2004-08-27 / Front Page
Memories of Peninsula House sweeten 100th birthday
Nancy Johnson lived
at hotel for 46 years
at hotel for 46 years
Nancy Johnson lived
at hotel for 46 years
BY SHERRY CONOHAN
In the early morning, when the sun was newly risen, Nancy Johnson would walk out of her apartment in the Peninsula House in Sea Bright and down to the beach. Each morning she would take a swim, along with a number of gentlemen guests who indulged in a dip before going to work in New York.
Her husband, Walter, stood watch on the beach for all their safety because the hotel’s lifeguards didn’t take up their posts until later in the day.
Johnson, who turns 100 on Sept. 5, attributes her longevity to those refreshing ocean romps long ago.
"We had a pool, but I didn’t like the pool," she said. "I liked the ocean. It made you fresh."
Johnson and her husband lived at the Peninsula House and ran the hotel, and the beach club that succeeded it, for 46 years after their marriage in 1929 until 1975, a little over a decade before the place burned down in 1986.
Johnson, who now lives at the Gateway Care Center in Eatontown, said she loved every minute of her stay at the Peninsula House, one of the great hotels on the Jersey Shore.
"I’ve had a very good life," she said in an interview. "God has been very good to me."
Johnson’s daughter, Bonnie Johnson, of Monmouth Beach, vouched for the good times her family had at the Peninsula House, where both she and her older sister, Audrey Carney, grew up.
"I never knew how wonderful it was until I got older and realized everyone didn’t have this," Bonnie Johnson said.
Mother and daughter recalled how wealthy New Yorkers would come down to the Shore in Sea Bright by train or boat and move into the Peninsula House for the 10-week summer season that ran from late June until Labor Day.
They would ship big wardrobe trunks by boat or truck, and the trunks were then placed in the oversized closets at the hotel, where they would stand open for use.
Guests would be assigned a table on the boardwalk, Bonnie Johnson said, where they could eat breakfast served buffet-style.
Guests could also overlook the ocean from the long row of rockers on the breezeway that connected the main and north building to the south building of the hotel.
Dinner at the hotel was a formal affair, Bonnie Johnson said, and the women wore long dresses, hats and gloves while the men wore dinner jackets.
On Friday and Saturday nights an orchestra would play for dancing, Nancy Johnson recalled. Sunday night was opera night, with a singer to warble arias, and a grand harvest moon ball was held in August.
In addition to the saltwater pool, there were clay tennis courts for the guests.
"I was busy, busy, busy," Nancy Johnson recalled.
The main building of what became the Peninsula House was built in 1881 on the west side of Ocean Avenue by Mifflin Paul for his daughter, Mrs. C.H. Dederer. In 1884 it was moved to the east side of Ocean Avenue. A north wing with 36 rooms was added in 1916, and a south wing was added a year later, in 1917, with 57 rooms, according to Bonnie Johnson. She said the rooms in the north wing had sinks, but the guests had to go down the hall to communal bathrooms for toilets and a bathtub. The rooms in the south wing had private baths, she said.
Nancy Johnson was born Nancy Kyle in Glasgow, Scotland. She came to America when she was 18 with her parents and settled in East Orange, where her older sister, Louisa, known as Louie, lived with her husband, John (Jack) Donaldson.
"I didn’t know if I would stay," she said. "But I got a job right away and did."
Nancy Johnson recalled that her roommate on the ship that brought the family to America was a fortune teller who hit her future right on the mark. She said the woman told her she would live on a strip of land between two bodies of water and would marry a "big guy" whose name began with a W.
"And my husband’s name was Walter," she said.
Nancy Johnson got a job at the New York Athletic Club where, she said, she met two businessmen and got friendly with their wives.
"They all went to the Peninsula House," she related, and encouraged her to go there too. "I came down and met my husband there."
She married Walter, who would become a member of the Sea Bright Board of Education and serve on the Borough Council, and they moved into the apartment at the Peninsula House.
Nancy Johnson said the hotel was owned by John Connelly, who also owned the Kenilworth Lodge in Sebring, Fla., and the Sherman Square Hotel in New York City. She said the Peninsula House’s main staff would come up to New Jersey for the summer from the Kenilworth Lodge and then be supplemented with college students.
Of Connelly, who visited frequently, Nancy Johnson had this to say: "He was very perfect about everything. He was very nice to all of the staff."
Bonnie Johnson recalled how all of the guests were assigned a bathhouse when they checked in because they were not allowed to go into their hotel rooms in a wet bathing suit.
A retired teacher who works at the Surfrider Beach Club in Sea Bright, Bonnie Johnson said that after all the intensity of the summer, the family would be relieved to see the guests go by Labor Day. But by November they would get lonely and be longing to see people again. She said they were glad when some guests would begin stopping by at Christmas to say hello.
When Connelly died, the Johnsons said, his sons didn’t want to keep all his properties, and the Peninsula House was sold to the Murphy brothers — Ed, Bill and James — around 1960. Then Tom McDarby went in with them.
"When the Murphy brothers bought it, it changed. They made it into a beach club," Nancy Johnson said.
Bonnie Johnson explained the Murphy brothers rented out the bathhouses at the hotel, then built on, and opened the dining room and bar to the public. While her dad mostly ran the hotel, she said, her mother got very involved in running the beach club. They stayed on in their apartment.
"I guess hard work never killed me," Nancy Johnson said with a smile.
Bonnie Johnson said the insurance for fire coverage for the Peninsula House, an all-wooden structure, became prohibitive, so the Murphys tore down the south building. In 1980, Mary Weir, of Rumson, and Richard A. Poyda, of Colts Neck, bought the Peninsula House from Ed Murphy as a restoration project and invoked its Edwardian past.
James R. Yacenda bought the property in 1983 and had gotten the approval of the Board of Adjustment for his plans to turn it into a 64-room all-year hotel before the fire struck on Oct. 9, 1986. The blaze was labeled suspicious, according to news accounts of the day.
By then Nancy and Walter Johnson had moved out to a home he built on Holly Street in Rumson.
Bonnie Johnson said her father always had said he would not live if he ever moved out of the Peninsula House and, sure enough, he passed away soon after moving into the house.
Nancy Johnson stayed in the house for a while but got lonely without people around her after all the years at the hotel, so she moved into Luftman Towers in the Lincroft section of Middletown. She stayed there, very happily, until March 2003 when, at the age of 98, she moved to Gateway.
"She loved it because of all the people," her daughter said of Luftman Towers.
Nancy Johnson said she’s very happy now at Gateway, where she’s surrounded by other residents and caring staff. She remains independent, although she scoots around in a power wheelchair.
One of her best friends there is Mary Mazza, a spry 92, who, Nancy Johnson discovered after moving in, was her roommate in the hospital when she gave birth to Bonnie on Sept. 2, 1947. Mazza gave birth to a son the same day.
Bonnie Johnson gave a big 100th birthday party for her mother at Gateway on Aug. 3 that was attended by family members and friends from all segments of her life — from the Peninsula House, from her old neighborhood in Rumson, from Luftman Towers and from Gateway.
"It was wonderful," Nancy Johnson said of the swinging affair. "I had a great time."