smart-startGene and Debbie Trotta outside the former Masonic lodge on River Road in Fair Haven, which is now home to their pre-school, Smart Start. (Photo by Dustin Racioppi; click to enlarge)


Its prominent brick frame rising to a spire, it had once been home to a church and later a Masonic lodge, but for the last two decades it was little more than a shell of Fair Haven’s past.

To Gene Trotta and Debbie Trotta, the River Road landmark was crying out for something.

“I looked at it for 20 years, and I always said it was meant to be a school,” said Gene.

The Trottas admired the century-old building while they went to work down the street, to the Cedar Avenue preschool they started in their late 20s, a one-floor spot with just a couple classrooms and not a hint of the history or distinct architecture they coveted on River Road.

Then, as Debbie tells it, a little bit of fate interceded, and by the time the school year started, the Colts Neck couple was busting out boarded-up windows, spreading spackle and applying a finish to original chestnut wood floors.

“Everything’s original in here,” Gene said.

Except for the owners, who have fulfilled their vision to run Smart Start Preschool within the historic walls of 786 River Road.

Briefly owned by the borough and auctioned off in 2007, a plan to turn the two-story building into a spa fell through. The Trottas were offered a “good deal” for the property, they say, and took over the lease eight months ago. That’s when they went to work on the inside, a bit of treasure hunt of its own.

“We found some very cool things,” said Debbie.

Old glassware, newspapers and catalogs, toys and – with just about every boarded-up window that was reopened – a stash of beer.

“Like the types you had to use a can opener for. Rheingold, Schlitz. And they still had beer in them,” said Gene.

“It was like opening up a Cracker Jack box,” Debbie said.

The unexpected discoveries delayed the renovation process. That, and having to install an electrical system and new heating and air conditioning — mostly done by the Trottas and a handful of volunteers — set the project back about six months.

“We thought we’d be in by September, but every time we put a hammer in the wall it was like, uh oh, there’s another beer can,” Gene said.

By the end of March, the Trottas were ready to open the double doors of the building leading to six classrooms on two floors, and a 1,500-square-foot multi-purpose room where church services and the Masons’ meetings were once held.

Now home to anywhere between 70 and 80 pre-school students who learn their ABCs and practice their golf swings, the only thing left for the Trottas to do is cut the ribbon in a long-awaited ceremony (May 14, by the way) to celebrate the project’s completion and the years of learning ahead.

“It was meant to be,” Debbie said.