In Forked River, a Couple Embraces Waterfront Living

“I build the house, and she makes it a home”: How an artist and a builder fused their distinct sensibilities into an eclectic oasis they both adore.

Exterior of waterfront home in Forked River
The Stackles’ waterfront home is all about outdoor living. The ground level features a compact plunge pool and covered patio; the main floor has a spacious porch. Colorful plantings give it a tropical feel. Photo by Laura Moss

Zsa Zsa and Robert Stackles are quick to point out their differences: “He’s steak and potatoes,” says Zsa Zsa, “and I’m gourmet seafood.” Adds Robert, “She’s the nightclubber and artist. I’m the hunter and fisherman.” Actually, he laughs, “we’re Green Acres.” The couple, married 19 years, clearly bring out the best in each other, evident in the life they’ve built in their charming, three-story, waterfront home in Forked River. It’s the ultimate compromise, displaying not only their own personalities, but their combined talents.

Zsa Zsa is an artist and the owner of ReFind, a gallery of original and salvaged works of art, located in Bay Head. “It’s an unconventional art gallery,” she says. Robert is a builder whose firm, RJS Quality Construction, has built or renovated hundreds of homes at the Shore. Explaining their synergy, Robert says, “I build the house, and she makes it a home.” So when the couple found a rundown ranch house on a lagoon off Stouts Creek, near where Robert grew up, they were undaunted by the challenge. They were drawn to its proximity to Robert’s parents and also its water access. “We really wanted to be on the water,” says Robert, who now keeps their boat in the backyard.

A Portuguese Water Dog enjoys the lagoon views outside a waterfront home in Forked River.

Becky, the couple’s Portuguese Water Dog, enjoys the lagoon views. Photo by Laura Moss

It was clear from the start that the ranch was a knockdown. “We knew we had to start all over,” Robert says. So he sat down at the kitchen table and drew up a plan. “Then she critiqued it,” he laughs. “Then she showed me a picture of what she wanted, and I drew that. And that’s what I built.” Working nights and weekends—having a full-time day job slowed him down, he says—the project took about two-and-a-half years to finish. “It was a labor of love,” says Zsa Zsa. The result is an eclectic, indoor/outdoor oasis that has the couple feeling like they’re on perpetual vacation. “It definitely has an island vibe,” explains Zsa Zsa.

The house is intentionally elevated; living spaces are on the second and third floors. This keeps them well above flood zones while allowing Robert to have a workshop adjacent to the two-car garage on the ground level, and importantly, creates sweeping water views upstairs. “We’re perched on the lagoon,” says Zsa Zsa. “We can see everything.”

Zsa Zsa Stackles paints in the third-floor master bedroom of her Forked River home

Zsa Zsa paints in a corner of the third-floor master bedroom. Photo by Laura Moss

The main floor is an open plan that includes the kitchen, living and dining room areas. The spaces expand outward to the porch, promoting indoor/outdoor living. The third floor houses the master bedroom and Zsa Zsa’s studio. There are a couple of guest rooms and 2.5 spacious bathrooms, but that’s it; the home is purposefully compact. “This is half the size of our old house, and we’re much happier,” Zsa Zsa says. “Downsizing is good.”

The home’s interior is primarily white, “to showcase the art,” says Zsa Zsa. (Incidentally, in yet another polar-opposite situation, they had been living in a dark, gold-and-cranberry-colored European colonial home in a landlocked development in Wall Township. “The old home couldn’t be any more different than the new one,” jokes Zsa Zsa.) Most artwork is on rotation. “I move art all the time. Different light, different viewpoints,” she says. “It’s easy to spackle a hole in the wall.” Still, one thing remains consistent: Robert’s prized Spanish ram, a trophy that hangs above the fireplace. “It’s his house too,” explains Zsa Zsa.

Two photos of the shabby-chic, intentionally neutral interiors of a Forked River waterfront hope.

From left: Interior spaces are intentionally neutral to highlight artwork, including Robert’s prized Spanish ram; the kitchen’s Dutch door is a salvaged piece. Photos by Laura Moss

In deference to her love of salvaged materials, nothing looks too new. “The oak floors have knotholes,” she says. “The white floors were painted to show wear.” Most of the furniture was found at estate sales and auctions, much of it repainted or slipcovered, all tasks Zsa Zsa was happy to take on herself. “It’s old, it’s new, it’s lived in,” she says. “It’s basically shabby chic.”

Another contrast: While the interior has a mostly white palette, the outdoor spaces are bright and colorful, creating a tropical vibe. The second-story porch channels the islands with pops of yellow and orange. On the ground floor, parallel to the lagoon, a tiny plunge pool is surrounded by seasonal plantings, creating a lush yet cozy retreat. 

Photo of colorful swing on patio of Forked River home next to a photo of the owners lounging on their second-floor porch.

Outdoor spaces are intentionally colorful. From left: The charming swing hangs in the covered patio; Zsa Zsa and Robert enjoy the second-floor porch. Photos by Laura Moss

Now, the couple couldn’t be happier, thrilled with their leap of faith and embracing the waterfront life. “If I had only listened to Robert 15 years ago,” jokes Zsa Zsa. Adds Robert, “We may be opposites, but we bring out the best in each other.” 

Where to find: ReFind, Bay Head, 732-735-4826; RJS Quality Construction, Monmouth/Ocean County, 609-713-0468.

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