When Cia and Bob Markovits decided to spend summers at the Shore instead of the Hamptons, it was the pull of family bringing them back to Cia's South Jersey roots.
Manhattanites with high-powered careers and two little boys, the Markovitses realized that the Jersey Shore would give Cia the chance to spend more time with her mother, now a permanent resident of Stone Harbor, and her sister Marilyn O'Donaghue of Haddonfield, who owns a house in nearby Avalon.
Bob Markovits, a New York native, was happy to make the transition. But finding the perfect home proved to be a challenge.
"We knew we didn't want the typical New Jersey seashore 'upside-down' house, with the living level on the second floor and the bedrooms on the first," Cia Markovits said. "It just didn't work for how we live."
They also yearned for a clean, contemporary look and a place close to the beach.
After some searching, in 2003 they spotted a house that had been languishing on an active market for more than a year.
"It was definitely not the typical Stone Harbor home, which is probably why it wasn't selling," says Bob, a private investor. "But it was just what we wanted in terms of location, aesthetics and space."
From the outside, this beach-block home, with its small but welcoming front porch, might pass as a "typical" seashore cottage. But step inside, and the open space - unobstructed by doors or walls in a decidedly contemporary architecture - feels more urban than Shore, and more sophisticated.
The flow of living room, eating area and kitchen, with handsome bamboo floors stretching across those areas, is just what they wanted.
Not that the house was perfect from the start.
The downstairs powder room, for instance, was pleasant enough, but it had little character and no storage because of a pedestal sink.
The new owners redid the petite room, adding wainscoting to give the space some dimension and a sink unit to provide abundant storage.
Upstairs, numerous cosmetic improvements were made in the bedrooms with the assistance of Thom Sweeney, a partner in New Home Interiors of Lakewood, N.J., who helped the couple relocate some of their furnishings from the Hamptons, as well as from Manhattan.
"Thom knew how to help us place some of our pieces and then fill in empty spaces. He also helped with the selections of wonderful wall coverings that really warmed up a lot of spaces," says Cia, whose official career is as a partner in an international commercial real estate firm in Manhattan, but whose personal delight is in collecting art and antiques.
A feeling that there was a certain amount of destiny involved with this Stone Harbor house intensified when the couple realized that one of their most adored pieces - an apothecary unit straight out of a old pharmacy and loaded with charming (and useful) drawers - would fit perfectly in the living room.
The piece is large enough that only an unusually long wall would work - and there it was, center stage, at the entrance to the large living area. A New York street map "disguised" in the unlikely form of a fish hangs over the apothecary unit, an instant conversation piece.
A handsome antique floor clock from Scandinavia landed against a wall that also seemed to be waiting for it.
Remarkable dining chairs, fashioned of twigs, nestle against a cherry table inlaid with walnut.
Images of Block Island given to Cia by her late father, an artist, happily coexist with the abstract modern art that dominates a wall in an upstairs family room.
Though the house tends toward the modern in architecture, its indoor treasures range from antique to quirky to western.
At the top of an angled stairway, for example, is a banner that reads "Welcome Home." But it's hardly the sort found in kitschy all-American decor: This welcome was for World War I soldiers and looks its age.
A Native American drum from Arizona has been converted into an end table. A neighboring table sports an old map of Europe as its unusual top.
The boys' bedrooms have simple, sturdy furniture with built-ins for storage against bold primary colors. Wooden oars, an antique rocking chair, even genuine hooked rugs are at every turn, for a mix of whimsical surprises.
But the couple's pride and joy is the little world they have created on the roof-turned-deck.
"Because of the unusual flat contours of our roof, we have living space way up here," Cia says, pointing out a sitting area with spectacular views of the ocean. Nearby is a hot tub the Markovitses (especially the boys) have found surprisingly appealing.
Just off the kitchen is another favorite outdoor area, with a handsome pool, seating around a Mexican-style table, and lovely plants.
The contrast between downtown Manhattan and Stone Harbor is undeniable. And that's precisely the point.
"Our trip isn't terribly long, but everything feels entirely different here," says Bob. "We really find that life is easy, partly because this house is easy."
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