OCEAN CITY — The state Historic Preservation Office instructed the city to stabilize and mothball the Bellevue Hotel while local officials proceeded with plans knock it down last week.
A fire caused by demolition crews made the issue moot when it ripped through the structure for hours on Friday and clearly required its immediate destruction. The building is now almost entirely rubble.
But the disagreement casts Friday’s blaze in a different light — what seemed to be an accident that expedited plans to destroy the property anyway ravaged a structure that might have been preserved.
The state Historic Preservation Office received the city’s request for emergency demolition of the building Sept. 21. The state sent a letter back Tuesday, Sept. 25, that authorized knocking down the four-story section.
That section was clearly in disrepair from the exterior. Water pooling on the roof caused supporting walls to buckle, and a fourth-story wall looked as if it was bubbling outward because of bent beams.
However, the letter provided to The Press of Atlantic City by the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees historic preservation, said the city provided no evidence that the six-story section at the corner of Eighth Street and Ocean Avenue was structurally unstable or hazardous.
City Business Administrator Mike Dattilo said he and other officials, including city engineer Art Chew, believed the building was in obvious disrepair. After an on-site inspection with a state official on Thursday, they thought the state agreed.
“We had a clear expectation that we were going to get approval to knock down the whole thing,” Dattilo said.
The fire preceded that determination. The state sent another letter Friday.
“Sadly, the combination of neglect by the private owner and today’s fire makes demolition the only prudent action,” it reads. “The demolition of the entire building at 701-703 Eighth Street is hereby authorized.”
The building was one of the oldest on the island. Local historians are not even sure how old it is, but the Ocean City Historical Museum has postcards dated as early as 1907.
Prior to that, it was apparently a beachfront bathhouse. That was years before sand swept south from Absecon Island and expanded the northern portion of Peck Beach. Now the ocean is two blocks away from Ocean Avenue.
The building was considered a key part of the Ocean City Residential Historic District, which roughly encompasses an area from Third to Eighth streets and from Central to Ocean avenues. The district was placed on the state and national Register of Historic Places in 2003.
Nomination for the district includes some history of the hotel. It says that in 1909 it was identified as The Headam and today it “stands as reminder of the historic and current resort nature of the community.”
The building is textured concrete block on its first story, the document states. It was originally fronted by full-heights porch but they were later enclosed. It had a flat roof with a bracketed cornice.
An advertisement in the Ocean City Business Directory of 1913 boasts that it is “Ocean City’s Leading Hotel,” with a 250-person capacity. The accompanying picture looked almost exactly as the building did until Thursday.
To get approval to knock the entire hotel down, the state said, the local government would have had to prepare a structural assessment and an evaluation of whether the property could be reasonably repaired by a firm with demonstrated experience in historic preservation.
That evaluation would have been due by Nov. 5 in order to be reviewed the New Jersey Historic Sites Council at its Dec. 20 meeting.
In the meantime, the preservation office said the city should proceed with a formal mothballing process.
“If a vacant property has been declared unsafe by building officials, stabilization and mothballing may be the only way to protect it from demolition,” read the national guidelines for the process.
Dattilo said the city subsequently submitted more evidence showing that was not an option, and he believed they again demonstrated that with Thursday walk-through of the building.
Before ordering the building’s demolition in August, the city solicited proposals to turn the Bellevue into senior affordable housing.
It received three bids on the project, which it was still reviewing by the time the serious structural problems became apparent at the end of the summer.
The property, last assessed at $2.2 million, is owned by Ocean City Plaza LLC, a Pennsylvania-based company.
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