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Posts Tagged ‘Sampler Inn’

People lined up all down the block for The Sampler Inn’s cafeteria food and convivial atmosphere. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Ocean Grove

By Charles Layton  @Blogfinger

By the time the Township demolished it in 2009, The Sampler Inn had stood at 28 Main Avenue for approximately 90 years. It was one of Ocean Grove’s most beloved institutions. As you can see from the photo above, people used to flock to its cafeteria for a traditional fare that included whipped sweet potatoes, creamed spinach, macaroni and cheese, lamb chops, ham with raisin sauce, a rich array of desserts and, at breakfast, among other things, a generous selection of hot cereals.

But the years took their toll. When The Sampler’s absentee owners filed for bankruptcy in 2006, the place had become a first-class public nuisance — boarded up, empty and gutted on the inside, unmaintained, with a caving-in roof and other structural atrocities. Teenagers broke into the place in summer to prowl and explore. Vagrants camped there in winter, sometimes drinking, sometimes warming themselves before sterno stoves.

Jeff Dean, who lived on Heck Avenue just behind The Sampler, said if the place had ever caught fire “the whole neighborhood would have been gone.” Another neighbor, Danny Beaman, said, “I remember being in bed and hearing noises and getting out of bed and running to see if The Sampler was on fire.” Some of the people living closest to The Sampler were disabled or elderly; they’d have had a tough time escaping from a raging inferno. “The Sampler was two feet from my mother’s house,” said Lisa Noll. (Her mother was in her early 80s, and a man living in the same house was in his 90s.)

The neighbors, especially those on Heck in the second block from the beach, fought for years against the menace that The Sampler had become. It was a battle to defend their properties, their peace of mind and, as they saw it, their very lives. But it was also a battle for the common good of Ocean Grove, alerting people in this town, and some people in government, to take derelict buildings more seriously.

One recent evening some of those Heck Avenue neighbors got together over refreshments in Beaman’s living room and relived their experiences. Theirs is a story that needs to be recorded and remembered. Lessons can be learned about the power of aroused and well-organized citizens.

Some (but by no means all) of the veterans of the Sampler campaign. Front, l. to r.: Kirsten Beneke, Sue Beneke, Danny Beaman, Carmen Rivera and Lisa Noll. Standing: Jay Shapiro, Gloria Wigert and Jeff Dean. Photo by Mary Walton

Some had fond memories. Although Sue Beneke, who lived right next door to The Sampler, endured years of anxiety and inconvenience, even she considered the place “a beautiful institution.” Her daughter, Kirsten, recalled how, as a child, she would go to the side door of the kitchen every morning and get a muffin for breakfast. Another Heck resident, Carmen Rivera, volunteered to teach English to a young girl from Poland who worked at The Sampler. Relations were usually neighborly, and when a problem arose people tended to seek constructive solutions. Beneke said some of the college kids who worked in the kitchen used to play a radio very loud at 5 o’clock in the morning. “So I bought them all radio head sets, and they actually used them,” she said.

Still, even before the place became a total wreck, there were problems, many associated with the kitchen, which faced Heck Avenue. One problem was rodents.

Beaman: “I used to watch from my front porch. There was a hole in the back wall where the cats would line up and wait for the mice to run out. It was amusing; they would wait in line patiently for the next mouse to come out, and then they would go chasing after it.”

Noise and truck pollution were less amusing. At a certain point, the neighbors said, large trucks started arriving at 5 a.m. to deliver goods to the kitchen. They would leave their engines running, filling the street with foul-smelling exhaust.

Then there was the leaking garbage — “dumpster juice” and “dumpster puddles” they called it. The odor drove people inside. “I just remember one summer day all of us had to go inside our houses because the garbage was leaking out of the dumpster,” Jay Shapiro said. “It was bad.”

Sue Beneke recalled “big canisters of fat” in back of the kitchen. “We tried to build a fence around the back of the kitchen, that would hide the fat vats and the dumpsters and everything,” Beneke said. “We drew the design. And then I went over there to the owners and said, ‘All the neighbors will even pay for it. We’ll pay for this beautiful Victorian fence for the kitchen, take the loading dock down.’ We were even going to make it like a French bistro. But they would not let us do it.”

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The Sampler in its heyday. Photo from the Historical Society of Ocean Grove

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The neighbors complained, negotiated and endured through a succession of owners from the 1990s into the mid-2000s. During that time The Sampler followed the general trend of the Ocean Grove hotel business, which was downward. Still, the neighbors said they were usually able to deal amicably with the various owners until, in 2004, two brothers from Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Marshall and Elliott Koplitz, acquired the property. In 2006 the Koplitz brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. By then the building was vacant and deteriorating very badly.

For a time, the Koplitzes tried to develop plans to convert the property to condominiums. This led to meetings before various governmental bodies. It was at this point that the residents became truly organized. They liked the idea that The Sampler, a historic and once-attractive building, might be saved. But when the architect proposed 15 or more condo units on the site, they recoiled. What about parking for all those residents? What about the garbage and trash so many condos would generate? Also, at this time, condos were a relatively new thing for Ocean Grove, and the residents thought condos would change the character of the neighborhood. “It was a risk,” Carmen Rivera said.

There were also concerns about the trustworthiness of the Koplitzes.

The Koplitzes had owned properties in Long Branch in the 1990s that were cited repeatedly for serious fire code violations. Outstanding fines eventually totaled more than $1 million on these properties. The Koplitzes staged a protracted court battle before settling with the city for $400,000. Many of the violations centered on the fact that the Koplitzes were packing their properties with college students. The loud, unruly behavior at some of these “animal houses,” as they were sometimes called, became widely known; charges included underage drinking, providing liquor to minors and maintaining a nuisance.

