From the beginning, Joe and Chris Asterino weren’t shy about change. The first thing they did when they purchased The Open Hearth Guest House in June 2003 was to change the name to the Majestic Star Inn. Not to say it’s unheard of, but certainly not the norm. It had been the Open Hearth for at least 30 years.
“Our last name” Joe explained, “Asterino, means little star. When we acquired the house on Stockton, Chris suggested we name it Little Star By the Sea. But, that house was anything but little. So the whole family gave it some thought and we tried various words to go along with star and some one finally said Majestic. And that was it. That word seemed to mean everything we were looking for. When we opened up the Inn, we decided to stay with our name since we had started to build a following and our slogan …Bringing Family and Friends Together at the Shore.”
Of course, the Victorian cottage, located at 705 Columbia Avenue, had undergone a number of changes over the years. At one time the circa 1870s house was even used as a restaurant– so the newly named Majestic Star Inn was no stranger to change. But very little in the way of structural change had been done to the house until the Asterinos came along.
The Asterinos had a vision and wasted no time making that vision a reality. With the help of family, namely their son Joe, their friend and carpenter Dave Velli and another carpenter, who became a friend, Glen McBrearty, The Majestic Star Inn, welcomed their first guest in October.
Chris laughed when she thought of that first summer. “We had a sign out on the front porch that summer that said Opening Soon. You don’t know how many people would walk by and ask me how soon are you opening and when will the rooms be available. They thought Opening Soon meant within an hour or so.”
So, how did a Pennsylvania couple with grown children end up becoming innkeepers in Cape May?
Chris is quick to answer. “We went to look at a property on Stockton Avenue as a summer rental and Joe had a midlife crisis. Instead of renting it, we bought it.”
907 Stockton Avenue became The Majestic Star which they easily renovated and turned into a private rental. But Chris, who loves to decorate, had already filled a couple of garages with treasures. Joe started thinking that maybe they would buy another house with a large garage to put all the stuff in. They started looking at properties again.
“We always loved Columbia Avenue and we loved this house.” Chris started laughing again. “We were looking for a house with a garage, and this house doesn’t even have a driveway let alone a garage!”
They immediately started in on the renovations.
Chris lived in the house during the remodeling. Joe, vice president of finance for Drug Plastics & Glass Co., Inc. in Boyertown, PA., joined her on the weekends.
Chris recalls, “I lived down here in the mess. Some days I’d have no water but at the end the day, they always made sure I had one working bathroom and water.”
Chris was very clear about one aspect of the “rejuvenation.” In turning the Majestic Star Inn back into a Bed and Breakfast, she wanted to make sure each room had an adjacent sitting room. She said her first priority was to make her guests feel “comfortable.”
“I thought about what I liked and the one thing I hate is being tied to a bedroom. If you spend anytime in the room and you have no where to sit but on the bed and watch TV – that’s not good, especially if you’re staying for 3 or 4 days or more. Comfort was real important to me.”
The first thing she did was to get rid of the double beds. All the rooms are airy and come with either a queen or king sized bed.
The second decision they made was to refurbish the wooden floors in the dining room and living room.
“Our experience with the Stockton Avenue property was so good,” said Joe “that I guess we were a little over confident. We had the feeling that we did this once, we can do it again.”
The hardwood floors, for example, sanded down quite easily at 907 Stockton. When Joe started the same task at the Columbia Avenue house, he ran into complications right away. The house was built for local entrepreneur Peter McCullum by Peter C. Souder. The living room and dining room floors were built with Bull Pine – a soft pine wood that is now extinct.
The rental floor sander Joe had used successfully at the Stockton Avenue house just wasn’t up to the task and the Asterinos had to call in a flooring expert to finish the job. Just getting to the point when a sander was needed took a lot of sweat and muscle. Covering the wooden floors was a black linoleum tile that was glued to the wood with a cement-like adhesive.
“Those kinds of difficulties we expected,” said Chris. “What shocked us the most was the plumbing?”
$30,000 later, The Majestic Star Inn’s plumbing is up to snuff.
