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Month: July 2002

Congress Hall’s Grand Re-Opening

BHCHcongrats2Hundreds of people line the lawn, stroll through the ballroom and dally on the verandah. I’m among them and overhear snips of conversations.

“Beautiful, isn’t she?” rhetorically asks a man clad in elaborate Victorian garb to his female colleague equally clothed.

“They’ve done a wonderful job here,” murmurs a husband to his wife.

“Didn’t think we see the day,” comments one bystander as another leans towards me asking, with a twinkle in his eye, if he himself doesn’t throw one hell of a party.

I laugh.  It’s not his party of course, but who wouldn’t want to take credit for such a bash?

jenscrowd2Former Governor and current Department of Environmental Protection director Christine Whitman is here as is New Jersey Congressman Frank LoBiondo. They’re here to cut the ribbon pronouncing Congress Hall Hotel officially open for business.

Cape May City Mayor Jerome Inderwies attends as do several council members, and the American flag flies high and large, as well it should at this summer house of presidents named for its first owner, Congressman Thomas Hughes.

The United States Coast Guard Band is stationed on second floor balconies and local Reverend Robert Davis leads the crowd in prayer.

Principal partner/owner Curtis Bashaw stands on the podium with Whitman, LoBiondo and Davis. After brief comments from all parties, Whitman cuts the ribbon as white doves are let lose to fly over the crowd gathered on the lawns.

The ribbon cutting is followed by a lavish Open House, everyone in town is invited to see what has been done with Congress Hall. Everyone is impressed, delighted, and relieved.

openingjk1The entire weekend is planned to celebrate the opening. Special guests have been invited to stay overnight in the rooms — guest quarters not used for more than two decades. A weekend schedule of events includes complimentary breakfast on the verandah, cocktail receptions throughout the hotel, a Gala dinner in the Ballroom followed by dancing and an after party in the downstairs tavern.

“What else can it be but grand?” commented a guest of Congress Hall in the year of 1854, “At night, when the hall is cleared of its tables and chairs, and hundreds of gas jets are brilliantly burning and flickering, and the gay and elite are flushed with the giddy dance, then you behold a hall-scene, beautiful and fair.”

guests2And so she is too in this year of 2002, the weekend of June 7 and 8 — beautiful and fair with the gay and elite flushed with joy. I can feel her pride, and perhaps a bit of smugness, as if saying this is who I am and should be, a fashionable high-class lady, one who demands and deserves admiration. A one-of-a-kind.

***

The man actually behind the weekend is Curtis Bashaw whose ties to Cape May go back as far as 1963 when as a little boy his family purchased a few hotels in Cape May including the Christian BHCurtis3Admiral and Congress Hall. His grandfather, the Reverend Carl McIntyre operated both as bible conferences. Bashaw well remembers running through the halls of both hotels and days of youth spent on Cape May beaches.

When, in 1996, the Christian Admiral had to be demolished, I was allowed three days inside to document through photographs what was left of the old hotel and what would never be again.I remember standing in the dining room with Bashaw as he reminisced about his childhood days.

“This is where we ate dinner with Grandmother,” he said nostalgically, pointing to an empty corner of the room. Then he asked me to take his photograph in that spot where he dined so many times with his family. It was a poignant moment.

During demolition, the famed glass dome of the hotel was painstakingly removed and stored. It is to be installed in Congress Hall’s planned conference center.

Though Congress Hall is not Bashaw’s only historic preservation project — in Brigham City , Utah, he is renovating a “new-urbanist” residential community of moderately-priced townhouses and apartments and in New York City, Bashaw is conhall1restoring a residential apartment retail building and hotel in Manhattan , it may be the project closest to his heart.

