accustomed to the smell of old wood and the sounds of the building settling.

And while those sounds grew louder at the height of Irene last year, the saltbox held strong.

"You hear the wind, everything creaking and cracking. You hear window panels flapping back and forth outside," he said. "But you felt safe and secure."

Contact Wallace McKelvey:

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