Historic N.J. Shore hotel helped inspire creative transformation of window shutters into birdhouses


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May 01, 2023

Historic N.J. Shore hotel helped inspire creative transformation of window shutters into birdhouses

Jack Riehl of Cape May working on one of his birdhouses made out of old window

Jack Riehl of Cape May working on one of his birdhouses made out of old window shutters.Jack Riehl

Jack Riehl, 81, of Cape May, isn't a birdwatcher, but for the last 15 years has created numerous birdhouses out of an unlikely material: vintage window shutters.

"There's more like artwork than birdhouses," Riehl said, who for 30 years worked as a workforce development consultant in Washington, D.C.

Riehl, who retired in 2006 and moved to Cape May, said he wasn't interested in sending his days just sitting around.

"I really never stopped working," Riehl said. "Every job I’ve ever done I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve never done anything I didn't like and enjoyed doing,, so it's just a continuation when I came to (Cape May). I’m not a person who just sits out on the beach and drink piña colada's all day. I need to be doing something."

Living only a few blocks away from The Chalfonte Hotel, which is the oldest continually-operating hotel in Cape May, Riehl said one day he decided to visit the historic hotel and was mistaken as a hotel worker by the owner.

"The owner (goes) ‘Does anyone know how to fix these windows?’ and I said, ‘I can fix them.’ So, I started fixing the windows, and then the next day he came up to me and said, ‘Do you work here?’" Riehl said.

Riehl said was hired as the hotel's handyman in 2006 and fixed anything that was broken. Though he no longer works as the hotel's handyman, he still offers his expertise as a handyman emeritus to the staff.

"He's still helps out (and) he's always around," front desk clerk Melinda Bhandari said.

Riehl said one day he saw that the hotel was going to throw away some of its old window shutters. "I’m thinking, ‘Wait these have a use,’" he said. "So, I brought a couple of them home and I figured I could make a birdhouse out of them, and I figured out a way to do it."

Jack Riehl adds vintage doorknobs, sink faucets, garden hose faucets and other artifacts to his unique birdhouses.Jack Riehl

Riehl said he been making birdhouses since 2008 and has sold over 1,200 of his unique birdhouses.

"In the end, they bring joy to people," Riehl said. "My birdhouses are all made from exterior wooden shutters, and most of the shutters are at least 100 years old. So, to handle the wood and to realize somebody made this well over 100 years ago, it's amazing."

Riehl said people will often remove shutters with the intention of painting them and putting them back on; however, many of these old shutters are forgotten.

"I know many of the contractors in Cape May and they know what I do and so they keep they watch for me," Riehl said. "People watch for me, and I also look on (Facebook) Marketplace and I go trash picking. Cape May is an old town, so there's a lot of shutters around."

Riehl said he also travels to upstate New York, where he buys old shutters from various sellers. "Many times, people just give them to me, and I’ll make a birdhouse for them out of their shutters," Riehl said.

For each birdhouse he creates, Riehl said he keeps the shutter's original paint color. "Most exterior wooden shutters of that generation are green, black, or shades of green," Riehl said. "So, I have them sorted in my garage, and each shutter I know them by name, so I know who gave them to me or where they came from."

By using vintage window shutters, Riehl said he sometimes helps people preserve a piece of their family's history.

"They’ll say, ‘These came off my grandfather's house and I didn't want to throw them away’ and I’ll say, ‘I’ll make you one of my birdhouses from your shutters,’" he explained.

Riehl said he sometimes will get artifacts, like old doorknobs, from people who will ask him to add them to a birdhouse he's making.

Jack Riehl keeps the original paint of the vintage window shutters when creating his unique birdhouses. Jack Riehl

Riehl said he keeps jars filled with artifacts that he will later use on his birdhouses. "If I can't use something, I recycle it," Riehl said.

He said creating a single birdhouse takes several days. "I’m dependent on the weather too, so during the winter obviously I don't make many birdhouses," Riehl said. "But I’ll be out looking for shutters and artifacts (and) I use all kinds of odds and ends for artifacts."

Riehl said through making these birdhouses he has learned more about birds from his customers. "I learned about a lot of birds, and, of course, being in Cape May many of the birds migrate through Cape May," Riehl said.

Bhandari said Riehl's birdhouses can be found in the hotel's solarium, where they are sold and very popular with guests. Riehl's birdhouses can also be found at the home good store's Quirk and Co. in Cape May, and have been sold at the Craftworks Contemporary Craft American gallery, located on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.

For more information, visit Riehl's Instagram page or email [email protected].

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Vashti Harris may be reached at [email protected].

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