Initially considering renovation, Bashaw had many options, the obvious financing it himself and with partners through typical financial institutions. There was also rumor of major hotel chain interest. Bashaw chose to finance the $22 million project through the Department of the Interior National Park Service, as well as the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office and the City of Cape May hoping to retain the building’s historical integrity as well as satisfy the city’s National Historic Landmark status.

valetGuidelines were many and stringent, but the end result was well worth the aggravation. Says Bashaw, “The architectural vernacular was set. Our job was to grasp it, respect it, and preserve it.” Bashaw’s sister Colleen Bohuny is the interior designer credited with “respecting the serenity of the nineteenth-century building while infusing a vibrant atmosphere of modern-day comfort for the twenty-first century guest.”

Bashaw says Congress Hall is a building of “clean lines and simple elegance” and his goal was to “let it breathe again.”

“The building blends history, local materials and craftsmanship, luxurious color, and simplicity: the old and the new coming together to create a fresh interpretation of a classic seaside hotel in America’s oldest seashore resort town.”

***

pool2So Congress Hall is back among the living, her history vibrant — originally built in 1816, summer home to various presidents, once a speakeasy, the dwelling of the famous like John Philip Sousa — and her future bright. It’s funny how an old hotel — even without the wishing well — can tug at your heart, bring tears to your eyes, and make you just feel good.

But Congress Hall is not your average hotel. And, of course, Cape May is no ordinary town.

verandaatnight2***

A tour of the building begins, of course, on the outside. Guests are greeted on the front side of the building by four flagpoles and a circular driveway.

Freshly-painted its traditional pale yellow, the exterior replicates the hotel’s original design with sweeping verandahs, a sprawling back lawn with an in-ground swimming pool all facing the Atlantic Ocean. The hand-carved roof slates, window casings and balcony gingerbread — a Cape May tradition — have all been painstakingly restored.

reflectionoflobby2Sitting on the side porch just the other day, I was pleased to see local residents as well as summer visitors strolling around the property, sensing the renewed vibrancy of the hotel, simply happy Congress Hall was once part of the community. Later that evening, over a glass of wine on the beach side verandah, a full golden moon shone through the white columns of the hotel over the ocean, a symbol to me that the renovation of Congress Hall has not gone unnoticed.

The hotel’s lobby maintains the original 12-foot tall doors, the black and white marble floor and the black wicker furniture. Bashaw calls the lobby, “refined yet relaxed and luxurious yet approachable, forecasting the gracious ease that permeates the hotel.”

Connecting the lobby with the ballroom is the lounge which Bashaw says is the “true hub” of the hotel calling it “warm and luxurious, yet fresh and fun.” Antique oil paintings line the walls and upholstered Hamilton furniture offer comfort and relaxation. The chocolate-colored lacquered walls with a large fireplace surround a table given to the hotel by the United States Congress and a fully-stocked marble and ballroom3ebony bar. Somewhat out of character, however, is the zebra-striped rug which makes me feel as if there was a safari somewhere I missed.

The floor of the ballroom, officially named the Whitman Ballroom for Christine, is another case entirely. Breathtakingly restored — each original piece of wood removed, weathered, replaced and painted into a checkerboard of large black and white squares — is a sight to behold nestling underneath Tiffany-blue walls.

Lit by its original chandeliers, the room is fully-wired for sound, data and with moveable walls, the room can be used for any event including conferences, weddings, charity balls, concerts, film and theater.

Underground is the Boiler Room, a bricked nightclub, drinks flowing and dance abounding. I must admit, I “endured” two evenings here hesitant to leave. Being underground offers an escape from rballroom2eality, or the “above-world” and also buffers the loud noise from the hotel which neighbors have objected to in the past. Loving this kind of escape, I may happily be found here on more than one occasion.

Congress Hall’s new restaurant, the Blue Pig Tavern, has two distinct dining rooms as well as outdoor seating. The first offers an airy, garden feel with a massive skylight. The second, adjacent to the first, is more a cozy tavern setting with dark green paneled walls, a large fireplace and natural wood floors. The menu offers nostalgic, simple, fresh American fare with classics like a half-roasted chicken with mashed bluepig2potatoes, Jersey tomato salad and a full raw seafood bar.

