Ocean City has taken 15 years to start restoring its nearly 130-year-old lifesaving station, and it looks like it will take a few more before the property becomes a functioning museum, as many hope it will.
Still, members of the organization dedicated to rescuing the building that was once dedicated to rescuing others are not sitting around waiting for the rehabilitation work to be complete. Instead, the members are using their time to uncover the history behind the 19th century structure.
“We’ll know the whole story of the station by the time the museum opens,” said John Loeper, chairman of U.S. Lifesaving Station 30, a registered nonprofit formed to help preserve the property.
It may take a couple more years before both the exterior and interior are restored and visitors can step inside to see exhibits. City officials say they hope to hire a contractor to start exterior work soon.
After rejecting a first round of proposals because the prices from five firms — between $717,762 and more than $1 million — were above budget, a new round of bids is expected next week after the city’s hired architectural consultant revised the specifications to lower the cost.
Penelope Watson, principal of Bridgeton-based Watson and Henry Associates, said some elements, such as moving doors and windows to their original places, and repainting the building to its original green and yellow colors, may have to be dropped from this phase of the work.
What should be included is fixing the foundation, raising the structure, replacing the roof and restoring the observatory.
Eventually, the building that dates to 1885 is supposed to be restored to precisely how it appeared in 1906, using about $1.5 million in city funding, state grant money and private donations.
At that point, the building could become a self-sustaining museum, Loeper said, drawing history buffs and everyday tourists interested in learning what Ocean City was like more than a century ago.
“Not that much has deteriorated over the years,” said Loeper. “The basic fabric of the building as it sits represents very clearly what a 1905 lifesaving station was like.”
The historic structure has been a cause celebre on the island’s north end since there was the potential for it to become yet another site of duplexes in the late 1990s. The city acquired it using a $958,000 bond in 2010 after years of disagreement and legal arguments with a developer that owned the land.
That troublesome recent past may have been worth it to maintain its much more distant and unique history.
“This is a whole huge story that has not been told and no one knows anything about,” Loeper said.
At least 10 other lifesaving stations still stand along the state’s coastline, including in Avalon, Stone Harbor, North Wildwood and Harvey Cedars. They are part of only a couple dozen in the country when there were once hundreds nationwide.The ruins of another station on the north end of Brigantine were recently exposed by erosion from Hurricane Sandy and other recent storms.
Of its particular architectural style, the Ocean City Lifesaving Station is even rarer — one of a half-dozen left in the U.S., Watson said.
The stations were precursors to the U.S. Coast Guard, and men were stationed at them to save survivors of sinking ships, patrol the beaches and tend to all sorts of other needs on the then-sparsely populated barrier islands.
“That was like your local medical center,” Loeper said. “When people got hurt, they would go to the lifesaving station.”
Loeper and other volunteers from his organization have been gathering records about the station for years, and they are currently poring over logbooks left behind from the station that tell its story firsthand.
The facility was essentially useless for its intended purpose after 1910, when a ferocious storm swept so much sand from the southern end of Absecon Island that it left Longport 10 blocks shorter and the northern part of Ocean City much wider.
To give visitors an impression of what it once looked like to peer out from the observatory, Loeper said organization members plan to one day take pictures and video from atop a crane stationed on the less-developed southern end of the island.
Today, the station sits at least a half-mile from the water in a residential neighborhood.
“It is a jewel in the rough at this point,” said Dennis Myers, one of the first locals to sign up to participate in the preservation effort when the nonprofit was formed.
Myers is originally from Lancaster, Pa., and moved to Ocean City full time in 1998. He said that once he switched from being a vacationer to a resident, he became very interested in the local history, especially the lifesaving station a mile south of his Ocean Road home.
As a transplant, he said he can understand why a lot of history has been lost along the coast over the decades, and that’s why it is especially important to preserve what remains.
“I’m glad it was not developed,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s really easy not to respect people’s history if you’re not from the area.”
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