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Photo of Ocean Grove via gary718/<a href="">Shutterstock</a>.
Photo of Ocean Grove via gary718/Shutterstock.

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Tracing a Jersey Shore town's secret spiritual history

The heart of Ocean Grove isn’t a snack stand-lined boardwalk. It’s the Great Auditorium

On a summer day, kites fly overhead, Atlantic waves break on a crowded beach. The boardwalk is a tangle of bicycles and skateboards. On the main street, people queue for ice cream. Ocean Grove could be almost any town on the Jersey Shore.

But the boardwalk has no snack stands or t-shirt vendors. And the heart of the town isn't the beach: it's the turreted Great Auditorium with its flock of 114 tents. The tents, with their flowerbeds, striped awnings, and tiny front porches, are the summer homes of families that have, in some cases, been coming to Ocean Grove for five generations, since it was a model Camp Meeting town.

Ocean Pathway, a broad avenue lined with grand Victorian houses that runs from the sea to the Great Auditorium, connects the natural and spiritual realms, a connection that was at the heart of the Camp Meeting movement. Camp meetings were summer religious retreats intended to provide physical and spiritual regeneration. In the years after the Civil War, they proliferated in places chosen for their remoteness and natural beauty—Wesleyan Grove on Martha's Vineyard, Shelter Island Heights on Long Island, and Pacific Grove on the central California coast.

When the Reverend W. B. Osborn, together with a group of other Methodist ministers and friends, set out to found a permanent camp meeting on the Jersey shore, Ocean Grove was a nameless stretch of Atlantic beach backed by high dunes and tangled groves of oak, holly, and pine. At either end were freshwater ponds, Long Pond (now Wesley Lake) to the north and Goose Pond (now Fletcher Lake) to the south. Although the group found it less beautiful than a site they had seen farther south, its lack of mosquitoes made the decision.

The summer of 1869 saw some twenty church members pitching tents in "the tangled wildwood," a pine grove that would become Founders Park. The preacher's stand was a simple wooden platform; the congregation sat on plank benches under the surrounding trees.

The austerity of those early days was short lived: by 1870, lots were surveyed and paths graded and the future town carefully planned.

Ocean Grove is laid out in a grid pattern. The north/south blocks are short, about half the length of blocks in nearby communities. East/west blocks increase in length toward the beach from 150 to 330 feet, so the number of lots nearest the ocean rises from five to 11.

The east/west streets flare at the beach end to allow air to funnel through the town and to provide more residents with ocean views. Although their planting was encouraged elsewhere in the town, trees were not allowed in the first beach blocks so as not to impinge on those views. No private buildings block access to the beach, as is the case in many shore towns. Lots are also small, 30x60, replicating the closeness of tent living. Land was set aside for several small parks, perhaps to preserve the idea of a grove.

Ocean Grove's progress in the early years was meteoric. By 1872, its area had increased from six acres to 230. Five miles of avenues had been cleared and 1,500 lots, two-thirds of which had been leased, surveyed. Artesian wells, in which natural pressure forced water to the surface, provided abundant water. By 1873, Ocean Grove had 417 cottages and 21 boarding houses. By 1874, those numbers had risen to 474 cottages and 27 boarding houses. As Ellwood Stokes, first president of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, wrote in 1872, "our plans are vastly beyond our original intentions. This enlargement has been pressed upon us. We have accepted the pressure as a providential call."

Ocean Grove houses in 1909. Photo courtesy of the Ocean Grove Historical Society.

Actually, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association was far from passive. Since 1871, they had been lobbying for the railroad to be extended south from Long Branch to Ocean Grove. When this happened in 1875, Ocean Grove became a major coastal destination for Methodists and non-Methodists alike, the jewel in the Camp Meeting crown.

By 1879, Ocean Grove had a newspaper, a post office, and two general stores, while the Sheldon Hotel promised speaking tubes from bedroom to office, gas in all rooms, an elevator, and a "monster safe for the storage of valuables."

The rustic preacher's stand of 1869 was rapidly outgrown and twice replaced by larger frame structures before the Great Auditorium was completed in 1894. Built in an amazing 92 working days with a stone foundation, iron bridge trusses, and wood framing, it is a mixture of Stick and Queen Anne styles.

Barn doors set with stained glass provide cross ventilation on all but the hottest summer nights. At 36,225 square feet, it originally seated over 9,000 people. The immense barrel vault ceiling of southern hard pine provides acoustics that Leonard Bernstein is said to have compared to Carnegie Hall.