Nostalgic items like macaroni and cheese with stewed tomatoes, the “wedge” — iceberg lettuce with pickled onion and blue cheese dressing — and oysters Rockefeller work well with the building’s ambiance. Though sampling the food at the gala as well as one meal at the Blue Pig Tavern does not give enough to critique, I will say I have high hopes for the restaurant and plan to write a feature article on the restaurant and the chefs very soon.

The hotel’s corridors offer 16 retail shops including the hotel’s Museum Shop where one can purchase items from the Blue Pig Tavern. Other shops include a florist, jeweler, antique dealer, children’s clothing and a full-service spa.

I was fortunate to spend the night in one of the hotel’s guest rooms during the Gala and must say I have never slept in a more comfortable bed. I wanted to take shopsofcongresshall2it home with me. Most rooms offer ocean views, mine did not, but I did have a nice view of a freshly-painted yellow brick chimney. But with pale blue walls, hand-painted custom headboards, cream-colored furniture and such a comfortable bed, I was not about to complain. The bathrooms — though somewhat limited on hot water — feature original porcelain tiles, with some offering original porcelain towel bars and 1920s bathtubs. Modern features include brand-new televisions with game and movie options, daily newspaper, DVD/CD player and alarm clock, two telephones and voice mail and dataport. The hotel offers four different types of rooms: premium, deluxe, luxurious suites and rooms which connect, ideal for families.


Main Street USA

EhandhousePHIt’s a perfect day for an early morning walk. I begin with a turn off of Lafayette Street, and onto Sidney for a single block and am at the start of Washington Street. An arch of the greenest leaves in town welcomes me. Flowers seem to jump forward to get a better look at who is coming. Homes that were built over 100 years ago seem as if time has stopped just for them.

Washington Street is one of the many streets in town where I can stand, close my eyes and be transported to another time. I can easily envision people leisurely strolling the paths or rocking away in a chair on the porch of a neighbor. Cape May is abundantly rich in history; but this street has it’s very own story to tell.

On both sides of Washington Street I see the Victorian houses which have built Cape May’s modern reputation. The names on the houses read like a “who’s who” of the town. Sawyer, Hand and Hughes … early founding names important in Cape May’s history but meaning little to the vacationing passer-by.

Emlen Physick Estate

Emlen Physick Estate

Just past a tall hedge I come upon the largest house in the 1000 block of Washington. The “stick style” architecture of the former home of Dr. Emlen Physick with its corbelled chimneys has been preserved, transformed really, by Cape May’s Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts capturing the essence of what it was like to live on Washington Street in the late 1800s.

The old Model A Ford behind an abundant flower bed is similar, I’m told, to the one the doctor himself drove.

privatehousegarden2Washington Street. The American flags posted on the porches of Victorian homes pepper the greenery of summer and it’s not just a recent phenomenon. Most of these 110+ year-old houses have been beautifully restored with freshly painted bargeboard, delicately planted gardens, and porches, one after another, with wicker and cane rockers topped off by “Old Glory” — a truly American scene.

Where Jefferson crosses Washington Street is another grand old home that has graced Cape May since 1863. The George Allen House, now called the Southern Mansion, was designed by the internationally-acclaimed architect Samuel Sloan. Sloan’s American bracket, post and beam villa was constructed by Henri Phillipi, during the Civil War. The estate itself once occupied an entire block, but in 1938 a “new” post office was built on the corner of Franklin and Washington Streets on what was part of the estate. In 1946, the last remaining heir to the George Allen estate died and the property was sold.

privatehouse2 shorehaven4

The Southern Mansion

The Southern Mansion

A new owner turned the huge home into a boarding house. Thus began the demise of the mansion. Soon the entire building was transformed. The earth-tone colors of the exterior were painted white. Inside, large living spaces were broken into many small rooms. When the owner failed to maintain the building well enough, they lost their boarding house license. It sat in disrepair for years until the Bray/Wilde family acquired it in 1994 and immediately began restoration. The ballroom was brought back to life. The original colors came back to the exterior and the gardens bloomed with beauty. Additions made to the mansion were so well-executed that one is hard pressed to know they aren’t original. Today a tall privet hedge separates the Southern Mansion from Washington Street itself, but passers-by can stop to tour the stately mansion on almost any given day.

