Where there is a will, Hotel St. Rita again finds a way
The historic St. Rita in Beach Haven begins a facelift as the hotel enters a new era, after being bequeathed to an 8-year-old granddaughter, who was the light of life for the longtime 94-year-old owner years, Mary Coates.
The hotel is preserved against all odds, but with love. These days, it would have been easier to sell him, and the opportunity had presented itself many times uninvited. But that was not the case in this building whose stories intertwine in a few almost mysterious similarities over more than a century. Read her most recent story, then an earlier story below.
Another twist in 2022 to the building’s long life is that, in response to a need, some second-floor rooms will house summer employees of Beach Haven businesses. Nice upgrades to the weekly vacation apartments are in separate wings.
Main building guests will enter a wicker-furnished lobby from an airy porch one block from the ocean at 127 Engleside Ave. The hotel’s neighbor is the Long Beach Island Historical Association Museum. Across the street is the Veterans Memorial Park.
The remainder of the main floor now contains a beautiful weekly summer rental of four bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms. It’s a mix of old and new – a Victrola record player and a Trump Plaza sofa with a 65-inch wall-mounted TV in the family room, a glass shower and an antique king bedroom set in a seafoam green finish from sea. The dining room wall contains a sepia collage of the exterior facade of the hotel over the years. The new owners want to restore the exterior appearance to its stately 1880s original in perhaps five years.
In a garden courtyard are updated cottage-style rentals, outfitted with cozy details like an orange Keurig coffeemaker that wakes up the day with seaside paintings and authentic chenille bedspreads.
Like many other old seaside hotels, if the walls could talk, they would whisper both the ruckus and the rest of decades past. The part that could script a Lifetime movie starts more recently.
The late Marie Coates was a feisty, independent woman whose Eastern European beauty landed her a modeling job for the Sylvania light bulb company in Philadelphia in the 1940s and 1950s, after a difficult childhood with a family in ‘welcome. She married young but found the strength to leave an abusive husband and raise their daughter as a single businesswoman at a time when this was not as supported in society. “People were trying to take advantage of her, but she was still set in her ways,” a friend described.
Her second husband, Harold Coates, became the owner of the St. Rita Hotel. Marie told his closest associates that he won the keys to an island poker game with a pal after Harold lost his house in the 1962 storm. The written version of the story established a transaction at $55,000. Marie maintained it until almost the end of her life last year. She was predeceased by her daughter, Caroline.
Jorge Dinis and Slobadanka Aleksic Dinis, both immigrants and now US citizens, were dear friends of Marie and are the parents of young Milana, who turns 9 in July and is the new owner of the St. Rita. Milana’s grandmother, Brankica, a Bosnian green card holder, will lovingly continue cleaning at the hotel. Their new chapter is an emotional adventure backed by hard work and some casual help too.
Throughout the past winter, the family has worked to complete the first of renovations which modernize the accommodation, while leaving many elements of the building’s Victorian character. Meanwhile, Dinis is a full-time manager at Acme Supermarket in Barnegat and Slobadanka Aleksic has been a manager at How You Brewin’ cafe in Surf City for the past decade.
On a recent day, when Milana was still in school, Slobadanka visited The SandPaper through the changes, tearful at the absence of its last owner, but proud of their decision to try to preserve the hotel.
“She left me the choice to sell it or manage it,” Slobadanka recounted, speaking through her tears. “And I had spent a lot of time with her. I know what she really wanted me to do. She left that to my daughter because she was the brightest light in her life and mine too. I don’t even know how to put this into words. The thing she did for my daughter is priceless, it’s exceptional, and there aren’t many people who would ever, ever do something like this.
“When we lost her, it was very difficult to manage the estate. I was getting a lot of calls, e-mails and “sell it” letters. A lot of friends were like, ‘You don’t want to deal with this; it is a money pit. You don’t know how much work you’re going to put into it,” Slobadanka recalls. “It was a very difficult decision.”
