Photo: House in the Ocean City Residential Historic District. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. Photographed by User:Arabsalam (own work), 2006, [cc-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons, accessed November, 2021.
The Ocean City Residential Historic District [†] was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.
The Ocean City Residential Historic District is the well-preserved initial settlement of Ocean City, New Jersey, founded as one of several religious resorts along the New Jersey coast in the late 19th century. Originally known as Peck's Beach, Ocean City is a long barrier island at the northern end of Cape May County. The island remained largely undeveloped and uninhabited until 1879, when a group of Methodist ministers selected it for the site of their new religious community. Development was rapid, and centered on the grassy, camp meeting grounds that occupied a strip of land between Fifth and Sixth Streets on the northern part of the island. A large number of permanent residential structures were erected during the 1880s and 1890s, reflecting the range of architectural styles popular during the Victorian era. By the late 1920s, available lots in the district were nearly fully developed, with Colonial Revival and Craftsman style structures joining the earlier dwellings. The Ocean City Residential Historic District survives today as a significant example of the type of religious resort community that was created along New Jersey's shore during the second half of the nineteenth century, and stands in contrast to other Cape May County barrier islands, founded purely as pleasure resorts.
An early description of Peck's Beach was penned in 1633 by a visitor to the area named David Pieter de Vries, who wrote in his diary, "Came at evening to the mouth of Egg Harbor; found between Cape May and Egg Harbor a slight sand beach full of low sand hills. Egg Harbor is a little river or kill and inside the land is broken and within the bay are several small islands. Somewhere further up in the same direction is a beautiful highwood."
Cape May County, of which Ocean City ultimately became a part, was formed in 1685, but for many years, the portion of the county that would eventually be known as Ocean City remained either undeveloped or sparsely developed. Historians note that early in its history, the near-vacant expanse of Peck's Beach was used as a location for beaching whales, as whaling was an important local industry.
Lifesaving stations, designed to aid victims of shipwrecks, began to be constructed along the New Jersey coast during the late 1840s, with one of the first being located at Peck's Beach. Early histories note that prior to its official settlement in 1879, there were several families occupying the island, including the Kittles, Robinsons, and Somers. These residents tended to settle at the north end of the island, near what would ultimately become the campgrounds of the Ocean City Association. All the land north of about 13th Street was, prior to its purchase and development by the Association, the property of the heirs of Richard Somers. The most noted early resident of the area, though, was Parker Miller, who built a home at what later became 7th Street and Asbury Avenue circa 1850s. Mr. Miller's purpose for coming to Ocean City was to serve as an "agent for marine insurance companies and other maritime concerns, to protect their interests in stranded and wrecked vessels."
True settlement of Ocean City occurred in 1879. A group of Methodist ministers, led by the Reverends S. Wesley Lake, James E. Lake, and Ezra B. Lake, and eventually joined by Rev. William B. Wood, Rev. William H. Burrell (or Bruell), Hon. Simon Lake, Sr., Rev. W.E. Boyle, and Charles Mathews, Esq. met in Philadelphia and first formed the New Brighton Association, which served as a land improvement company and camp meeting association. The association was incorporated as the Ocean City Association on October 20, 1879. Although the motivations of the founders were primarily to create a religious community that followed the tenets of the Methodist Church, some sources allude to the fact that the founders were also intent on having their enterprise be financially, as well as spiritually, profitable.
In the year following the organization of the Ocean City Association, the area that would ultimately encompass at its core the Ocean City Residential Historic District — i.e. Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Streets, extending from the Bay to the Atlantic Ocean — was laid out, cleared, and graded. Additionally, the remainder of the island was surveyed. The new community was planned around a central campground area between Fifth and Sixth Streets, with surrounding streets laid out in a grid pattern. This settlement pattern was established for Methodist camp meeting resorts in New Jersey earlier in the century, with the founding of South Seaville Meeting in 1863-64, and was also adopted at Ocean Grove [see Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association District] and Asbury Park prior to the development of Ocean City.