Alexander's Inn

Alexander's Inn

Though most remain private dwellings, more than a dozen of these Victorian homes have been turned into bed and breakfast inns or guest houses. Alexander’s Inn (the Jos. Hughes House circa 1880), Woodleigh House (circa 1866), the Thomas Webster House (circa 1876) the Duke of Windsor (circa 1896) Inn at the Park, (circa 1893) and the Jeremiah Hand House (circa 1885) all typify what years of creative and dedicated labor can restore. Others include Antoinette’s Guest Apartments across from the post office, Canterbury Manor, the Billmae Cottage, the Shore Haven and Heritage House. Are all fine examples of a bygone era made more beautiful and functional. Many can be toured by the public at certain times of the year.

Woodleigh House

Woodleigh House

The Duke of Windsor

The Duke of Windsor

Past the post office on the right side of the street, one will find Cape May City Hall. The building was originally Cape May’s High School built in 1917. It became the seat of city government in 1961. Cape May’s original City Hall was built in 1899 and could be found on the corner of Franklin and Washington where today the Fire Museum resides. The original City Hall building was home to the fire department, police station and municipal court. It was torn down in 1970.

City Hall postcard from 1908

City Hall postcard from 1908

colonialhouse

The Colonial House

City Hall as it looks today

City Hall as it looks today

Tucked behind Alexander’s Restaurant and next to City Hall is the Colonial House Museum (circa 1775) run by The Greater Cape May Historical Society. This building was at one time a tavern and the family house of Revolutionary War Patriot Memucan Hughes. The museum has annual exhibits and several of the rooms have been preserved to reflect the colonial times. This summers exhibit is “First Person Memories of Greater Cape May”. The Colonial House Museum is open daily except Sunday from June 15- September 15 and Victorian Week, Sept 11-20th, 10am-2pm. Please visit www.capemayhistory.org for more information.

The shops across from City Hall today are all that remain of shops that had once wrapped around two squares of Washington onto Ocean Street. In the 1920s, if you lived in Cape May and needed to buy a car, you could buy a Tin Lizzy in the Focer and Mecray buildings which dominated the block. Nearby, the WaWa Dairy could be found upstairs from Knopp’s Bike Shop. Unlike the WaWa stores in Cape May today, only milk was sold in the johnsleatherplaceoriginal store. Victorian Towers, a retirement community, now occupies most of the land where these shops once stood but the memories of what had been there before live in the minds of many Towers’ residents.

Across from Victorian Towers is Washington Commons, a shopping area built in 1998. The walkways are full of people going from shop to shop. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one found a different kind of hustle and bustle. Here stood the old train station, the one that operated year-round.* Almost everything arrived by train in those days. People came from Philadelphia almost every hour. And conversely, Cape May natives were hopping trains back to Philadelphia. The travelers of the time must have been excited to learn they did not have to take the bumpy two-day carriage ride to the Cape.

The Reading Terminal Railroad Station 1928 (built in 1894)

The Reading Terminal Railroad Station 1928 (built in 1894)

The train station remained on Washington Street until the mid 1930s when it was moved back onto Lafayette Street where it stands today. The train stopped running to Cape May on October 2, 1981. In 1998, the tracks were cleaned and Cape May heard the train whistle blow once more, but not from Washington Street.

Postcard from 1908 of Washington Street from Perry. Click for larger image.

Postcard from 1908 of Washington Street from Perry. Click for larger image.

