Cape May

by Johnny Lucas

If it's 1895, this must be Cape May

Victorian Architecture in Cape May: "Too much is not enough"

Saved by neglect: Victorian Cape May survived "re-muddling" to be America's foremost Victorian town.

Cape May is a charming Victorian town on the New Jersey seashore. It's as cute it can possibly be without being so sweet that it melts in the rain. It has the highest concentration of original, intact Victorian houses in the USA, each one lovingly preserved, decorated and gussied up by a proud owner. Cape May's past is hard to distinguish from the present, some aspect of the town's long history is visible at every corner.

Cape May can make a case for being America's first beach resort. Even the Indians who watched the Dutch Captain Cornelius Mey land in 1621 visited the sandy shores only in the summer. Two centuries later another summering tradition was well established. In 1853 the London Illustrated News declared Cape May's Mount Vernon Hotel to be a "palatial building, far exceeding any hotel in England." With a capacity of 3,500 guests, the Mount Vernon Hotel was then the largest hotel in the world.

That was the town's first crest of fame. At high season 3,000 people arrived by steamboat every day. They came as refugees from the stifling heat of pre-air conditioning summers in the American South, from nearby Pittsburgh, and the whole Eastern Seaboard. They spent their days sitting on grand verandahs of grand hotels wearing three piece suits with top hats and canes or huge skirts layered over constricting corsets.

Periodically this crowd would change into other, slightly less elaborate clothes and take their parasols to the beach. Very few people in those days could actually swim, and it would have been dangerous to try in the skirts or pants, white collars, special "ocean tunics", hats, stockings and bathing shoes that constituted the bathing suit of the day. They stood around in the water, sat on the sand, and generally had a fine time.

In September of 1856 the Mount Vernon Hotel had another claim to fame. It began the day as the world's largest hotel but it ended as the world's largest hotel fire. Within an hour and a half Cape May's most imposing structure had burned to the ground.

That hotel was never rebuilt. The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 kept the Southern clientele away. Cape May is the most southerly point of New Jersey, through a freak of geography it's just south of the Mason-Dixon line. But war is not good for tourism.

By the end of that conflict, the railroad had come to Cape May. Southern visitors returned, large hotels and New Jersey's first boardwalk were built. Good times were back.

That boom cycle lasted until 1869 when another fire again claimed most of the big hotels. The recovery which followed ended in an even bigger fire in 1878. For 3 days 30 acres of buildings in the heart of the resort district flamed high into the sky as winds off the Atlantic fanned the flames. Fire fighting equipment from neighbouring towns arrived only in time to cool the embers.

After being beat up and burned down Cape May then lapsed into the status of a neglected has-been. Nearby cities and resorts grew up, kept pace with the times and took the summer holiday business that might have gone to Cape May.

It was this long period of neglect which saved Cape May and delivered it into the late 20th century as the best preserved Victorian town in the USA.

During Cape May's "unfashionable" period, it reverted to life as a fishing village and low budget retirement community. The homes and cottages in the core of the town that were built after the last great fire remained intact because residents could not afford to tear them down and modernize. Most of the sea front properties, however, were replaced by generic, indestructible summer accommodation.

These days Cape May is not experiencing the sort of boom it had last century, it's more like a boomlet. In 1976 the whole town was designated a National Historic Monument. This put an end to the tearing down of old buildings and legislated the preservation of the integrity of those which survived.

It would be too picky to say that the streets in the heart of Cape May are not exactly as they would have been 100 years ago, because they're pretty close. Gas lamps flicker at night, some sidewalks are of the original slate, the gingerbread trim on houses has been painstakingly painted contrasting colours as if painters could still be hired for a dollar a week, and there are entire city blocks on which no new buildings have constructed in this century. The Victorian dictum of decoration that "too much is not enough" is on full display on Cape May's old streets where the trim that trims the trim is trimmed and painted to highlight each lacy layer. Even the shadows that the decorations cast are calculated to create yet another effect of visual interest.

For some residents it is all too much. Between the T-shirt shops and souvenir stores there are a few brass plaques in town declaring that "On this site in 1894 nothing happened." One old authentic cottage in a row of old authentic cottages sports a sign high on the front gable claiming that the building was erected "Circa 1491".

The nicest thing about Cape May, and the feature that distinguishes it from other "historical" locations is the very visible pride of Cape May residents. Local effort and commitment have been the forces behind the preservation and restoration of the town. The Mid Atlantic Centre for the Arts is run by volunteers, it was through their efforts that Cape May's "haunted house", the Physick Mansion, has been restored to be the town's showpiece.

In the 1970s the Physick Estate was in move-in condition - for Boris Karloff , Vincent Price or one of Stephen King's creations. Today, it's no modern person's idea of a summer cottage but the 18 room mansion gives the feeling that the original occupants, Dr. Emlen Physick, his mother and aunt, might still lurk in some salon. The doctor's grandfather invented the stomach pump and his great-great grandfather designed the inkwell in which the quills which signed the Declaration of Independence were dipped. Dr. Physick graduated from medical school, turned 21and retired all in the same year. These important facts are what one learns on a tour of the house.

Year round visitors now keep Cape May from getting too sleepy. Summers still bring capacity crowds of family holidayers, Victoria Days in autumn and music and arts festivals throughout the year keep the place busy. The beach to the south of town is probably one of the best early morning walks on the eastern coast, especially in the "off seasons" when you can have it and the lighthouse to yourself. For anyone barrelling down to Florida next winter, a day's refuge from the I-95 in Cape May will give you an inkling that there is a century of things to see between here and there other than toll booths and gas stations.

1175 words

index of stories

Publication history
Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 11, 1997