The first public sale of lots was held on May 25, 1880. Within the first year, 508 of 995 lots were sold. Thirty-five dwellings were constructed on those lots in 1880, as well as a hotel, ten private stables, and two public bath houses. Those purchasing land from the Association were guided by a strict moral code that was outlined within their deeds. If they failed to comply with such restrictions, their land would revert to the Association.
In 1881, a frame Auditorium was built between Fifth and Sixth Streets and Asbury and Wesley Avenues, which is today the site of the Ocean City Tabernacle. All other lots between Fifth and Sixth Streets, from the oceanfront to the bay, were set aside as parkland. Early development was centered on the blocks surrounding the Auditorium, and along the oceanfront, which at that time was only a block and a half to the east of Ocean Avenue. The first camp meeting was held even prior to completion of the Tabernacle, attracting approximately 1,000 participants. The National Temperance Camp Meeting was held in Ocean City soon after its development, and several early cottages associated with these meetings remain standing today, including the buildings at 411 and 629 Central Avenue, and 408 and 410 Ocean Avenue.
Cape May County historian Jefferey Dorwart reports that the city's original residents (those who populated the settlement at the northern end of the island) fell into three categories: 1) those who accompanied Simon Lake from Atlantic County; 2) Philadelphia residents; and 3) those who resided in local Cape May communities including Upper Township and Dennis Township, some of whom retained in-shore dwellings. Naturally, the founders of the community also settled there; one of the Ocean City founders, Rev. Ezra Lake, erected a home at the corner of Fifth Street and Wesley Avenue (in the early 1880s), which remains today as the Scotch Hall Restaurant. Rev. William H. Burrell, another founder, constructed a dwelling across the street from Rev. Lake (in the early 1880s) at the northwest corner of Fifth Street and Wesley Avenue.
The need to provide access to the quickly developing resort was critical. Early means of transportation included steamboats, which the founders purchased and ran between Somers Point and Ocean City. From Somers Point, travelers could take the railroad and connect with the Philadelphia-Atlantic City trains. By June, 1883, a road to the mainland was completed, meeting Ocean City at 34th Street. As a result, additional lots were sold in that area and a second city "center" emerged. This center was focused less on the concept of a religious retreat than was the island's first settlement, but it never really rivaled the primacy of the area north of Ninth Street.
Early in Ocean City's history, numerous hotels were built to accommodate vacationers; the first hotel, known as The Brighton, was erected at Ocean Avenue and 7th Street. Over the course of the next several decades, other hotels followed, including The Arlington (416-418 Wesley Avenue); Hotel Mayberry (8th Street and Wesley Avenue); the Scarborough (720 Ocean Avenue); the Wyoming (724 Ocean Avenue); and the Luray (632 Wesley Avenue), all of which were located either within or adjacent to the Ocean City Residential Historic District.
Ocean City became a borough in 1884. In that same year, the West Jersey Railroad began to provide service to the community, with tracks running north-south along West Avenue. Electric trolley lines were installed along Wesley Avenue in 1895. Thus, within the first fifteen years of its founding, Ocean City had witnessed considerable growth, enough to support new forms of government and transportation, and which would not begin to abate for another twenty years.
The character of Ocean City in the early years of the twentieth century was described by a visitor to the island in the year 1913: "The city from end to end has a remarkably clean appearance. No stables are allowed to be built on the streets, and automobiles and motor trucks are so numerous that horse vehicles are the exception. The city is exclusively lighted by electricity, electric bulbs and gas stoves being in all the better-class houses." The author compared Ocean City to Atlantic City, stating "I can't say that I like Atlantic City. It appeals to the senses, but not to the soul. It impresses me as noisy, showy, and fast...I much prefer the quieter, safer, and more orderly Ocean City...."
Ocean City remained a quiet, religious resort community (albeit enhanced by a relatively tame recreational boardwalk, amusement piers, and a Yacht Club) until the late 1920s. However, between 1920 and 1930, the population of Ocean City more than doubled, bringing with it land speculation, new building, and improvements to existing infrastructure. It was during this period that many of the Craftsman and Colonial Revival style homes were erected in the Ocean City Residential Historic District, filling nearly all remaining lots and creating the dense pattern of development that exists today.
