When Martha Wright couldn’t find the beach house of her dreams on the Jersey Shore, she built a simple adaptation of a barn to set off her recycled treasures.

By Susan Stiles Dowell
June 08, 2007
Tria Giovan

When Martha Wright was 14, she started spending summers with her best friend at Avalon, south of Atlantic City on the Jersey Shore. It was then that she promised herself she’d have a seaside retreat of her own someday. “I got a steady job at 16 to start saving for my beach house,” she says. “If I ever felt like quitting any job, I’d ask myself: ‘What are you working for?’ A house at the shore was my answer—and my incentive for just about everything I ever did.”

At 20, she had her eye on her great-uncle’s cottage on nearby Long Beach Island. But he sold it before learning his niece had amassed a nest egg of six figures.

A trip to Avalon as an adult reintroduced Martha to its quiet bayside, where she rented and tried to buy one of the first bungalows built there. Refused, she devised a plan to find another vintage house. Biking down every street from Avalon to Stone Harbor on the 7-mile island, she listed 25 houses she loved and wrote letters to their owners asking if they’d consider selling.

“The standard refrain was: ‘Our house has been in the family forever,’ ” she says. Not to be discouraged, Martha considered seeking a lot in Avalon where she could build the house that would be in her own family forever.

On a bleak, drizzling predawn in February 1996, she drove down from her home in Cherry Hill to see a bayside lot soon coming on the market. “Sailboats from the Avalon Yacht Club down the street were pulled up all over it. I couldn’t imagine building something here,” she says.

But on the drive home, Martha realized this could be her only chance. She called her real-estate agent with a decision. “I had looked for 12 years, and this was going to be it.”

Her idea for a barn-style house came after seeing a newspaper ad for the auction of two old New Jersey barns. Martha studied 40 books on cottages, barns, and seashore houses. She sketched her own design and handed it to architect Robert A. Johnson. He drafted blueprints, and she was off and running.

Immediately, she established her standards. “I am wholeheartedly against the consumerism of the ’80s,” she told her builder, Joe Popper. “I want to build a house that’s functionally and environmentally efficient.”

She economized with only two bedrooms upstairs and one bath downstairs to serve the whole house. She asked Joe to insert a layer of insulation between the floors, walls, and ceiling to keep the integrity of the exposed-wood construction. In an effort to refrain from accumulating too much stuff, she asked for clothes hooks instead of closets. “I’m a pack rat,” she admits. “With mildew and corrosion so prevalent at the beach, I had to edit.”

Air-conditioning was also out of the question. Martha’s old-fashioned, energy-saving orientation would make most beachgoers weary. “I close all the windows just before sundown to [cut down on] the moisture that creeps in,” she says. “At bedtime, I reopen the house for the breezes.”

She designed a cupola to act as a central fan drafting heat out of the house. Joe tried to talk her out of it. “A cupola is just for looks,” he insisted when he saw her drawing for a 4-foot model. Later, he admired her idea and its efficiency.

Martha, Joe, and his crew of artisans took cues from working barns to adapt some practical—and cost-effective—aspects for shore life. “Barn-board shutters seal the north side of the house against the weather.” And the red color outside? “For early American farmers and for me, it’s a substantial but inexpensive paint.”

Furnishings from yard sales and consignment shops were the finishing touches. “I found a 1922 bathtub, appliances from the ’30s, and a giant cupboard,” she says. She sewed slipcovers for her secondhand sofas and chairs. Never has one woman worked so hard to own a place on the shore of her youthful summers. After three decades of effort, Martha is proud to say she did it her way—the Wright way.