Photos by John Martinelli
The micro home movement is one of the most fascinating architectural and social phenomena of our time. Appealing to those in the market for a second home or homeowners who are looking to downsize, a house less than 500 square feet guarantees lower living costs and decreased maintenance while offering a simpler, decluttered perspective on life. But millennials are not the only ones adopting minimalism principles by moving into tiny homes, cutting their wardrobes and donating their possessions. Little did Thom Sweeney know that when he and his wife, Helen, took a chance buying the smallest home on Long Beach Island in 1980, this advertising executive-turned-interior designer would actually be a visionary of his day.
Thom Sweeney’s life story is not unlike a remarkable movie: his dad was a proprietor within the cigar industry during the 1950s and he, himself, attended Villanova as a psych major. When as a last-minute favor the recent grad took the place of a buddy who didn’t want to go on a job interview at an advertising agency, not only did charismatic Thom blow the interviewers out of the water (a ’la a scene straight out of the wildly popular series Mad Men), but years later he would actually become partner of the largest advertising firm in South Jersey (top ten agency within the entire Philadelphia market). Fast forward to his passion for design and gift for style, after he and his wife bid on a couple of their clients’ projects within the interior design realm— and were incredibly successful— it was clear the direction he was meant to head in.
Throughout the 1970s the Sweeneys, a family of five, spent their summers on a 34 foot by 9 foot boat docked in Morrison’s Marina of Beach Haven in Long Beach Island. The boat was wittily named Poor Helen, as “Poor Helen!” is the exact phrase people would exclaim to Thom after the announcement that he and his wife, Helen, along with their three sons, Reed, Brad and Gavin, would all be living on the boat in such tight quarters for the duration of summer. “It was a wonderful time, and I cherish the memories we created on that boat,” recalls Thom Sweeney of the time they spent on their summer boat home.
Then a friend from LBI sent the family a real estate ad from The Beachcomber entitled “Fisherman’s Delight” and Thom knew that this was one home he couldn’t let get away. “I remember the ad as if it were yesterday, ‘Can you imagine waterfront property on LBI for under $30,000?’ it read. My friend Joan had gone to check out the listing and reported back to me, declaring ‘Thom, it has your name written all over it!’ And so, I knew, I had to go check it out,” reminiscences Sweeney.
What the designer saw upon entering the home for the first time would have been enough to make any other prospective buyers turn around and walk back out the door. “The previous owners really let the place go,” he remembers, “the real estate agent said that at that point she must have shown this house more than 200 times already.” There were dilapidated walls and rags on the windows. The floors were covered in bright orange linoleum flooring, and when you looked up, a dropped ceiling was quite literally dropping overhead. Measuring at 24 feet long by 12 feet wide, the tiny shack on 15th Street in Beach Haven was technically 18 square feet smaller than his family’s house boat. But in true artist form, Thom saw a blank canvas and couldn’t resist getting to work, sketching away his vision for this tiny little house on pilings that rested completely over a gorgeous 360° view of Barnegat Bay.
Ironically, at the time that Sweeney and his family purchased the smallest house on Long Beach Island, the successful interior designer was commissioned to work on the largest home on the island—a mansion in Love Ladies whose 14 bathrooms had nothing on the shack’s then non-existent lavatory facilities (they later added in full plumbing with a 5’ x 6’ bath including a 3 square foot shower and basic kitchen accommodations). “But it really is amazing... how much you don’t need to be very, very happy,” smiles Thom; an underlying theme throughout any conversation with the charming and down-to-earth artist. But with serious limitations to space and functionality, Sweeney’s professional skills were unquestionably put to the test.