The three blocks of Washington Street, from Ocean to Perry Streets were made into a pedestrian mall in 1967 and have been the center of activity in Cape May for over 100 years. The mall today is not so different from what it once was. In the 1880s, it was the place where people would gather to shop, go to the doctor, buy remedies and provisions.

advertisements taken from the July 20, 1886 Edition of the Cape May Daily Wave

Advertisement taken from the July 20, 1886 Edition of the Cape May Daily Wave

Hand’s Jewelry, located at No. 9 Washington was probably a typical Victorian shop. In an 1886 advertisement that appeared in the Cape May Daily Wave, Hand claimed that he was the “Only Practical Jeweler and Cape May Diamond Cutter.”

Gentlemen of the time could go to D. B. Mayhew’s Cape May Cigar Store on Washington at Jackson St. One can only imagine what men there would talk about. Surely they would discuss their journey down to the Cape and exchange particulars of where they were staying and where they would be going for the evening meal and libations. The ladies may have strolled to Knopf’s “Great Bargain Store” to purchase dresses or boots and trade some gossip about who wore what at the social last night. The children may have been sticky-fingered with faces covered in chocolate from the candy store. And behind it all

Advertisement taken from the July 20, 1886 Edition of the Cape May Daily Wave

Advertisement taken from the July 20, 1886 Edition of the Cape May Daily Wave

was the smell of fresh bread.

mcdowells

McDowells

Where Washington crosses Ocean, what is McDowell’s Gallery today, started out as the New Jersey Trust and Safe Deposit Company, established in 1895. Next to McDowell’s is what is said to be the oldest New Jersey bakery in continuous use. In 1872, William Essen opened Essen’s Bakery and Ice Cream Saloon. In 1895, William passed the business down to his son who ran the bakery for another 20 years. In 1915, the property was rented to Kokes and Rueter.

Carl Kokes purchased the building from the Essens in 1918 and operated his own bakery for many years. The current bakery in the building is the La Patisserie.

Ad for Essen's in the  Cape May Daily Wave 1886

Ad for Essen's in the Cape May Daily Wave 1886

“Monsieur Gras” continues to use the same original brick oven and dumbwaiter. The aroma of delicious baked goods wafts down Washington Street Mall as it did for over a hundred years.

Across from La Patisserie is Liberty Way. This section of the mall at one time housed the Liberty Movie Theater. It was later turned into an “inside mall” which I remember fondly going in to buy the world’s best cookies at the Cookie Nook. Now you will find the Lemon lapa2Tree on the corner, and an open section, almost an alley, filled with little shops.

Washington Street ends abruptly at Perry Street, a stone’s throw from Congress Hall. As I finish my walk, I can’t help thinking of the changes Cape May’s Washington Street has gone through even since before I began to walk here twenty-five years ago as a child.

The stores have changed and some of the scenery has too; but the idea of Washington Street remains the same. Men, women and children still rock in chairs on their neighbors’ porches discussing people and events. Shopping is still done in the same places. And if you haven’t seen someone in a while, you are bound to catch up with them during a stroll along Washington Street, originally and still, Cape May’s “Main Street, USA.”

Postcard from 1918 of Washington Street from Perry This is the same area as the above postcard from 1908.

Postcard from 1918 of Washington Street from Perry. This is the same area as the above postcard from 1908.

Washington and Decatur No date available.

Washington and Decatur. No date available.

Liberty Movie Theater

Liberty Movie Theater

*Actually, the very first train station in Cape May was built on Grant Street and was only used in the summer season. Today, “Summer Station” condominium and motel, named for the original station, sits very near the same spot.

Photo Credits: City Hall circa 1908, Mall circa 1908 and 1918, and the Reading Terminal Railroad 1928 are from Image of America: Cape May in Vintage Postcards by Don and Pat Pocher. The Liberty Theater and the view of Washington And Decatur Streets are courtesy of Mr. Carl Suelke.