A potential fight between the City of Ocean City and the state Historic Preservation Office went up in smoke with the Bellevue Hotel on Friday.
In a letter dated Sept. 25 (see attached PDF), Preservation Office Administrator Daniel Saunders said the "six-story, front main building shall be stabilized and mothballed."
The hotel was built before 1907, though the exact date is not known, according to the Ocean City Historical Museum. It is part of the state-designated Ocean City Residential Historic District.
But the city did not have preservation in mind when it awarded a $158,000 emergency contract to Terra Technical Services, LLC, of Downingtown, Pa., to demolish the entire hotel.
After a neighbor discovered an exterior wall bulging at unnatural angles, city officials discovered of a pond of rainwater on the flat roof of a four-story addition to the main hotel. The hotel was ultimately condemned as a public safety hazard, and the owner was ordered to demolish it.
When it was discovered that the owner could not afford the demolition, the city took on the project. Demolition work began on Sept. 27, two days after the letter from the state was sent.
But the potential battle over preserving parts of the old hotel became moot a day later when a fire burned parts of the building and much of it was knocked down in the firefighting effort.
"Sadly, the combination of neglect by the private owner and today's fire makes demolition the only prudent action," Saunders wrote in a second letter from the state Historic Preservation Office dated Sept. 28, the day of the fire (see attached PDF).
The Bellevue is not part of Ocean City's own Historic Preservation District, even though properties on the opposite side of Ocean Avenue are. But because it is part of a state-designated historic district, the city provided notice of the demolition to the state, according to Ocean City Business Administrator Mike Dattilo.
The state's response in the Sept. 25 letter:
- Approved demolition of the four-story rear addition.
- Suggested that the city did not adequately document a threat to public safety in the six-story front portion of the hotel.
- Suggested that the Czar Engineers (one contractor the city used to inspect the building) does not have "demonstrated experience with historic properties."
"The information submitted barely addresses the six-story main portion of 701-703 Eighth Street," Saunders wrote. "It certainly does not adequately document that the six-story, front, main portion ... is structurally unstable, nor does it document that (the front part of the hotel) constitutes an immediate, direct, demonstrable, and severe hazard to the public safety."
The letter also invited Ocean City to submit further documentation that could potentially lead the Preservation Office to reconsider.
Dattilo said the city did so immediately. City Engineer Arthur Chew also had inspected the Bellevue, and he has experience with historic projects, including Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall (built as Convention Hall in 1929). Dattilo said the state did accept Chew's credentials.
He said a representative of the state came to Ocean City on Thursday (Sept. 27) to tour the Bellevue, ask questions and take photographs. Dattilo said city officials were left with the impression that, having seen the property first-hand, the representative understood the public safety threat.
"We had every expectation that we were going to get permission to continue demolition," Dattilo said.
He said the contractor had always intended to demolish the four-story addition first. That would have given the city more time to secure approval from the state for demolition of the main part of the hotel, he said.
As it is, the four-story addition is now a pile of rubble, and work is beginning on tearing down the main part of the hotel.
Dattilo said a problem with a serpentine belt on an excavator delayed work on Monday.
The Bellevue is the oldest of Ocean City's early hotels still standing in its original form, according to the Ocean City Historical Museum. The only changes to the original building were an enclosed porch on the second floor at about 1912. Later, the end rooms on all floors were closed into provide more rooms. A 1914 advertisement lists the proprietors as "Shantz and Bickel."
The four-story addition was constructed sometime in the 1940s.