BRIGANTINE — Drive down 26th Street, and one house, in particular, is bound to catch any passerby’s eye.
The three-story residence is elevated like most others, but pink and blue hydrangeas are painted on the 5-foot concrete wall that stretches around the home and raises it above the dangers of flooding.
The design came from the mind of Charles Barbin, a Brigantine artist who has watched the landscape of his city transform in the years after Hurricane Sandy. Thousands of homes were lifted, and tall, grey foundation perimeter walls overtook many neighborhoods.
Some towns have contended with nondescript designs by passing architectural rules for elevated homes, but Barbin is taking that idea a step further.
His goal? Beautify raised houses and showcase the city’s character. (The 26th Street mural features red foxes, a homage to Brigantine’s unofficial mascot).
“There are so many elevated houses around this city. ... It’s an amazing blank canvas,” said Barbin, donning paint-splattered sneakers and stained fingernails.
Barbin kicked off the project last month at his longtime friend David Miller’s house, and he’ll finish the $8,000 mural in the next two weeks. When Miller decided to demolish and rebuild his house last summer, he reached out to Barbin to commission the artwork.
The 40-year-old artist has another mural lined up for a raised house on East Evans Boulevard, but there are plenty of opportunities for his idea to expand.
As of December 2018, there were more than 1,000 houses across Atlantic and Cape May counties in the home elevation process or being fully reconstructed, according to a list provided by the Department of Community Affairs.
Some towns have tried to maintain their local charm in the face of a boom in home elevations, often through design criteria.
The 2018 Atlantic County Master Plan warns that elevations can create a less “attractive and inviting” pedestrian streetscape.
To combat that, the plan suggests adopting design standards for raised buildings along county roads, which could include decorative finishing materials on exposed foundations and plantings to obscure “monolithic vertical facades.”
“The communal interaction offered by front porches and front-yard areas can be lost, and in many cases, the pedestrian streetscape is less attractive and inviting,” it reads.
But with few county roads running through the barrier islands, it’s mostly up to municipalities to set their own standards.
In Brigantine, councilman Vince Sera said most homeowners try to extend siding down to the ground to hide the concrete foundations.
The city doesn’t have design standards for raised homes.
“It’s something the city should look into to make the process fair for everyone,” Sera said.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Ocean City did look into the issue, said the city’s spokesman Doug Bergen.
Buildings raised on pilings must have screening so the pilings aren’t visible from the street. Screenings should be constructed with material in line with the architectural style of the house, according to the ordinance.
Solid foundation perimeter walls must be finished “in a manner that does not detract from the appearance of the neighborhood.” Unfinished concrete and cinder blocks aren’t allowed.
“The design standards preserve the character of neighborhood in an era when homes are rising higher,” Bergen said.
A Temple University graduate, Barbin has created dozens of murals throughout Philadelphia, Atlantic City and surrounding municipalities. But for him, this one is special. It hits upon an issue he, his friends and family have dealt with for decades: flooding, and how it has visually restructured shore towns.
As a kid, Barbin recalled a routine he had whenever heavy rain and a full moon landed on school days. He’d cover his shoes in trash bags to protect his feet from the elements while he walked to Brigantine North Middle School.
“Just the fact that this happened to the area I grew up and has allowed the restructuring of so many houses, why not make them unique?” he said.