Jay Shapiro: “We were worried about whether we were going to have college kids living here. It was going to be worse than condominiums, because at least with condominiums there’d be home ownership…. But with college kids, we figured there would be drinking, partying late at night, and it would just really destroy the whole flavor of the neighborhood. I think that was what started to get us up in arms.”

The Koplitzes were more secretive than previous owners, and far less cooperative. The Sampler bankruptcy was complicated and poorly understood.  “Whenever you tried to get hold of anyone,” Sue Beneke remembered, “you never could tell who the real owners were.”

Jeff Dean said by the time he moved onto Heck, in 2006, The Sampler building was already a fire hazard. Homeless people were breaking in and occupying it. Intruders stole copper and other metal, stripping the building of anything that could be sold.

Cracking wall. Photo by Danny Beaman

Sue Beneke: “In the back yard there were so many things that they had done that were illegal.” Heavy air conditioning units were above the kitchen, she said, “and the wall was starting to break. It was just cracking and you’d watch it crack, and then they’d put a board up, and the board held it for a while.” One of the walls appeared ready to collapse, which “was terrifying,” she said, especially considering that children would often explore and play around the building.

There was a moment when the neighbors more or less concluded among themselves that if the developer would agree to a lower number of condo units — maybe as few as 10 — they would probably go along.

Shapiro: “We were willing to compromise.”

Beaman: “Because he was going to save The Sampler building.”

And then things got worse. Around 2007 the real estate market was starting to tank. And the plans for condos just went away. So did the Koplitzes. The building sat unoccupied and continued to rot. Glass fell from the third floor onto the sidewalks. Scraps from the roof went flying around the neighborhood in the wind.

The neighbors had been alerting the Township to problems at The Sampler for at least 10 years — through a series of administrations, both Republican and Democratic. But The Sampler was not the only place in Ocean Grove that was in decline. “Back in the late ’90s there was a dilapidated building on every block,” Beaman said. “So when we started complaining to the town, it was a little harder for the town to hear us because there were so many of these buildings. But I think The Sampler went to a degree that no other building in Ocean Grove went to.”

So now the neighbors took their protests to a higher level of organization. “It got to the point where we were emailing [Township Committee members] every week, and we were going down to see them in person,” Jeff Dean said. They also reached out to county freeholders, a state senator — anyone they could find who would listen. “We kept on complaining every chance we had,” said Shapiro.

“We started documenting everything,” Beaman said. “Once every three months I was emailing pictures of the roof collapsing, the walls collapsing, things falling off, and sending it to the town council.”

Rivera called 911 every time she saw teenagers entering The Sampler or hanging out on the steps. She was calling as many as three times a week. Sue Beneke sent photographs to state officials. Shapiro and Beaman became leaders in speaking out at public meetings, but others attended in support and sometimes spoke. “Just about everyone on the street at one time did something,” Beaman said.

Heck Ave. view shot by Danny Beaman. The Sampler is at right and in the background. The small derelict home on the left was attached to The Sampler. To its left, partly visible, is the Benekes' home.

By now most of the neighbors had pretty much concluded that the building could not be saved and therefore had to be demolished. This became the group’s goal. But forced demolition of someone’s private property was a drastic step. It required formal action by the Township Committee. It was not something politicians normally liked to do.

Several things were working in favor of the residents’ lobbying campaign, though. One was that almost everyone on their block was a full-time resident, which was not the norm in Ocean Grove. This made it easier for them to persist, year after year and in all seasons. Emails flew back and forth. They strategized constantly while sitting on their porches. They did their research, built a case.

Another thing that worked for the neighbors, they said, was that Marshall Koplitz, by his hostile behavior, had alienated Township officials.

Jeff Dean: “Koplitz started screwing with them. His lawyer actually attacked the integrity of the officials in meetings, openly attacking their credentials and everything else.” By contrast, the neighbors tried to present themselves as firm and determined but also reasonable and respectful.

Really, though, The Sampler was now in such bad shape that no one could deny the truth. Jay Shapiro remembers a particularly effective speech that resident Donny Noll made one evening. The Nolls had been trying to sell their house, and their realtor had told them that being on the same block as The Sampler severely diminished the market value. Noll told officials, “I cannot sell my house because of that eyesore across the street.”

A resident who lived on Main Avenue got up at a meeting one night and said, “My daughter’s bedroom is five feet from The Sampler. Can you guarantee me that my child will be safe?” Such arguments were irrefutable.

At last, in 2009, the Township Committee declared that The Sampler was “a danger to life and health” and had to be torn down. Fire and code officials affirmed that the building could easily go up in flames. There was no fire alarm system, one inspector testified, and “depending on wind conditions, you could lose the entire block if a fire started.”

The Koplitzes denied all of that and appealed the Committee’s decision in court, but to no avail.

On the day a bulldozer, hired by the Township, went to work knocking down The Sampler, Danny Beaman was on his porch snapping photos and emailing them to people who were out of town. People emailed him back, saying, “Send more. Send more. ”

In the end, though, the neighbors both rejoiced and mourned. “It was sad,” Susan Bell recalled.

“A bittersweet victory,” said Shapiro.

“I never felt like we won,” Beaman chimed in, “because if we’d won they would have taken care of the property.”

After The Sampler’s destruction, the zoning of the site reverted to single-family homes. It is likely that such homes will be built there eventually.  “Whatever goes up there,” Beaman said, “we’re not going to be afraid of it. And that’s the big thing.”

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