By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
The colossal “Ash Wednesday” storm in 1962 that left much of Sea Isle City in ruins did not destroy one old house on 47th Street that remained standing – almost defiantly – in the wake of the disaster.
Two years after the storm, the same home at 15 47th Street was bought by George Collins, a chemical engineer in Philadelphia, for just $6,000.
“Keep in mind that it was just two years after the island was wiped out. Everything was at a bargain-basement price,” Susan Collins explained of her late father’s astute purchase in 1964.
Nearly 60 years later, the Collins family still owns the stately Folk Victorian house that dates to 1883 and is one of Sea Isle’s oldest surviving homes.
Susan Collins, who was just 9 years old in 1964, remembers how her family cleaned out piles of beach sand that had been pushed underneath the porch two years earlier by the cataclysmic storm that devastated not just Sea Isle, but large swaths of the Jersey Shore.
“It’s amazing how those homes are gone and how this house survived,” she said.
Whether they were victims of storms or the development of modern homes in their place, Sea Isle’s historic houses are becoming rarer with the passage of time. The Collins home, though, has endured to become a charming anachronism that proudly bears a circa 1883 plaque attached to the siding near the front door.
It was built just one year after visionary real estate developer Charles K. Landis founded Sea Isle in 1882 as a resort town inspired by the grandeur of Venice, Italy.
When George Collins bought the home in 1964, the exterior was painted white and green. The Collins family changed the color to vanilla and trimmed it in Hamilton blue paint.
Depending on the light, the house appears to be a pale yellow. It gleams under a fresh coat of paint that was applied this spring.
“We just got her painted. She’s 140 years old. It’s a pretty cool place,” Susan Collins said during a recent tour of the home that included her sister, Kathy Bilhuber.
The front of the house is dominated by flowing red brick steps and a wraparound porch that create a grand sense of arrival. The steps have been the setting for many family photos.
“These steps are where we have had family portraits taken for years and years,” Susan Collins noted while sitting on the brick stairway with her sister, Kathy.
Kathy said the steps are a favorite feature of the house for people passing by, particularly children.
“They always love the steps. In general, they love the house. The kids are funny. They always say, ‘It’s still here,’” Kathy explained of the children’s reaction to such an old home.
Susan and Kathy have two brothers, Tom and Michael. Their sister, Carol, died in 1988. The children took ownership of the house after their father passed away in 1978. Their mother, Emily, died in 1962.
The Collins family is from Wynnewood and Narberth, Pa. The family has a deep connection to the Jersey Shore that began years ago when George Collins would rent a vacation home in Stone Harbor.
“We were shore people,” Susan said.
The family switched to Sea Isle when George Collins bought the old home on 47th Street. Susan, who has seen the original deed for the house, believes that her father bought it from a friend who needed to sell it.
“He loved this house. He loved all of the friends who would come over,” she recalled of her father.
George Collins was known for his sense of humor and the comically themed parties he would have at the shore home over the Labor Day weekend, Susan said. Personal items of his remain in the house, including an acoustic guitar attached to the wall in the living room.
Characteristic of Folk Victorian homes that were popular from 1850 to 1890, the house features a practical interior consisting of three bedrooms, 1½ bathrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen. The 2½-story structure is topped by a large attic. The upper floors are accessible by narrow stairs.
The original wood floors remain. Decorative touches include the original wood molding above the doors.
Susan said such an old house requires a lot of TLC. Fortunately, members of the Collins family are self-doers who are handy with tools and paint brushes, she pointed out.
“From the beginning, it was always under construction. It’s been under construction for 60 years,” she said.
Damage to the house sustained during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and then during a powerful winter nor’easter in 2016 had to be repaired.
Having no heating system, the house functions as a summer vacation retreat for the Collins family. The siblings work out a schedule for sharing the house during their vacations.
“None of us could afford to buy,” Susan said of the prospect of buying a new home at the shore. “It was either keep this house or not have a house at the beach.”
She explained that the family’s collective efforts to own, maintain and preserve the house have been critical for keeping it. She can’t envision the family ever selling it.
“We’re lucky, because so many of these old homes don’t make it because families don’t work it out. I think dad wanted us to work it out,” she said.
Perhaps more than anything, Susan stressed that her beloved father’s devotion to his children may have made them realize that the house was his everlasting gift to them.
“We never named the house. But if I ever named it, I would call it the gift. It has been giving and giving and giving for 60 years. He gave us this gift,” she said.