Cape May New Jersey


Historians may be all atwitter this year over the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s New York voyage, but on Aug. 28, 1609, weeks before the captain sailed his ship up the river that would later bear his name, he got stuck on a sandbar in the Delaware Bay.

He wasn’t exactly captivated by the mild breezes or the broad spit of land separating the bay from the Atlantic Ocean. After all, he was looking for a quick route to the East Indies, and North America kept getting in the way. But he lingered long enough for his first mate to write a detailed log of the landing, and in the coming years other explorers came to the sandy stretch Hudson had spurned. One of them, Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, bestowed his name upon it. Thus it became, in the Anglicized aftermath, Cape May.

Crossing the bridge from Route 109 onto Lafayette Street one day earlier this summer, I’m not thinking about Cape May’s 400th anniversary as much as my own 25 years of coming here. Immediately, the traffic slows down, the road narrows to two lanes, a hush comes over the air. I start to recognize the houses, compare color schemes, notice if new sales or rent signs have gone up. And once again, I dream of moving here permanently.

Historic preservation meetings would be my domain. I’d be a docent at the Emlen Physick Estate. I’d eat at Louisa’s all the time and climb the 199 steps of the Cape May Lighthouse to work off the calories. Would I ever get tired of looking at this fairytale architecture, strolling these tree-shaded streets, walking the length of the little boardwalk and gazing at the waves? Not possible. Cape May is a land of magic that always casts a spell.

It was a similar sense of enchantment that made Elan and Susan Zingman-Leith up and leave their Manhattan life 20 years ago and move to Cape May. “Sheer foolishness,” Elan says. “We saw a house for sale and just jumped.” The house is now Leith Hall, a fully restored B&B, and Elan is curator of the Emlen Physick Estate, one of the most distinctive buildings in Cape May.

Known to the local kids in its derelict days as a haunted house, the 18-room stick-style mansion was saved from the ravages of progress in the 1970s by preservation-minded citizens who formed the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. It’s now a house museum, where you can get a sense of what life was like for a wealthy 19th-century gentleman. Dr. Emlen Physick commissioned celebrated Philadelphia architect Frank Furness to build the house for him and his mother in 1879. Physick and his mother had different tastes, and her various redecorations over the years gave the house the layers of history you see there today. She departed from Furness’ spare, clean, geometric oak and chestnut patterns and “heavied it up,” in Elan’s words, piling on the drapes, doilies, rugs, fabrics and tchotchkes the late Victorians were so well known for. Then, in 1900, with styles again changing, she gave some rooms the Edith Wharton treatment— light, airy, uncluttered, French. Despite the surface changes, Furness’ original work shines through in the moldings, furniture, mantels and stained glass. “Curators like things pure,” says Elan. “But people just like what they like. You get a sense of immediacy in this house, as if the people who lived here just stepped out.”

Another place with that sense of immediacy, and the most spectacular of the dozens of B&Bs in Cape May, is The Mainstay. People from all over the world have heaped praises on this inn, so pardon me while I pile on. But it’s hard to overstate the effect The Mainstay has at first sight. A supremely elegant, symmetrical, Italianate mansion, its enormous veranda sweeps around three sides of the house, supported by slender white columns that lend a Southern plantation feel. The clapboard walls are yellow, the giant floor-to-ceiling shutters green. Its two stories are capped by a square belvedere (a great place to watch thunderstorms). Once you know its history, the house invariably conjures its original, more rakish incarnation: a gentlemen’s gambling club, built by architect Stephen Decatur Button in 1872. One can still imagine the dapper denizens of a hundred years ago sipping port and smoking cigars on the veranda.
Inside, though, it takes your breath away. This is where the Victorian love of ornamentation manifests in all its glory. Fourteen-foot-high ceilings are covered in pattern upon pattern of Bradbury & Bradbury art wallpapers. Elaborate chandeliers, gargantuan pier mirrors, dark mahogany carved furniture and Oriental carpets all grab the eye. And that’s just the entryway.

The parlors and dining room are equally gasp-inducing. It used to be my goal to stay in every one of the guest rooms at least once, six in the main house, another six in the adjoining cottage. But over the years, I’ve chosen my favorites. Give me the dark, moody lushness of the Henry Clay Room or the Cardinal Gibbons Room over the fanciful brightness of the Clara Barton Room any day.

