Jeannine McCullough wanted a low-maintenance Shore property - "a townhouse that required no work," she told her Realtor.
McCullough, 49, owned a house in Avalon in the early '80s with a brother and sister (she's one of seven siblings), but sold her share when she moved to the West Coast. On returning to Pennsylvania in 2000, she wanted a place a few blocks from said sister.
How, then, did she end up with The Belfry, a cedar-shingle church built in 1892 and converted in the 1960s into a house that about a decade later won an award from the American Institute of Interior Designers?
"The house had good karma," says McCullough, a business-development consultant and a former vice president at Del Monte. "I used to walk by this house and say, 'I wonder what it looks like inside?' It always looked like a happy house."
The structure was built as Union Church. When the congregation moved to a bigger, modern building in 1965, two interior designers from Pittsburgh bought the church and turned it into a five-bedroom house (hence the 1971 award), which was then bought and lived in by the Brown family, an Avalon mainstay, until McCullough bought it in 2002.
From the outside, The Belfry still looks like a church. Oversize, heavy wooden doors on the front are original to the building, and the vestibule even has a collection plate (now used for spare change).
But when you walk in farther, a homey open space with dark hardwood floors and vaulted ceilings appears, blending into kitchen and dining areas.
The interior looks much as it did in a 1971 photograph. That's because the house was sold "as is" to McCullough, who won it in a bidding war with two other people - one of whom was a developer who wanted to tear it down.
"There was still soap in the soap dishes and hats on the hat racks," McCullough says.
When she bought the house from the Browns, she also bought everything inside - furniture, dishes, even wall hangings and linens.
Blue-and-white elephant end tables might not be everyone's idea of Shore decor, but it works for McCullough. She hasn't had any of the items appraised, and she doesn't want to.
"I don't want my nieces and nephews to feel like they can't kick back and relax," she says - and there are a lot of them. Like McCullough, Dan Fiorella, 54, her fiance, is one of seven children. McCullough has 12 nieces and nephews; Fiorella has 20.
Most changes to the house have been things you can't see. In fact, one of McCullough's sisters jokingly gave her a "Money Pit" sign to hang.
As early as Christmas 2002, only a few weeks after buying the house, McCullough had a "funny feeling" and asked her agent, Ann Delaney, of Tim Kerr's Power Play Realty in Avalon, to check in on it. Delaney found 19 inches of water in the basement.
"The house has a floating slab and sump pump on a beach block," McCullough says, "which is crazy."
Then in February 2003, McCullough had the leaking crank windows replaced - on a weekend that also smacked Avalon with a major snowstorm. The work crew, which she put up at the nearby Sea Lark B&B, had to board up the holes where the windows should have gone and wait out the storm.
Her first heating bill was $700. Her painter discovered that the belfry on the top of the house had the consistency of Swiss cheese, so it had to be resealed and the roof re-shingled. In 2007, the sewer pipe disconnected. In 2008, the water line broke.
Even so, McCullough believes, this house was the right choice.
Her family fills every space on Sunday mornings, stopping by either after church or a round of golf. They lounge in what are probably antique chairs and play with her two rescue dogs, Oscar and Coco.
The house sleeps eight "in beds," McCullough jokes - the bedrooms are what used to be the church's Sunday school area. But there's plenty of space for air mattresses and cots on the floor of the living room, formerly the congregation space.
The onetime sanctuary is now a kitchen and eating area that includes a spiral staircase leading up to the bedrooms. If you look from the right angle on the upstairs porch, you can see the ocean.
McCullough has made a few adjustments to the place: brightening the interior paint color; adding modern appliances; replacing toilets and bathroom floors; and sectioning off the basement so the puppies don't go wandering.
In a crawl space, Fiorella found the stained glass that was originally part of the old double-hung windows. One pane was turned into a table for the vestibule. They're not sure what to do with the rest just yet, though they know the house has given them another treasure.
McCullough and Fiorella, who were engaged in July, thought about getting married in the house - it was once a church, after all, and it feels like home, even though they live primarily in Devon.
But the house isn't quite big enough for a wedding, she says: "We'd have 64 people before we even get out of the family."
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