The first thing Thom did was tear down the ceilings with hopes of adding much-needed height to the inside of the home. By utilizing the space all the way up to the roof, he was able to create an entire loft space for his three sons to enjoy as their own bedroom area. Then Sweeney replaced all of the windows and added a sliding glass door to the home, significantly increasing the amount of natural light entering the room. He added closet space where there was none to be had, and basically reconfigured the entire studio area for maximum usability and practicality. He created a wondrous eat-in kitchen and added a sleeper sofa, to be used as a living room corner during the day and a place where he and his wife could sleep soundly in the evenings. “I always said I would eventually put in a vertical Murphy wall bed,” Thom chuckles, “but I never really got around to it!” And that atrocious orange linoleum flooring? Replaced all around by beautiful vintage wood-mimicking tile flooring. Last but not least, that affectionate name plaque that hung from their old boat, Poor Helen, was lovingly draped right over the front door of their new LBI sanctuary.
The décor inside of the shack is beachy, without any overly nautical or surfer typecasts. The look is beach-meets-boho; sun-washed chic wood and entwined, earthy accents paired with a nearly white palette and pops of blues and seafoam green. Every piece of décor in the home was handpicked by Thom, whether discovered at a vintage market or while browsing antique sales in his spare time. There are woven lamp shades evocative of Bali paired with lobster buoys on one wall, and a turtle decoy reminiscent of the Galapagos Islands on the other end near an old-fashioned sign that reads, “Due to the small space, items left over 60 days will be sold.” “It’s like an uptown fishing shack,” Sweeney concludes.
Officially a historical landmark of Long Beach Island, the Sweeneys’ home was actually a fishing shack at one point in the early 1900s. There was another building, a fishery, adjacent to what is now their present-day home, so the belief is that the shack was used more as a storage shed by the fishery for all of their netting and gear, as well as a bunkhouse for the fishermen themselves. Interestingly enough, Thom reveals that an elderly man approached his son, Reed, during their early days as the new homeowners of the property to share his own anecdotes of yonder years: the man’s father recalled lobster fishing in the area in the 1920s and then selling the crustaceans to Rikers Island, since lobster was significantly cheaper than beef to feed the prisoners. Any lobsters the man caught that were not sold to the prisons, he then used to sell off of the deck of the shack for “10 cents a pop” to residents and passerby’s. Oddly enough the fishery itself washed away during a storm in the 1930s, but the shack next door survived all storms thereafter (including Hurricane Sandy) and remains solid present-day.
The timeless traits that Mr. Sweeney furnishes his tiny home with resonate throughout all of his décor projects, big and small. “I design for the demographic as opposed to designing by trends,” notes Sweeney. As with any good interior design, his objective is always to create the optimal atmosphere for clients, in this case, his family. “Being so close with the people you love and designing a space for all of us was an absolute treat,” adds the artist. His décor expertise is sourced by clientele from all walks of life including residential, commercial, model homes to contract design, and he’s designed everything from elite Manhattan brownstones and Palm Beach mansions to low-income housing for seniors. Locally, the designer has worked with countless private homeowners and is accredited with creating the stunning interiors of LBI wedding venues including Bonnet Island Estate, Mallard Island Yacht Club, The Stateroom, The Mercer Ballroom and The Ashford Estate.
As the saying goes, “Good things come in small packages,” and the Poor Helen is testament to how that phrase holds true. As is the case with all possessions—the more stuff you own, the more your stuff owns you. There is something incredibly liberating when it comes to spending less, risking less, accumulating less, cleaning and maintaining less, and best of all—spending more time doing the things you enjoy most with those you hold dearest in your heart. The Sweeneys have proven that a home on Long Beach Island does not have to be big to be great, and that all you need is four walls, a roof over your head, and plenty of love to go around... although, an impeccable view of the sunset from your waterfront deck doesn’t hurt.
Thom Sweeney is founder and owner of New Home Interiors, an award-winning full-service interior design studio specializing in contract design and residential business. With a well-trained and careful eye for quality, craftsmanship, and statement-making furnishings & textiles, Thom is recognized for his bold and elegant, yet timeless and classic styled designs. Visit him at his new office and showroom at The Gunning River Mall, 849 West Bay Avenue in Barnegat, NJ (609-622-2950) or follow him on Instagram via @thomsweeneyinteriors