Written by Jaime Lee
Photos by Michael Spark Media & Photography
Long Beach Island is not only a vacationer’s paradise, but it is simultaneously becoming the ideal destination for empty nesters. For the Heals, LBI is exactly where they decided to build their dream home on the lagoon.
Natives of Staten Island, Helen and her husband Jim, a retired Battalion Chief who dedicated 31 years of service in the FDNY, set their hopes on downsizing and finally enjoying a relaxing retirement in a serene home near the water. On the advice of an old friend who raved about his great experience working with Thomas J Keller Building Contractor, a local builder based out of Surf City, the Heals were convinced that this was the man to call for a flawless building process, free of aggravation and stress. When Jim finally sat down to meet with Tom, the choice was clear: Tom was the first and only builder he needed to talk to. “I’m a pretty good judge of character,” Jim shares. “When I looked Tom eye to eye, I said, ‘This guy’s a real honest guy.’ I got such good vibes.”
That initial conversation kicked off the start of a no-hassle, seamless, collaborative build that resulted in a 3,500-square-foot 5-bed, 3 ½-bath Nantucket-inspired home in Loveladies, complete with wrap-around porches, a rooftop deck with views of both the bay and ocean, and magnificent vaulted ceilings that allow natural light to flood in from every direction.
Their beach oasis, which is now a year-round home for the owners, started however on a real diamond-in-the-rough patch of land sandwiched between the Boulevard and the lagoon. Before the building process could begin, the existing boarded-up and condemned home needed to be demolished. According to Jim, the property and structure at the time of purchase was in such bad shape, they needed to sign a letter with the township agreeing that the home would be in a dumpster within 90 days of purchase.
But that was no problem for Keller, recalls the couple. “He said, ‘I got it’,” Jim raves of the builder. “That was his line. Anytime I said, ‘Tom what about…’ he said, ‘I got it.’ And he did. He got the job done.” “And he got it done quick!” Helen adds. The land was so overgrown with trees and poison ivy, it wasn’t until they cleared out the brush, they discovered a hidden gem — a 30-foot private dock on the lagoon.
The Design Process
The Heals signed on Keller and his team for the project late in 2017 and the first pilings went in the ground by December. The couple trusted the team so much that they went down to Florida for the beginning of construction. Framing was put on hold for about a month after the pilings went in because of extreme cold, but after it resumed in late January, it was only seven months before Helen and Jim were sleeping in their new home.
Although the design process was a collaborative effort between the Heals, Keller and his team, and their architect, Craig W. Brearley, Helen and Jim started by looking through books of homes Keller had built and working with the architect to select features they wanted to incorporate into the design. “Tom took what could’ve essentially ended up looking like a plain square, box-of-a-house, and customized everything that we needed to make it our own,” Jim recalls. “He only makes custom homes.”
Even though the couple was downsizing since their children are each grown with families of their own, Helen actually designed much of the home with her large extended family in mind. She knew she wanted five bedrooms: in addition to their grand master suite with a private bath and impressive frameless shower on the top floor, on the floor below, two more bedrooms would be for their beloved five grandchildren to share, and another two bedrooms were built for each of their sons and their wives. Inspired by a friend whose Manahawkin reverse-living home they admired, the Heals even built an additional family room downstairs for the kids to have a place of their own to play and watch TV. Her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren could now all gather for family time, meals and boardgames on the top floor, but then had the option of enjoying their own space downstairs if they ever needed some privacy or down time—offering her kids the best of both worlds when they come to stay at their home.
The collaborative process wasn’t just with Keller and the architect, however, as Helen leaned on her son, Darren, and daughter-in-law, Danielle (who she lovingly refers to as daughter), for design help and advice as well. “We spoke with my son and Danielle and they shared their ideas with us during the design and building process. Our perspective is 1970,” Helen chuckles, “and theirs is 2020. You get that blend of two generations—and it really helps.” Danielle was instrumental in helping Helen choose one of the homes’ most unique and grand features — a 12’ X 4’ single-slab quartz island, which the owner of Taylor Made Cabinets said was likely the largest he had ever installed on LBI. The island’s size is vital when the Heals host all of their grandchildren, as Helen lovingly notes, “I had to make sure there was enough room for all my grandkids to fit around the island at the same time.”