By the turn of the century, Ocean Grove had grown to more than 1,000 cottages and 79 hotels. The auditorium hosted musicians like Fritz Kreizler, Jascha Heifitz, Enrico Caruso, and John Philip Sousa and preachers like Billy Sunday. Presidents visited often, and Ulysses S. Grant's mother and sister had a cottage in the Grove for several summers. Other speakers included W.E.B. Dubois, William Jennings Bryan, Will Rogers, Helen Keller, and Booker T. Washington.

While the town grew within the careful parameters set out by the Camp Meeting Association, its domestic architecture was more haphazard. An early builder's ad in the Ocean Grove Record announced that he would "engage to build cottages in every style, in a workmanlike manner, at reasonable rates." He must have had a lot of customers.

The tents of Ocean Grove. Image via Shutterstock.

Many tenters, of course, still chose to spend the summer in their tents, either renting from the Association or setting up on lots they had bought. Over the years, these tents acquired flooring and wooden frames, attached in the rear to small wooden sheds. The remaining tents are of this design; the sheds now house kitchens and bathrooms.

Those who bought lots and decided to forego the tents for something more permanent built in many styles. Most of Ocean Grove's architecture is probably best described as Victorian Eclectic or Seaside Vernacular. While some chose to build small, one-story cottages that resembled the tents, often with tent-style double doors and arched windows, others built bigger in a mix of Eastlake, Queen Anne, Stick, and Gothic styles, with a touch of Italianate here and there.

Cottages were pulled down and rebuilt, or added onto, as families grew. The irregular floor plans of styles like Queen Anne made additions easy. Sometimes the original small cottages were simply incorporated into larger buildings. Sometimes cottages were built around tents; many an Ocean Grove renovation has turned up scraps of canvas. Early pictures of Ocean Pathway show modest board and batten cottages that would morph by the late nineteenth century into three-story grand Victorians.

Beach houses in Ocean Grove. Image via gary718/Shutterstock.

Hotels usually began as one-story structures and expanded later. They, too, were built in a jumble of styles, but most had porches on every floor so that visitors could enjoy ocean views and healthful breezes and could meet and talk with their neighbors. Ocean Grove's grandest grand hotel, the North End Hotel, opened in 1911 with elevators, fifty suites with private baths, a telephone in every room, a swimming pool, four bowling alleys, a dining room, a carousel, and a motion picture hall. The Camp Meeting Association deemed a luxury hotel necessary if Ocean Grove were to compete with other shore resorts.

Ocean Grove the resort was governed by a covenant of rules: no liquor, no dancing, no card playing. Sunday was sacrosanct—no bathing, boating, or other amusements, no vehicular traffic. Carriages, and eventually cars, had to be removed on Saturday night, and the gates at the western end of the town, where it bumped up against the greater world, were shut.

Homeowners had more freedom when it came to house construction, but even there, they were bound by the town's social philosophy. Ocean Grove houses, from the smallest cottage to the biggest Victorian, had generous plain or wraparound porches that lent themselves to visiting. This and the closeness of small lots extended the community's sense of fellowship. If they were more than one story tall, cottages also had upper porches and balconies, to ensure breezes and ocean views, making that important spiritual connection with the natural world. The facades of the houses abounded with elaborate fretwork details. Eventually, other styles, like the four square and the Arts and Crafts bungalow, appeared, mostly on the later-settled south side of town.

The North End hotel in 1911. Photo via the Ocean Grove Historical Society.

As time moved on, the building of the Garden State Parkway shifted tourists farther south, while Ocean Grove aged in place. The building of the period was typical: a squat brick apartment complex where the grand old Arlington Hotel once stood, a beige stone motel right around the corner from the Auditorium. Finally, in 1975, the town, recognized as both a planned 19th century urban community and the repository of the largest collections of Victorian and early twentieth century architecture in the country, was entered into both the state and national historic registers. Its past was acknowledged but not recaptured. The era of the motel had replaced the era of the grand hotel. In 1978, the deteriorating North End Hotel complex was razed. Then, in 1979, in a separation of church and state court case, the Camp Meeting Association lost its autonomy and Ocean Grove became part of the township of Neptune.

In the 1980s, real estate speculators began to buy up old hotels and boarding houses, planning to develop them as condos. In 1988, the real estate market collapsed. At the same time, the New Jersey Department of Human Services was looking for ways to house recently released mental patients and parolees. Ocean Grove landlords with vacancies were happy to oblige.

