Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s June 2007 issue, under the title “The Admiral Hotel: A Star-crossed Venture.”
From the beginning, the Hotel Cape May was doomed. From the fantasy of a “new Newport” by a group of early 20th-century capitalists to the day it finally crashed into dust and rubble on its beachfront lot, the majestic building symbolized many things that Cape May is not.
The Hotel Cape May opened in 1908, several years behind schedule and 100 percent over budget – its final cost of $1 million was nearly unimaginable in those days. The flagship of a development envisioned by a consortium calling itself the Cape May Real Estate Company, the structure was supposed to be a luxury accommodation for the wealthy visitors, even yachtsmen, who would come to this pretty little town, bringing money never seen here before and spending it on mansions, lengthy hotel stays, and the sort of lively social life typical of coastal resorts like Newport, Rhode Island, and the Hamptons on eastern Long Island.
Instead, it was the albatross largely responsible for dragging the venture to its end. Labor disputes, construction problems and pilfering delayed the work. The city refused to pay for a major portion of required infrastructure improvements. The architect was forced to sue for his fee (he won). A harbor dredge sank. Six months after opening, the building was briefly closed for repairs.
The consortium spent $700,000 on marshland at the eastern edge of Cape May, millions more (including Federal funds) dredging the shallow mud from a creek that became Cape May Harbor, dumping the dredge on the marshland, building a grid of streets named for big cities and states, and presumably advertising all this to prospective buyers. But fewer than 100 of the planned 700-plus houses were ever built. Eventually the company went bankrupt, and the land was sold off for $200,000. Peter Shields, the first president of the company, could not save the project, nor could his successor, Nelson Z. Graves. Both men managed to build the sort of houses they expected to see here, though, and both remain: the Peter Shields Inn, and the Mission Inn, whose Spanish style was Mrs. Graves’ favorite architecture.
The Hotel Cape May remained mostly unused until World War I, when the nearby U.S. Navy base used it for a hospital. It served as the U.S. Navy officers’ administrative headquarters during World War II.
The Admiral Hotel Company bought the building during that period, renamed it and tried to run a hotel. That failed, and the City of Cape May took it over in 1940 for back taxes – $900. Then it was sold to a Philadelphia real estate company who pondered opening a senior citizens home, but didn’t. After the war, the Pennsylvania Company bought it as a hotel, and again, the venture failed. In 1957, the Masefield Corporation bought the building and instantly declared bankruptcy. Then it became the property of First Pennsylvania Bank and Trust Company in another back-taxes venture – this time the price was $66,000.
Finally, in 1963, the Rev. Carl McIntire bought the building as part of his work to create a Christian college housed in several buildings he’d bought and moved to the eastern end of the beach. He paid $300,000 for it.
During all those years, up and down, good times and bad, the building became an institution, spawning the kinds of experiences and memories you might associate with a more romantic and exotic locale.
Apparently, it WAS romantic. Who cared if management was in financial straits? It was more than a nice place to sleep. From the eighth floor open terrace you could see the world! The lobby, sunlit through a huge stained glass dome, spoke of elegance and luxury. The formal dining room gave unbroken views of the ocean. There was a dance floor, a swimming pool and a bowling alley. What’s not to love?
And fall in love they did. Locals, summer visitors and cottagers treated the Admiral Hotel as the social center of summer life at the shore. It was a source of income for locals who made summer money setting pins in the bowling alley, waitressed or bartended, bussed tables, cleaned the guestrooms and worked the front desk.
“When I was 16, I was hired as a cigarette girl in the bar,” recalls a Cape May native who, perhaps understandably, wishes to keep her identity a secret. “I went home and said to my mother, ‘Guess what I’m doing this summer!’ ” To which Mother replied, “Oh no, you’re NOT.” She was underage, of course.
Before the final demolition began in 1995, the new owners of the Christian Admiral, headed by Curtis Bashaw, Rev. McIntire’s grandson, held a spectacular yard sale which people treated as a social event that would yield them a memory. When the doors opened that morning, people filed slowly in and began to wander among piles of restaurant china, painted wardrobes clustered in the center of the chilly room, and hundreds of chairs, some assembled as for a meeting, other folded and leaning against the wall near stacks of disassembled brass beds, worn and rusted, but intact. Some of those people are gone – they’ve moved from Cape May, or they’ve died. Some only vacationed here, but they returned for this event, then disappeared again to their home towns.
“They were fun times,” recalled Jack Powell of Cape May. He was among several who were happy to share memories with others wandering through the crowd, looking for stories and for a few souvenirs of their own. “It was the social spot of the city. We’d get dressed up, dance to live music. It was nice.”
Ann and John Violand used to dance and drink there. “It was party time in the late 1940s,” they said.