The dining room renovation seemed to take the longest. At a point very early in the remodeling, it became clear that dining room ceiling would have to come down. It was sort of coming down on its own anyway due to an improperly installed ceiling fan. Chris remembers Joe driving down every weekend expecting to see the ceiling finished off and the dining room done. Every weekend it seemed to be in the same mess or worse than when he’d left it. One afternoon they were getting close to finishing and the contractor realized he’d need some extra muscle to put up the dry wall.
He went down to the beach and talked to the lifeguards. Through them, he rounded up a couple of strong guys who were vacationing in Cape May and asked them to come work for a day. Sure enough, they showed up early the next morning.
The contractors also gave Chris “homework” every night. Chris’s homework that night was to remove the 1,000 or so nails that were obstructing the job. When Joe arrived that Friday, he finally had the makings of a dining room.
Looking at the spacious and airy room where Chris graciously serves tea every afternoon, it is difficult to imagine it is the same room pictured in the “before” photos.
The next thing they did was to move a few rooms and walls around. A guest suite where a kitchenette used to be. A kitchen where a bedroom used to be. A bedroom where a kitchen used to be. The change was so dramatic that when the previous owner, who still lives in Cape May, came around to visit one day, she lost her way going from one room to the next.
Other surprises came when the couple started renovating the third floor. The previous owner had never really used it but the Asterinos wanted to convert the floor into a marketable accommodation suite. Thus began an archeological dig of sorts.
“We found a charming stone vent,” said Joe “that had been plastered over with irregular floorboards. When you start trying to fix someone else’s repair job, you’ve got to do it right. One day I was chopping away at some plaster trying to found out what was under it and I hit a metal object.”
Apparently someone needed a certain size piece of material to cover over the hole that had been made. Joe walked out of the parlor and brought the object in for us to look at. The metal object in question? A No Parking sign. No question about it – resourceful by anyone’s standards.
In addition to refurbishing the floorboards and renovating the third floor, the Asterinos
took a small kitchenette to the left of the front door and restored it to a bedroom with a lovely sitting room adjacent to it. Renamed the Furrnace Room, the Asterinos found a small fireplace behind the kitchenette.
Other changes included putting a kitchen where once there was a bedroom. “Our present kitchen,” Joe explained, “was a bedroom, the original main kitchen to the home. Because of that, it only had one entrance to the room. When we converted it into a kitchen, we removed the
end wall so that our present kitchen is a walk through style; it may be entered from the dining room (which is very handy for serving food) and from the living room.”
They put in a very large bedroom where the main kitchen used to be. While ripping apart the flooring in the kitchen, their son found several old Philadelphia Inquirer newspapers, dated November 1963 – the day after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated – which were used as insulation underneath the plywood.
But it was in re-doing the private living quarters that the true discoveries came. Their bedroom was paneled and needed repair. In the process of tearing down the paneling, they discovered a false wall. Behind the false wall was an old fire place. Experts told them the fire place was too far gone. They continued tapping, tapping away until they hit on another discovery – a door. They opened the door to find a closet. They already had a closet in the room so they removed the door and framework to make an enclosure for Joe’s dresser. When they tore down the ceiling in that same room, they discovered an attic door leading to – you guessed it – an attic!
When the Asterinos gave former owner Eileen Kirsch the grand tour, she said she had lived there more than 30 years and had no idea that “either door” was in the room.
Their highest praise has come from Mrs. Kirsch who has returned several times to visit. Chris said the former owner “felt good about the changes. She said, ‘I’d even stay here.’ “
The most delightful room in the house is the living room. Complete with open hearth fire place, it is a small cozy spot to enjoy reading on a rainy afternoon, a place to converse with friends or a welcoming spot to meet new friends. Glance up and you can see one of the other reasons the room is so special – a 52-panel coffer ceiling.
With one whole summer under their belt, the Asterinos have taken well to inn keeping. They pamper their guests with “Beach Chariots” filled with goodies that every beachgoer needs – a chair, towels, a cooler, and of course, a chariot to carry everything.
Although the Asterinos love being innkeepers, Chris is awfully happy her husband didn’t give up his “real job.”
Chris’s “real job” is being a grandmother to three grandsons, and to that end, The Majestic Star Inn is closed until Valentine’s Day.
“I never thought I’d be doing this in my 50s,” said Chris laughing, “In this house, you meet a lot of people and you learn a lot about people but you learn the most about yourself. It is a labor of love.”