The Depression era signaled a period of decline for Ocean City. In 1929, Ocean City came under investigation by the office of the county prosecutor when the Mayor, Joseph G. Champion, was suspected of "protecting gambling and liquor interests in his resort town." Although Champion managed to remain as mayor, he lost his position as a freeholder in 1931, and the investigation cast a shadow over the resort town. The year 1929 seemed to signal a turning point in the fortunes of the barrier islands in general, with the crash of the stock market and the beginning of the Depression. Since much of the economy was based on tourism, economic fortunes declined sharply and the building frenzy that had characterized the 1920s ceased. From a development standpoint, growth was limited, if not halted, during this era.
A 1930 publication on Cape May County described the picturesque setting of Ocean City and noted, "The high moral tone of the municipality has attracted a refined, clean-minded clientele, and has caused the resort to be nationally recognized as 'America's Greatest Family Resort."' Despite the fact that the 1960s saw a loosening of the strict laws regarding prohibitions against certain activities on Sunday that had served that community since its inception, with blue laws finally being overturned completely in 1986, Ocean City was still being characterized as a "family centered resort" in the 1970s.
The physical character of Ocean City and other Cape May County barrier island communities began to change radically in the 1980s, when developers began to seek to maximize profits by developing previously open parcels as well as through the replacement of older historic dwellings with larger structures. This situation continues to threaten original neighborhoods within Ocean City today. The nature of barrier islands, where storms are frequently destructive, combined with high property values within New Jersey, have made it difficult for Cape May County islands to protect and preserve districts that represent their original settlement; however, Ocean City's core residential neighborhood survives largely intact.
New Jersey's Religious Resorts in the Nineteenth Century
The development of religious resorts along the coast enjoys a long history in New Jersey. According to Resorts and Recreation; an Historic Theme Study of the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route, published by The Sandy Hook Foundation, Inc. and the National Park Service, the development of religious resorts in this area actually preceded the arrival of tourism. The report cites the location of a Quaker meeting in Little Egg Harbor in the 18th century in what is now Tuckerton, but credits the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists with serving as the most active settlers. Methodist camps, of which Ocean City is an example, began to be located along the New Jersey shore in 1863-64 with the founding of South Seaville. Other examples included Ocean Grove (1860s; actually the first religious resort on the shore), Asbury Park (1871), Island Heights (1878), and Atlantic Highlands (1880s). Such religious resorts stood in direct contrast with other New Jersey coastal communities, where pleasure was paramount. For instance, "The nearby town of Long Branch in the late 1800s had achieved a level of decadence that caused a boastful town official to christen it 'The Monte Carlo of America.' Gambling houses, a race track and prostitution characterized the wealthy community...."
Ocean Grove served as the primary inspiration for the development of Ocean City, from its name to the way in which it was laid out. There were, however, several important distinctions between the two. Whereas Ocean City's approach to maintaining a high moral environment within the community was to place deed restrictions on each property that was sold, Ocean Grove organizers followed a different path, with their Association retaining title to all land and leasing it to those who gathered there. In Ocean Grove, there was a much stronger tradition of dwelling in temporary, canvas tents, whereas in Ocean City, permanent homes were constructed from the outset. Ocean Grove's dwellings tended to fit the rural cottage mode, but Ocean City's more strongly reflected the styles that were popular throughout the state, even in more urban neighborhoods. Finally, Ocean Grove's reputation as a religious retreat continues today, while Ocean City — although still known as a family-oriented resort — has lost much of its religious flavor.
New Jersey's Barrier Islands
New Jersey's barrier islands were slow to witness development for obvious reasons, including the difficulty of access and the vulnerability to storms. The five islands that protect the Cape May County peninsula along its eastern edge — Peck's Beach (Ocean City), Ludlam's Beach (Strathmere and Sea Isle City), Seven Mile Beach (Avalon and Stone Harbor), Five Mile Beach (Wildwoods), and Two Mile Beach (Wildwood Crest) — were, before their settlement, used for pasturing cattle, horses, and sheep; for maritime activities (whaling, oystering); and to support scattered farmhouses and lifesaving stations. However, the nineteenth century brought with it improved means of transportation and certain notions regarding health and the seaside that made development of these islands most attractive. As Dorwart notes, "The barrier islands were pictured by developers and visitors as a rural frontier to the expanding Philadelphia and Camden City urban industrial centers."
