Architectural Ambler: Allenhurst Residential Historic District

Allenhurst, New Jersey

2 Spier Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Tyreen Reuter)

2 Spier Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Tyreen Reuter)

For most of the second half of the 19th century, the strip of New Jersey shore now known as Allenhurst was farmland. Sometimes, farmer Abner Allen would rent out his house to seaside vacationers, but otherwise, it was pretty quiet…

…until August 1895, when the Coast Land Improvement Company bought Allen’s 120-acre farm and started laying out land lots – 120 by the end of the month – for vacation homes. Most lots were smaller than a quarter of an acre, and cost $500 each. Within a year, 30 summer “cottages” had been constructed, along with sidewalks and water, sewer and electricity lines. Hotels, entertainment venues, a casino and a beachfront esplanade were not long to follow.

Today, Allenhurst (named after farmer Allen) has fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, but its numbers still swell every summer. Over 400 of the town’s buildings are part of the Allenhurst Residential Historic District, to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.

At the turn of the 20th century, Allenhurst was an upper-middle class New York City family’s answer to Newport, R.I. In contrast to Newport’s “cottages” – some of which rivaled the size of princely Mediterranean villas – Allenhurst’s cottages were more modest, yet still steeped in architectural decorum. According to an advertisement run by the Central Railroad of New Jersey in 1900,

“This summering place had a rise more magical than that of any other resort on the shore. Its beautiful streets, which a few years ago were nothing more than country roads, are now overlooked by hundreds of handsome summer homes of great variety of architecture…The beach is very broad and shallow and excellently adapted for surf bathing.”

107 Elberon Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Tyreen Reuter)

107 Elberon Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Tyreen Reuter)

Incorporated on April 26, 1897, Allenhurst was well-situated for a resort-oriented building boom. The New York and Long Branch Railroad, which connected the northern New Jersey shore to New York City by 1882, made travel to the area quick and convenient. Without the railroad running nearby, Allenhurst might never have happened.

Allenhurst’s rapid growth led to the establishment of its own station stop along the railroad in 1898. The Coast Land Improvement Company advertised that Allenhurst was only a 45-minute train ride away from New York City. Electric trolley cars connected Allenhurst with neighboring resort towns.

The timing could not have been better. The rise of resorts in the United States in the late-19th century was due, in great part, to an expansion of the middle class in the second half of the 1800s, which was helped along by an increase in the white-collar job market. Families now had more money to spend, and more leisure time in which to spend it, and summer vacations were de rigueur for more people than ever before.

The Coast Land Improvement Company responded to the demand for vacation resorts through speculative development. The company had its own lumber yard, builders and architects, although some Allenhurst property buyers hired their own architects – either locally, or from New York City.

29 Spier Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Jennifer Warren)

29 Spier Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Jennifer Warren)

The company laid the town out with a grid of wide, tree-lined streets spanning between the serpentine Deal Lake to the south and west, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east – thus ensuring unobstructed ocean views for east-west streets. At the west end of the grid, Main Street became the commercial part of town. Between Main Street and the ocean, the company constructed nearly two-dozen blocks of summer homes designed to attract upper-middle class and wealthy businessmen and their families.

Some of the homes were particularly grand, with double-height porticos, towers or cupolas. Others were smaller, but nearly all were built with porches wrapping around at least two facades to take advantage of seaside breezes.

The most popular house styles were Colonial Revival and Queen Anne, but the Italian Renaissance Revival, Tudor Revival, Prairie, Mission, Craftsman and Shingle styles were also represented. Most houses were built of wood, a favorite construction material of speculative builders, although some of the larger Italian Renaissance Revival houses were built of masonry and covered with stucco, and topped with red clay roof tiles.

One of Allenhurst’s grandest homes stands at 2 Spier Avenue (c. 1910-1915) – a stucco-covered, tile-roofed Mediterranean palace with an ocean view. The building’s symmetrical facades, Ionic columns, roof brackets and decorative pediments and cartouches are classic characteristics of the Italian Renaissance Revival style, popular in the United States from the 1890s through the 1910s.

108 Cedar Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Marianne Walsh)

108 Cedar Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Marianne Walsh)

The Renaissance Revival-inspired house at 107 Elberon Avenue (c. 1907), on the other hand, is clad in wood, and has more unique characteristics – including a trio of dormer windows with steeply pointed roofs, and both Doric and Ionic columns (the former with plain, block-style column capitals; the latter with scrolled capitals). In the holiday atmosphere of a turn-of-the-20th-century seaside resort, architectural styles did not need to be as pure as they did, say, along Fifth Avenue.

The Queen Anne house at 29 Spier Avenue (c. 1890-1896) is one of the grander examples of its style in Allenhurst, complete with two turrets, each with a circular wrap-around porch. Unique elements of this house include the trefoil arches above two second-floor windows in the front façade, and the battlements under the third-floor levels of the turrets.

A quieter example of the Queen Anne style is 108 Cedar Avenue (c. 1890-1900). Note the sunburst pattern – a classic Queen Anne leitmotif – in its front gable.

231 Corlies Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Jennifer Warren)

231 Corlies Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Jennifer Warren)

A Craftsman-style house can be seen at 231 Corlies Avenue (c. 1890-1896). Its plain porch posts and massive gables with curved half-timbers are characteristics of the Craftsman style, which was marked by an emphasis on rustic, home-like architecture, as opposed to the grander expressions of the Italian Renaissance Revival style.

303 Cedar Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Marianne Walsh)

303 Cedar Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Marianne Walsh)

Smaller homes such as 303 Cedar Avenue – a classic Dutch Colonial from the early 20th century (c. 1905-1930), and 304 Elberon Avenue – an East Coast bungalow (c. 1905-1930) – made it possible for families of the more middling levels of the middle-class to own vacation (or year-round) homes in Allenhurst.

304 Elberon Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Marianne Walsh)

304 Elberon Ave. (Arch 2, Inc./Marianne Walsh)

Today, Allenhurst is a welcome pocket of historic preservation along the much-commercialized New Jersey shore. Abner Allen’s farm may be long-gone, but – with the help of Allenhurst’s upcoming National Register status – the town’s historic buildings will be here for many more generations of seaside holiday-seekers to come.

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