Selling would have been “the easy way out”, she said. “But Marie really wanted Milana to take the keys and be the proud owner of the St. Rita after all these years. And I worked all those years for other people. I thought, ‘You know what? If it’s his last wish, I’ll give him a chance; I’m going to try.’ But I don’t expect to be successful by any means, but at the end of the day, I will feel better than I tried for her.
Renting out the small, traditional bedrooms upstairs to more than 16 summer workers was a solution that allowed the family to manage finances now. Coincidentally, after telling Island Baptist Church that yes they could help the church in this way, that’s when a loan was secured for the renovations.
“The Beach Haven community contacted us, and then we decided, OK, it’s an old building, we know we’re going to have challenges, but we’re going to help the employees of the Beach Haven community and be able to have their businesses open all summer, not like last summer,” she proclaimed.
Dinis said the list of Beach Haven properties they offer summer rental rooms for staff include Island Baptist Church, Bistro 14, Fantasy Island and Surflight Theater. A daughter helping at St. Rita, Alina McClain, met her future husband, Grant, at the Harvey Cedars Bible conference, and they are getting married in October. She was born in Russia and was adopted and raised with her sister by parents in Philadelphia.
“Many companies have approached us,” Slobadanka said. “We’re going to have certain rules and we’re going to have to enforce them, but I’m going to help them in any way I can because I was one of them when I first came here.” She came to America in 2003 to work at Drifting Sands Motel and Ship Bottom 7-Eleven. The motel owners invited her back the following year and later the multi-year citizenship process began. “Since then I have been here in the United States, the greatest country in the world.”
Milana was there to help clean up and haul trash during the winter renovations that her mother says made her proud.
“She loves everything about it,” her mother said. “And the thing about her is that she knows how much Mary loved her and she did all of this as the greatest gift anyone has ever given her. And no matter what, she just wants do things to honor Mary. She feels like an extension of Mary and she will take care of it.
A historical monument has a historical past
An abridged history of the St. Rita’s Hotel compiled a few years ago by local historian Gretchen F. Coyle and published in Beach paradise hour began with the purchase of the lot by decorated Civil War veteran George Walker. He bought it from J. Atwood Cranmer in 1892 and built his family a summer residence.
“As was popular in the days when air conditioning and houses blocked any breeze, there were four porches. The house was built from oak, not the usual cedar that was popular at the time. George became the city’s first postmaster in the late 1800s with the post office in the front room.
“After Mr. Walker’s death, the next owners were the Dease family (Deese or Deitze, as it is sometimes written). The story is that Mr. Dease was an alcoholic and could not hold a job. After falling ill, Elizabeth Dease supported her family by turning their home into a boarding house and naming it after her patron saint, Saint Rita.
“St. Rita of Cascia was once Margaret Lotti who lived from 1371 to 1447. After becoming an Italian widow (her husband was murdered by family enemies), she became an Augustinian nun while trying to prevent her sons to take revenge. Unfortunately, they died of dysentery.
“St. Rita was canonized by Pope Leo on May 24, 1900, and given the title of patron saint of impossible causes, including abused women, widows, and broken-hearted women. So Mrs. Dease must have had a lot of hope for her hotel when she decided to name it the St. Rita St. Rita did not disappoint her.
“At first, only a few rooms were fitted out so that they could be rented out during the summer, ironically only to the clergy. It quickly grew, transforming the pension into a real hotel. Mrs. Dease’s hotel has become a big hit, renting to families throughout the summer months. At times, some of the Engleside employees lived at the St. Rita. Mrs. Dease even served meals from time to time.
“During the Second World War, the troops lived in Sainte-Rita. ‘My Deese’, as she was called, was popular with the young men stationed so far from home. She made the hotel a success and was able to support her children.
After his death the hotel was owned by Freddie Herman for a few years before the Harold Coates family.
The building’s Second Empire style architecture features a mansard roof, gabled dormers and Queen Anne windows. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
—Gretchen F. Coyle