The development of Cape May County's barrier islands shared certain features, including concentrated development that was almost urban in character, and the swift introduction of modern utilities. Ocean City was the only Cape May County barrier island settlement founded on religious principles; the others were developed purely as business enterprises. Ocean City is perhaps best compared with its neighbor to the south, Sea Isle City; as Dorwart states, both communities were "quasi-Utopian experiments."
Initial settlement of Sea Isle City occurred during the 1880s — essentially at the same time as Ocean City — following the purchase of the island by Charles Kline Landis. Development was, for the first seventy years of the city's history, confined primarily to the center of the island and to its southern tip. Landis, who had earlier planned Vineland, New Jersey as an agricultural center, was inspired to create Sea Isle City after a trip to Venice, Italy. He envisioned his new town as a pagan resort, creating canals, importing classical statuary, and naming streets after Roman gods. This certainly stood in marked contrast with the more moral goals of Ocean City just to the north.
There have been changes to the Ocean City Residential Historic District over time, specifically the addition of synthetic siding, although there are remarkably few intrusions or non-contributing properties within the district as delineated. Particularly when viewed within the context of Ocean City as a whole, where much of the development is recent or ongoing, and barrier islands in general, this collection of buildings still clearly conveys a sense of the community's roots, retaining its parklike core and varied collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century dwellings and religious institutions.
Allaback, Sarah, ed., Resorts and Recreation: an Historic Theme Study of the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route, Mauricetown, NJ, 1995.
Beers, F.W., Topographical Map of Cape May County, New Jersey, New York, 1872.
Boyer, George F. and J. Pearson Cunningham, Cape May County Story, Egg Harbor City, NJ, 1975.
Brick, Clayton Haines, Ocean City, New Jersey: A Synopsis of Our History, Past Present Future, Ocean City, NJ, 1930.
Cain, Tim, Peck's Beach: A Pictorial History of Ocean City, New Jersey, Harvey Cedars and Surf City, NJ, 1988.
Cape May County Planning Board, Historic Sites Survey, Cape May County, 1980 (on file, New Jersey Historic Preservation Office).
Cape May County Resort Guide, Sea Isle City, 1931.
Dorwart, Jeffery M., Cape May County, New Jersey, New Brunswick, NJ, 1992.
Esposito, Frank J. and Robert J., Images of America, Ocean City, New Jersey, vols. 1 and 2, Charleston, SC, 1996.
Lee, Harold, Ocean City Memories, Ocean City, NJ, 1979.
McAlester, Virginia and Lee, A Field Guide to American Houses, New York, 1988.
McLaughlin, Mark, The Postcard History Series, Ocean City, New Jersey, Charleston, SC, 1999.
Nelson, W., ed., The New Jersey Coast in Three Centuries, New York and Chicago, 1902.
Richards, Horace G., A Book of Maps of Cape May 1610-1878, Cape May, NJ, 1954.
Rose, T.F., Historical and Biographical Atlas of the New Jersey Coast, Philadelphia, 1878.
Sanborn Map Company, Ocean City, New York, 1909.
Stevens, Lewis Townsend, The Jersey Shore: A Social and Economic History of the Counties of Atlantic, Cape May, Monmouth, and Ocean, New York. 1953.
The Sanborn Map Company, Map Showing Buildings Destroyed by Fire, Ocean City, NJ, October 11, 1927, New York. 1927.
Voss, Joseph Ellis, Ocean City: An Ecological Analysis of a Satellite Community, Philadelphia, 1941.
Way, Julius, MD, An Historical Tour of Cape May County, NJ, Sea Isle City, NJ, 1930.
† Meredith Arms Bzdak, architectural historian, Ford Farewell Mills and Gatsch, Architects, Ocean City Residential Historic District, Cape May County, NJ, 2001, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.
5th Street East • 6th Street East • 7th Street East • 8th Street East • Central Avenue • Ocean Avenue • Plymouth Place • Wesley Avenue