By the 1990s, vacationers had rediscovered Ocean Grove, with its wide beach, unadulterated boardwalk, and historic houses an hour and a half south of New York City. In the interim, Ocean Grove had become a National Historic District with a Historic Preservation Commission. A whole new set of rules had replaced the old Methodist covenant. Only the liquor laws and the closing of the beach on Sunday mornings remain from early days, but where once homeowners were free to build what they wanted, now there were requirements.

An Ocean Grove victorian. Photo by Andrew F. Kazmierski/Shutterstock.

If a resident was able to buy a lot because a building had been condemned and torn down, he or she had to build a "Victorian". And so the neo-Victorians sprouted wherever there was a space, often taking Victorian to an extreme not seen in the originals, leading some to grumble about "Barbie houses."

The 114 tents were still occupied every summer, some by descendants of the town's founding families. Demand for the tenting life was high enough to generate a 10-year waiting list, but beyond the tents, residents were no longer interested in small cottages. Houses took up the whole lot, even, or especially, if the lot was a double. Big houses rose to tower over their smaller neighbors, blocking light and views.

When the derelict Methodist Deaconess Home was demolished, it was replaced by Seabreeze Village, a development of twenty "custom Victorian homes" that eventually swallowed an entire block. At about 2,500 square feet, each takes up most of a standard lot. These are careful reconstructions of Victorian, or, perhaps more accurately, turn of the century seaside houses. Their architect had wanted to keep foundations low, in keeping with older homes, but developers and homeowners wanted full, finished basements, so the houses had to rise, which made porches higher. Unlike the porches on the old houses that sat close to street level and felt like part of the living space, these porches seem more like a bulwark.

The Hotel Arlington in 1914. Image via Ocean Grove Historical Society.

Even people who fell in love with the old Victorians did not love the interiors: small kitchens, tiny bedrooms, few bathrooms, and, in Ocean Grove real estate parlance, "possible extra room"—more like a big closet. Probably the only closet, since those were lacking too. Remodeling became a big business, peppering the town with dumpsters and contractors' vans. Along with a plethora of real estate agents, the downtown now boasts two firms that specialize in remodels.

The old Ocean Grove houses turned outward, encouraging people to congregate out of doors to appreciate God's handiwork and to be a part of something larger than themselves. Today's houses, in contrast, turn inward. The retreat is a retreat into personal space. "Remodeled Victorian" is the catch phrase in summer rental listings. People want air conditioning, lots of bathrooms, big kitchens, wifi, and flat screen TVs. Home is a place you never have to leave.

An old postcard of Ocean Grove, courtesy of the Ocean Grove Historical Society.

Main Street has changed, too. Planned as a walking town where everything a householder needed would be within walking distance, now it's about enhancements, not necessities. Where once there were grocers, butchers, pharmacies, and general stores, now there are coffee shops and jewelry designers, a pet supply boutique and April Cornell. You can buy signs that read "To The Beach" or "Jersey Girl", ice cream and fudge, t-shirts and dubious antiques. The last town pharmacy is now an ice cream parlor. The last of the grocery stores, The Pathway Market, has become a convenience store. The hardware store survives, although it does rent bikes and sell sunscreen.

Certainly one can't regret the town's revival, a vibrant return from its late twentieth century decline. And if the neo-Victorians often miss the mark, no one would want a high rise. Still, architectural change marks social change. Just as tents became cottages and cottages grew into houses, so the focus of the town shifted from rustic retreat to "The Queen Of Christian Resorts." Initially, that change happened as part of the plan of the Camp Meeting's leaders, so that a certain communal sensibility was maintained. There is much less now to link the town to its Methodist roots.

Photo by Andrew F. Kazmierski /

The Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association still maintains its offices here. It still owns the land. Properties are leaseholds. The Camp Meeting manages the beach and the summer schedule of the Great Auditorium: bible classes, gospel singing, the impressive choir festival and a roster of important preachers.

The two worlds, Camp Meeting and resort town, intersect each summer at the beach and the Auditorium. Beach passes must be bought from the Camp Meeting Association, while the Auditorium remains the town's cultural center.

As well as a summer series of classical music and free performances on the famous Hope Jones organ, the Camp Meeting now sponsors popular concerts from the Beach Boys to Abba, which draw big outside audiences. If Ocean Grove has lost some of its authenticity, well, time runs on. The Beach Boys aren't really the Beach Boys either, and Abba is a tribute band.