Neighbors pitch in to help a 19th-century Jersey Shore inn bounce back from fire

Jose Flores removes nails and sheetrock in a room damaged by an Easter fire at the Gables in Beach Haven. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Jose Flores removes nails and sheetrock in a room damaged by an Easter fire at the Gables in Beach Haven. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 22, 2012

BEACH HAVEN, N.J. - Sondra Beninati and her husband, Steve, have spent the six years they have owned the Gables lovingly restoring the 19th-century landmark, decorating it with priceless antiques and designer furnishings.

They turned a neglected backyard into a tranquil garden for weddings and installed a professional kitchen with an impressive refrigeration room and multiple top-of-the-line ranges and grills.

But Beninati says she always felt that the enduring structure - built as a lifeguard dormitory in the 1880s and evolved into a bed-and-breakfast and Zagat-rated restaurant - belongs to this Long Beach Island town in a way that transcends time and ownership.

"I have always felt that we really are just stewards of the inn at this moment in time," Beninati said. "The Gables is part of the fabric of Beach Haven."

Perhaps that's why, when the historic building sustained extensive damage in an April 8 fire, the community jumped in to help.

Offers from friends, local business owners - and even strangers who appreciated the Gables' storied past - range from space to host weddings and parties scheduled over the next couple of months to housing the Beninatis' dogs while repairs are made.

About 60 Easter diners were finishing their meals when fire ripped through the Gables' rear wing and upper floor that Sunday. Beach Haven Fire Chief Matthew Letts said the blaze appeared to have been accidental and may have started in exterior trash cans.

An investigation is continuing of the multi-alarm fire, which was fueled by wind, according to the Ocean County Fire Marshal's Office. No one was staying at the inn at the time, and no injuries were reported.

Situated about a block from the beachfront, the genteel inn, with its Victorian gingerbread-laden porch and onion-shaped turret - survivor of decades of thrashing storms and development pressures - had become a place passersby stopped to admire.

Since the fire, from a command post at her best friend's house across the street, Beninati has navigated the choppy waters of a sea of considerations. Her staff, which includes two chefs, has been by her side each day focused on a singular goal: to reopen the inn by Memorial Day.

The barrage of decisions is almost nonstop: A venue offered for a coming event wasn't quite right; could a new one be found? Is the rented storage space close enough for the staff to triage the equipment and tabletop accoutrements needed to "Gableize" catered events being handled out of borrowed kitchens?

When a proof for a donated sign was shown to her on a recent morning, Beninati, 60, responded: "Oh that's really lovely . . . perfect."

"I really feel that people, especially people in business, need to stick together," said Bette Van Liere, who manages the nearby Williams Cottage Inn and agreed to relocate a May 5 Gables wedding to her establishment. "That's what you do in a small community."

John Vaccone, who owns Northstar Truck Lettering & Signs in West Creek, had never been to the Gables but donated the new sign.

"That fire really touched a nerve. I'm a big advocate for small business. I want to help any way I can," said Vaccone, who started his business after being downsized out of a job at a large vehicle-accessories company.

The fire damaged the inn's newest section, a rear portion that contained an office and bathroom. None of the historical integrity was lost, Beninati said.

The inn's original section closest to Centre Street, housing the restaurant on the first floor and five elaborately decorated guest rooms on the second and third floors, sustained mostly smoke and water damage.

Luckily most of the antiques, including carved bedsteads and marble fireplace surrounds, were saved, and through restoration, smoke and water infiltration will be removed. A priceless 1932 Steinway baby-grand piano will take as long as 10 months to repair. All drywall, bedding, and other textiles will be replaced, Beninati said.

In the meantime, customers such as Jennifer Di Nicola, of New York City, remain supportive.

"It was only a week after the fire, but they made sure every detail for my best friend's wedding shower was wonderful: the food, the china, the flowers," Di Nicola said of the recent event that had to be relocated nearby. "No wonder the community is rallying around them."


Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

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