SOMERS POINT - Big plans are in the works for a new monument to local hero Richard Somers and potential repatriation of his remains - but what about the Somers family home that has stood in town for almost 300 years?
The Somers Mansion, which historians believe dates to about 1720, had its last major renovation in 1942 and is not in the best of shape, local historians said. That's not the best first impression for the crowds expected at the October dedication of a monument to Somers, hero of the Barbary Wars of the 1800s.
The question is whether the mansion will get the needed funds to repair and renovate the structure, which along with a hoped-for grave for Somers' repatriated remains would be the centerpiece of a proposed Heritage Tourism District.
"A lot of improvements need to be made," state Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Chloe Gogo said. "But there are more needs than there are funds."
The mansion, possibly the oldest home in Atlantic County, sits at the end of Shore Road in Somers Point, looming over a busy intersection and the Route 54 bridge like the prow of a ship.
"It is just a great building, and it's really amazing when you walk inside," architectural historian Joan Berkey said. "It's the only patterned brick house in Atlantic County."
There are similar-style homes in colonial sections of Gloucester and Cumberland counties, she said, "but to have one this far east is pretty incredible."
After being expanded in the 1800s, the mansion was turned into a boarding house in 1910. It was later returned to something resembling its former construction after it was deeded to the Atlantic County Historical Society, and then the state, in the 1930s and '40s.
"Like all state-owned historical buildings, it's the last thing to be funded," Berkey said. "Things can go to hell in a handbasket if it's not maintained, but Somers Mansion has been lucky."
There is a plan put together by the DEP Office of Resource Management, Gogo said, that would put $750,000 to $1 million into restoration of the structure.
"We're just waiting for it to be put at the top of the to-do list," Gogo said.
Construction work for phasing out the Somers Point circle and the Route 52 bridge almost enveloped the property for several years, but has left the property with better curbing and more open space, Gogo said.
The roof - reinforced with both steel beams and original solid wooden beams from the shipyards - is in relatively good shape, according to Gogo and Berkey, although it has been almost 30 years since it was renovated.
The second story porch, or "captain's walk," is structurally unsound, Gogo said. "They used to let people up, but It's too old and too unsafe."
While the porch would be renovated, it wouldn't technically be restored to its original status. Berkey said that the second floor was restored incorrectly in the 1940s and should be what is known as a "port roof," in which the roof would slope down on either side of a doorway, and not a porch.
Access for the disabled and public restrooms would also be added, Gogo said.
But for now, the property gets by on its $110,000 annual budget, which pays for salaries, electricity and utilities.
The Somers Point Historical Society, meanwhile, is behind the plans to dedicate the Somers monument at its property a few blocks away on Shore Road. It also is behind the push for repatriation of Somers' remains, still in Libya after more than 200 years.
Sally Hastings, the society's president, agreed that the house "obviously needs work."
"It's really important that it looks its best," Hastings said. It's part of the Heritage Tourism District, and that's the one thing the AAA (guide) as a 'thing to do in Somers Point.' As a community, we're not putting our best foot forward when you look at the building."
If and when it is renovated, however, visitors would be able to step out onto the porch from the master bedroom and see a sweeping vista of the bay beyond - a view than spans centuries.
"It's really spectacular to think back 300 years when you see that wonderful view," Berkey said.
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