AVALON, N.J. — On a quiet beach block in sleepy Avalon, construction workers gathered Friday to dismantle one of the borough's oldest Victorian homes piece by piece, to spare it from the wrecking ball.
At one point, a giant crane hoisted a claw-foot bathtub as a crew of 15 movers in white hardhats took apart the second-story walls of the house, which dates to 1895. The previous day, workers detached the cupola and roof and moved the pieces to a parking lot a mile away.
On Saturday, the first floor and the quaint wrap-around porch will be attached to a truck and moved down Route 9 to a storage facility in Egg Harbor Township at 10 mph, likely drawing the ire of drivers trailing behind it.
By nightfall, only an empty lot will remain at 254 Sixth St., where the charming old house will soon be replaced by a new multimillion-dollar Jersey Shore mansion.
A developer purchased the property in November with plans to tear the 123-year-old house down, prompting a campaign to save it.
"I just couldn't stand to see those stained-glass windows being shattered," said Adrienne Scharnikow, who spearheaded the drive to preserve the house, where her family spent summers when she was a child. The family sold the house after her grandparents died in 1996 and a new buyer moved in, only to lose the house to foreclosure last year.
About 30 other residences in Avalon were built on or before 1900, but history buffs say this one stands out. The borough's first tax collector, George W. Kates, built it three years after Avalon was founded, and messages written by past vacationers are scrawled on the third floor's walls dating back to 1949. New Jersey's Office of Historic Preservation granted the house a "Certificate of Eligibility" for the state's list of protected properties.
As Scharnikow and her family worked to save the house, they first asked borough officials for help, to little avail. Their improbable proposal for Avalon to buy and relocate the house was met with little enthusiasm on the borough's part. Officials said at the time that individual homeowners are typically responsible for preservation efforts.
So the family then turned to social media, looking for funding or a lot on which to rebuild the house. Hundreds of Facebook shares and likes eventually led Scharnikow to Steven Hauck, owner of SJ Hauck Movers, who offered to relocate the building for $83,000 – a bargain compared with price estimates from other companies. The developer then agreed to sell Scharnikow the house for $1.
Scharnikow, who is still searching for a spot to rebuild the house, said the pieces can sit in storage for up to about four months.
"This seemed impossible before. … I now know more about moving houses then I ever thought I'd know," said Scharnikow, who is funding the project.
Hauck said his team had only two weeks to elevate the house on cribbing piles, roll it to the back of the property to make room for a crane, and remove the walls and roof.
But for him, the hard work was worth knowing a piece of history will be preserved.
"One hundred thousand pounds of history were going to be destroyed. We didn't want to see that," he said.
On Friday, Scharnikow gazed with excitement at what was left of her childhood home.
The house has survived a century of wind and rain, and even two lightning strikes. This week, Scharnikow said, it escaped its biggest threat: Avalon's boundless redevelopment.
The 1970s and early 2000s saw waves of quaint bungalows being torn down and replaced with expensive mini-mansions as house prices in the small Shore town increased. The average house price in Avalon is now $1.06 million and the population has decreased to 1,400 from more than 2,100 in 1980, according to census data.
On Friday, Warren Vetter, 67, stopped to watch and sipped coffee while the historic house was being taken apart. He vacationed at Avalon's beach as a child, and now lives in Swainton, a neighboring community.
"This used to be a place for blue-collar families to go. All this house building is Greek to me," he said, pointing to what he called a two-story "monster house" across the street.
Now, Scharnikow is eyeing Cape May lots for around $300,000 to $400,000. The city is known for having stricter regulations aimed at preserving its old Victorians.
"We could only save the house by moving it out of Avalon," Scharnikow said. "That says something."