If just looking at all this variety is overwhelming, imagine creating it. That’s what former innkeepers Tom and Sue Carroll did when they bought the property in 1976 and began restoring it. Tom, a native of Towson, was stationed with the Coast Guard at the time and fell in love with Cape May. He and Sue saw potential in the old house. “If your marriage can survive wallpapering together,” he says with a laugh, delivering the old adage, “it can survive anything!”
The Carrolls ran The Mainstay for 30 years then sold it to owners who’ve hired a staff to manage it. Although they no longer sit with guests every morning at breakfast or greet them at 4 o’clock tea, the Carrolls live just around the corner, and Tom, who serves on several historic preservation boards, is still involved with the town’s buildings.

“I loved the interaction with guests,” he says of his years at The Mainstay. “But I also love taking historic buildings and renovating them, giving them a new life, a new purpose.”

Two such projects are the Cape May Stage, a jewel of a theater in a renovated 1850s church that attracts Equity actors from Philadelphia and New York, and the Cape May Designer Show House, an annual fundraiser akin to the Baltimore Symphony’s Decorators’ Show House. This year’s Show House is a cottage in the Gothic Carpenter style, with all the flourishes and furbelows one expects from a charming wooden seaside cottage. It sits behind a white picket fence in the center of town and will be open to the public through December.

A few blocks away is the most recent renovation success story: the Congress Hall Hotel. Dating to 1816, burnt to the ground in 1878 and rebuilt a year later, the Congress Hall hosted four U.S. presidents in its heyday. John Philip Sousa conducted his band on its massive front lawn and even named a march in honor of it. But as the fortunes of Cape May waned in the 1960s and ’70s, so did those of the Congress Hall, and it fell into disrepair. For years, the
L-shaped structure stood there, a whisper of what it once was. Then, in 1996, a visionary developer named Curtis Bashaw came to the rescue. He fully restored it, and it reopened in 2002.

Today, the hotel looks remarkably like it did in postcards from more than a hundred years ago. Dozens of wooden rocking chairs still line the colonnade surrounding it, white-painted balconies still perch outside the windows of many of the 106 rooms, the green lawn in front still stretches to Beach Avenue and the ocean beyond. The decor inside, though, is strictly contemporary. Zebra-patterned carpet covers the floor of the chic, bustling bar, called the Brown Room. The Blue Pig Tavern (named after a gambling parlor once on this site) serves modern cuisine indoors and out. Downstairs the Boiler Room hosts live music and feels like a Manhattan nightclub.

But outside, steps away, there’s still the simple silence of the streets and the ancient sound of the sea. The wind blows through the branches of the sycamore trees, horse-drawn carriages clip-clop down the block. I can follow the sidewalks and stroll past familiar spindles, balustrades and widow’s walks. There’s no hurry. In 25 years, Cape May has never disappointed me. Twenty-five hence, I’m sure she never will.

The Mainstay Inn, 635 Columbia Ave., 609-884-8690, Rooms, $175-$360, including breakfast and afternoon tea.

Congress Hall Hotel, 251 Beach Ave., 888-944-1816 or 609-884-8421, Rooms and suites $199 to $379.

Emlen Physick Estate, 1048 Washington St., 609-884-5404 or 800-275-4278, Daily house tours, $10 and up.

Cape May Designer Show House, 511 Franklin St., 609-884-5404 or 800-275-4278, June 26 to Jan. 3, $20 adults, $10 children.

Cape May Stage, 31 Perry St., 609-884-1341, Season runs May 20 to Dec. 31.

Cape May 400th Anniversary, calendar of events,

Louisa’s Cafe, 104 Jackson St., 609-884-5882. Tiny, cramped, BYOB restaurant serving the best food in Cape May. Expect a busy signal when making reservations, which are essential. Do not expect glamour!

Blue Pig Tavern, Congress Hall Hotel, 609-884-8422. Full menu including fresh seafood, wine list. Excellent.

410 Bank Street, 609-884-2127. New Orleans and Caribbean cuisine. Dinner only, BYOB. Consistently a favorite, though some find the food quite rich.

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