OCEAN CITY — The humble-looking building on the corner of Fourth Street and Atlantic Avenue was once home to tough men in uniform who scouted for shipwrecks, braved choppy seas and sometimes returned with ice frosting their mustaches.
Soon, the former Ocean City Lifesaving Station — a private residence for a half-century — may host a museum, a gift shop, a replica rescue boat and a glimpse of its past.
Ocean City now owns the title to the building, which dates to the 1880s and predates the U.S. Coast Guard. If the city had not purchased it, the structure could have been torn down this month.
“It’s a great day in maritime heritage in the country and in South Jersey,” said John Loeper, chairman of the newly established U.S. Lifesaving Station 30, a nonprofit group that is overseeing the restoration of the building. “It will help connect the dots … to connect a lot of history.”
The city took over the title last week after approving a controversial $958,000 bond in March for the purchase.
Lighthouses and lifesaving stations once speckled the state’s coastline in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But as transportation, technology and the world itself changed, many stations were closed, destroyed or, such as in Ocean City’s case, converted into private homes.
U.S. Lifesaving Station 30’s goal is to restore the building to its 1905 appearance, Loeper said.
The group intends to open it to tours this summer and are planning a public meeting to get community members involved in the restoration — from carpentry to gardening to fundraisers. It also plans to create an authentic-looking, 28-foot rescue boat, the precursors to the kind of boats used by lifeguards today, said Loeper, of Ocean City.
“This project says a lot about volunteers. These people have been involved for 11 years to save this building,” said Ocean City Business Administrator James Rutala.
The building was the center of a long legal battle between the private owners, who planned to build three duplexes on the lot, and the Save Our Station Coalition, which wanted the structure to remain intact. There has also been a citywide debate on whether the building was worth the cost to keep it standing.
In a 2005 referendum, voters rejected the notion of buying the building for $3 million. Several years and a courtroom later, the price dropped to slightly less than $1 million.
Charlie London, a member of the Save Our Station Coalition, said the building is a piece of history that could not be replaced.
When the lifesaving station was in operation, the work was heavy, clunky and dangerous, said Kim Baker, a historian for the Save Our Station Coalition.
“I don’t think there were many 98-pound weaklings among them,” said Baker, of Egg Harbor Township and previously of Ocean City.
During shipwrecks, rescuers would shoot breeches buoys from the beach to the ship. The buoys acted like harpoons — they were shot from a cannon, fastened to the mast and the imperiled passengers could slide down to the beach, he said.
Other times, the rescuers paddled out to the ships themselves, often times risking their lives in gray skies and high seas, he said.
“Try to imagine all that actually happened here when there was a rescue and they were tired and worn out,” said Mark Reimet, a financial planner.
The building was once located on the beach, but heavy storms in the early 1900s widened the area significantly, historians said.
“This would have been knocked down yesterday,” Reimet said, standing on the front lawn.
Contact Brian Ianieri: