The Abbey: Gurney Street and Columbia Avenue

abbycolumbia2If Senator John McCreary were somehow to return to Cape May today, he wouldn’t have much trouble recognizing his summer residence. Standing proudly at the corner of Gurney Street and Columbia Avenue, his home, in its most recent incarnation as renowned bed and breakfast inn, The Abbey, appears very much as it did when McCreary and his family occupied it one hundred and thirty years ago during their summer holidays.

A Scottish immigrant who made his fortune in coal, McCreary was one of many wealthy Philadelphians who choose to summer in Cape May. With the arrival of the railroad in1863, Cape May became a popular resort for the upper classes. These visitors did not, however, stay in the huge hotels that Cape May was famous for at the time. Instead, they built huge wooden homes, “cottages” and “villas” where one family could retreat in privacy.

abbycarriage23McCreary choose a brand new neighborhood for his home. Beach Avenue had just been extended to accommodate the Stockton Hotel. Developer and Philadelphia railroad tycoon John C. Bullitt intended that the Stockton would cater to a select clientele, and he owned a large portion of the property surrounding it. In an attempt to control the appearance of the neighborhood surrounding the hotel and keep it residential, he used deed restrictions on the properties he sold (no Planning Commission in those days). The $600,000 Stockton Hotel had as its first neighbor the summer villa of the McCreary family.

Constructed during the winter of 1869 – 1870 at a cost of $20,000, the villa shared the same architect as the Stockton, Steven Decatur Button. The villa was part of a building boom that occurred that winter, following the fire that had destroyed the older part of Cape May. In June of 1870, the editor of The Cape May Ocean Wave noted, “One of the most observable features in the appearance of the houses which have been erected on the island this winter is the improved taste displayed in their architectural style and elegant interior arrangements.”

abbeybw02The McCreary villa was outstanding among the new houses. Button had reached back in time beyond the popular Italianate style of the day and designed a Gothic Revival building. With its impressive four story tower, steep roofs, stenciled ruby glass arched windows and gingerbread porches, McCreary’s villa was truly elegant. Unlike other Cape May homes, packed closely together to make the most of valuable real estate, the house was set back from the street 25 feet and surrounded by a large yard, which gave everyone plenty of room to admire it’s beauty. Bullitt was so impressed with the arrangement he amended the deeds of his remain properties on Gurney St., requiring the same set back. The Stockton Row cottages, built two years later, were also 25 feet from the street.

In 1873 the villa was joined by a cottage to accommodate the growing family of McCreary’s son, George. Also designed by Button, the tall, narrow Second Empire structure faced Columbia Ave. Although completely different in appearance from the villa, the cottage, with its symmetrical facade, tall first floor windows, and convex mansard roof was a gorgeous neighbor.

Photos from the period (see below) show McCreary and his family enjoying a game of croquet in their yard which held a large, ornate gazebo. Noticeably missing from later photos, the gazebo may have been lost in the fire of 1878. On November 9th of that year, fire had broken out in an upstairs room of the Ocean House on Perry Street. Overnight, thirty five acres of Cape May homes and hotels disappeared. Several of his neighbors lost their homes, but McCreary’s villa and cottage were untouched.

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abbygazebo1The property remained in the McCreary family following John’s death in 1879. Changes to the villa were made in the 1890s to accommodate shifting tastes and improving technology. The most noticeable were the replacement of the exterior vertical board and batten siding with horizontal clapboards and wavy shingles. Present owner Jay Schatz speculates that the vertical siding probably leaked, and by 1890 was considered old fashioned. (The Episcopal Church at the corner of Washington and Franklin Streets is one of Cape May’s Gothic Revival structures which retained its board and batten siding.)

Side and upstairs porches were closed in to serve as rooms and house modern conveniences. Chamber pots and commodes were replaced with plumbing that connected to the cities newly installed soil pipe. An addition to abbyplumbing1the second floor master bedroom was built, complete with flush toilet and shower. Cape May’s gas plant on Lafayette Street was in operation by then, so each room was plumbed with gas pipes to provide light and heat.

By 1917, Cape May had fallen from favor with most visitors, who headed to Atlantic City in their cars. The McCreary villa and cottage were sold. Little is known about the second owner, but Schatz believes “Someplace along the line it was probably used for room rentals. We found cardboard numbers tacked on the doors of the upstairs rooms.”

McCreary’s villa had one other occupant before Schatz and his wife Marianne became its fourth owners. In 1945, the building was sold to the Christian Science Society for $5,000 and became a Christian Science Reading Room. Again, changes were made to the inside as well as the outside of the house. Like most buildings in Cape May, the fancy multi-colored paint scheme that highlighted their architectural details were gone, covered with layers of white paint. Inside, a load bearing wall on the first floor that separated the front and back parlors was removed and replaced by columns, opening that space for church services. According to Schatz, the room had seating for seventy-two. The dining room, also on the first floor, was transformed into a bookstore. In 1970, the group applied for a permit to remove the buildings top two floors. Fortunately, that plan never materialized.

abbeybwcall2Cape May was being rediscovered by the outside world in the early 1970s, and preservation of her architectural treasures was a main goal. Jay and Marianne Schatz were among the first visitors who made the leap (from careers as chemists in Wilmington) to innkeepers in Cape May. They called their first bed and breakfast (at 23 Ocean Street, now The Beauclaire) The Packet Inn, named for the ships that brought visitors to Cape May before the railroad arrived. By 1977 Jay was a tour guide with the Mid Atlantic Center for the Arts, and the McCreary Villa had caught his eye. He asked for a tour of the place, and remembered, “I went home and told Marianne I’d found our next house.”

Schatz’s prediction soon came true. “A few years later, they contacted us, and we got the house,” Schatz said. “We had to do a lot of restoration work.” Marianne was the general contractor for the project (Jay was abby12commuting to work in Wilmington until 1981). “She had it done in eight months and $10,000 under budget,” Schatz recalled. The project included reinstalling the load bearing wall on the first floor, as well as reinstalling the decorative moldings which had been removed with the wall. The master bedroom was the only one in the house with original molding. The etched ruby glass above the doorways throughout the house had to be replaced; local glass artist Bruce Hipple used the remaining unbroken pieces in the vestibule for the design. All of the ruby glass in the tower was replaced as well.

Interior restoration also included stripping the massive doors of each room of their white paint (“done to brighten up the place, probably sometime in the ‘30s,”). Schatz recalled. Using the dining room table as a workbench, he scraped away layers of old paint to reveal the sycamore doors, which had been hand grained to resemble walnut. One small stretch of that original finish remains on floor molding in the master bedroom, left unpainted behind a piece of furniture when the “brightening up” was done.

 John McCreary's Villa, today known as "The Abbey," as it appeared in a woodcut from 1890s

John McCreary's Villa, today known as "The Abbey," as it appeared in a woodcut from 1890s

A major part of the project was devoted to providing each guest room with a private bath. The Schatz’s found inventive ways to accomplish this. “Innkeepers see closets and think Bathroom!” Schatz pointed out. abbeydoorsFortunately, the McCreary villa had been supplied with many, and with the help of local plumber Pete Leonard, they were able to come up with eight bathrooms in the main part of the house; one for each guest room and a powder room on the first floor. The third floor of the tower had been in service as a bathroom before the Schatz’s arrived, they continued that arrangement. They added a claw foot tub and an original overhead pull chain Thomas Crapper patented toilet; whose company motto was “flush with pride.”

abbyplumbing2Furnishing their new house with period antiques proved a welcome challenge for Jay and Marianne. Before becoming innkeepers, Jay recounted, “We collected Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture. In those days, people weren’t collecting Victorian, it was too big.”

The large rooms, with twelve ceilings on the first floor and ten foot ceilings in the guest rooms, gave the Schatz’s a reason to begin collecting Victorian pieces. “We had to buy the other end of the reference books,” Jay abbyroomremarked. They still plan their vacations around antiquing, and the house is sumptuously appointed with their finds.

“We opened in June of 1980 with seven rooms. We lived above the store in owners quarters for thirteen years,” Jay continued. In 1981, they painted the house in its present light green, dark red cream and dark green jaylampcolor scheme. But the house was missing one important feature, and that was not to be restored until 1986, when the Schatz’s acquired the neighboring house on Columbia Avenue. And in the seven years since Jay and Marianne had bought the villa, real estate values skyrocketed; they bought the cottage for three times what they had paid for the villa.

abbeycolorsThe little Second Empire cottage had been through fourteen owners since George McCreary stayed there with his family. What was once a single family home had been converted into no less than five apartments. “It was harder to do than the villa,” said Jay. “We had to turn it back into a single family house.” That meant removing rooms that were added to the front of the house and restoring the porches, getting rid of four kitchens, and once again providing seven guest rooms with private baths. They discovered one bracket from the front porch; local carpenter Eric Neupher recreated a full set to restore the home’ front façade. A paint scheme that matched the villa brought out the details of the cottage.

jayandhatsAs they did in the villa, Jay and Marianne named each bedroom after a Victorian city. Every room, from the parlors on the first floor to the sitting rooms and bathrooms was filled with Victorian furniture, which had increased in price along with real estate. Jay noted, “The first bed we bought cost $50.00. We paid $2300.00 for the last one we got.” To accommodate larger twenty-first century guests, the Schatz’s have enlarged most of the beds frames, expanding them by six inches each way to fit today’s larger mattresses.

viewattopofabbeyEven though both homes were built for summer use, each has a coal fireplace. “They couldn’t conceive of building a house without a fireplace,” Jay observed. He uses the one in the back parlor of the villa on winter days when he is working; although The Abbey operates from April through December, Schatz spends a lot of time tending to the buildings. After twenty two years of taking care of the property, he says the guests keep it fun for them. “Sometimes the same old problems of maintaining an old house get to be a drag, but its always fun to meet new people,” Jay said. Guests enjoy Jay’s unique style of entertaining. He is rarely without a hat (not just any hat, but one from his collection of over three hundred), and has been known to spontaneously burst into character at any moment. The Abbey has become famous for its whimsical atmosphere, and a large portion of their guests return every year to enjoy it.

If any of the Abbey’s original inhabitants could return to Cape May, they would surely be pleased to find their home so wonderfully enjoyed by so many visitors.

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Duotone photos from Jay Schatz’s collection. Architectural illustrations from “Self-Guided Architectural Tours – Cape May, NJ” by Marsha Cudworth

  • Sarah

    This article is filled with a great deal of interesting information and is pretty well written, in a clear conversational style. It’s unfortunate that it’s filled with typos, omissions, and other errors.