The home is custom from the front stairs to the rooftop deck and Helen and Jim rave about the quality of the millwork and overall craftsmanship from Keller and his building team. The top-level family room features unique vaulted ceilings and custom millwork around every window and the fireplace. It is comprised of custom built-ins and shelving units that seamlessly meld in with the architecture of the home.
This charming seaside home exudes a casual elegance not often seen in many beach homes—there are no flip flop signs or ships-in-a-bottle in sight. The color tone of the home is very calm and inviting with muted whites, delicate grays and driftwood tans; it exudes a timeless, minimalist aesthetic that is modern, yet classic— balancing any edge with natural fibers and simple upholstery to uphold maximum comfort and durability. Inspired by the luxe California-based brand, Restoration Hardware, the home is filled with neutral tones elevated by eccentric elements—such as the showstopping wall of windows that allows a view of the Boulevard and ocean, inviting visitors outdoors towards one of the many porches and wrap around deck areas of the home.
This home also features an outdoor oasis that is unrivaled on the island. There are covered decks off of the bedrooms allowing for lounging outdoors while enjoying a morning coffee, as well as a larger decked area off of the kitchen where guests may gather to lounge and watch the children splash around in the resort-like swimming pool. An expansive outdoor shower completes the outdoor features, as it lets the grandkids wash off after a day at the beach. “When you look down you see a dozen little feet in the shower,” Helen tells, “It’s so cute!”
Many smaller balconies overlook the lagoon, and the open concept living room has a wraparound-styled porch. Capping off the house, is a large rooftop deck with unobstructed views of the bay, ocean, lagoon—even the Barnegat Lighthouse. “It’s nice to watch the sunset up here,” Jim tells, adding, “with a Piña Colada in hand!”
They say a man's home is his castle, but for some, a home workshop is the real source of pride and joy. A special feature designed specifically for Jim is the three-car garage, complete with a spacious area for Heal to have a proper working space as well as a place for him to store all of his tools for handywork.
It wasn’t only Tom the Heals were impressed with, it was his entire company. “Your business is only as good as your workers,” Jim said. “Colette (on Keller’s construction team) is as straight as an arrow. She’s as sharp as can be. There were things we wanted to change and it always worked out.”
Even now, two years after their home was completed, the Heals and the Kellers keep in touch. “Tom’s wife, Daphne, who also works with the firm, asked me to do the home tour last year,” Helen shares. “So, I said, ‘I’ll do it if you and Tom go out to dinner with us.’ And we did. And I feel like we are part of the family now. There is this mutual respect and trust.”
“The good thing about Tom and his business, his secret for success, is having great subcontractors,” Jim adds. “They do great work and he doesn’t have to worry. He knows it will be done correctly. And that’s very important. He has good people working for him.”
The team at Thomas J Keller Building Contractor would like to respectfully thank Mr. Heal, who compassionately and humbly refuses the notion of being referred to as a “hero” when referring to his service with the FDNY—even through the most unimaginable of times including the events of 9/11. He and all of his fellow firefighters and first-responders have all of our utmost highest regards for putting their lives at risk for other human beings every day that they go to work. Jim, may you enjoy a well-deserved retirement full of peace and happy, loving moments here on Long Beach Island.
Moreover, a great big “Thank You” to all first responders and all essential workers for their tireless efforts and unwavering labors during some of the most difficult times of recent past. Your sacrifices are immeasurable and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
The homeowners would additionally like to thank good friends of theirs, Barbara & John Favorito and Debbie & Joel Clark, who graciously allowed the Heals to stay with them in order to make final decisions on their home as they traveled to and from their residence on Hutchinson Island, Florida during the winter months. Your hospitality is greatly appreciated.