“I’m looking for a desk for my daughter,” explained Pat Loranger of Cape May, as she stood outside. No doubt she found one; there were probably 20 lined up near the wardrobes.
But most people wanted one last look at the old place and one souvenir of the building that had a place in their lives.
“I always dreamed that if I won the lottery I’d buy the place,” said Colette Smith of Atco, who said she’d take home “anything cheap I can find.” Libby Toner, a lifelong Cape May resident, was more specific. She wanted a dish bearing the CA logo. They were plentiful, if not as “cheap” as the unlabeled dishes. But anyone unwilling to pay for the plates could buy silver-plated serving pieces still in good enough condition to use.
“Oh, look! This brings back memories,” someone would say, and they’d begin to poke among the dishes or pictures. Sadness mixed with the joy of recollection.
“How’s this?” said Helenclare Leary, poised next to some bowling pins and searching for her best memory. “Standing in my bare feet, in a bathing suit, in the downstairs bar, drinking cocktails out of old ginger ale bottles.”
“That must have been before 1962,” said a passerby, “because after that . . .” When Dr. McIntire bought the building, alcohol was banned.
The bowling pins and accompanying balls lined up on their racks were a favorite attraction, sparking some of the liveliest talk. But crouching quietly in the crowd, Peter Baldwin carefully searched for a couple of the best. They were, he said, in memory of his dad, “who was a pinsetter here.”
Outside, Anita Beck reminded the crowd that Cape May’s tallest building was a landmark for every fisherman. There is a legendary fishing ground just off the Admiral’s beach. “It’s called the Hotel Sluice – pronounced ‘slew’ – she clarified for landlubbers, “and it’s not on the charts.” People coming in from a day’s fishing, commercial or recreational, knew where they were and how long until they were home, when the building came in sight.
Some people remembered the view from the big bridge over the canal. It was a long road trip to the shore in the days before Route 55 and the Garden State Parkway, and restless children watched for the big building to cut across the flat view of the ocean. “There it is,” they’d murmer, and knew the ride was over.
Audrey Conant’s father, U. S. Navy Captain Edward C. Kline, Sr., was a section base commander during World War II, long enough for her to attend 9th grade here, in the building that is now City Hall. Her cousin’s family had a summer place in Cape May Point, next to St. Mary-by-the-Sea, and she remembers her cousin as a teenager riding his bike all the way to the Admiral to his job as a pinsetter – for 25 cents a week. At the yard sale, she bought a room key, and a fork and spoon as a memory for him.
Her brother, Dan Kline, was 10 or 11 during the war, and used to play ball in the Admiral hallways with a chief petty officer while their father worked. “He used to say, ‘If my son gets in trouble, I’m after you.’ ” Kline laughs. It was “mostly Navy” in there, with the lower two or three floors taken up with personnel offices. Above that was still a hotel, with some guests. But the building was never fully booked.
The pool was the star attraction, “because the beach wasn’t much then,” Kline recalls. In the 1950s Cape May “almost native” Cindy Schmucker and her brother begged their father for a seasonal family membership that gave them unlimited use of the pool. It cost $100, not insignificant on her father’s school teacher salary, but apparently worth it. “We were always on the beach [until then], so the pool was different,” she remembers. Every morning they would ride their bikes from their summer home on South Lafayette Street, spend the morning swimming and playing with the “gang” of their young teen friends, go home for lunch, then return for the entire afternoon.
One reason for the popularity of the pool was the condition of Cape May’s beaches. Erosion had taken a great toll, and only a few places were accessible. Dan Kline went up to Decatur Street along with most of the town, because it was the first place where there was enough beach. Poverty Beach held no attraction either because it had an unpleasant “coarse and shell-y” surface.
Cindy Schmucker and her family used to go to Howard Street where there was a good beach and a swing set. It was convenient from her aunt and uncle’s house, but they still had to climb – or jump – about 12 feet down from the macadam boardwalk. Under that paving were big boulders like those on the jetties. Those boulders were on the ocean side of the boardwalk (they didn’t call it a promenade then) and the water came right up to the rocks at high tide.
“When I was a child it was kind of an elegant place, so when they offered memberships, it was neat,” but even then the Admiral Hotel building was “very run down,” says Cindy, and she never went inside. But she knew people who did: many young summer workers were paid so little that they could not afford to rent a place to live. Somehow word got around that they could get into the fourth floor of the Admiral and “just flop somewhere.”
By the time she was in her late teens, when earning summer money became more important than hanging with friends all day, she heard that “kids were down there messing around, getting into trouble; it was very run down.” It was during that period that the story – apparently true – circulated that a woman had fallen into an elevator shaft and been decapitated. “They locked up the building better after that.” (Some say that the woman’s ghost haunted the Admiral’s hallways.)
Even after it became a Christian college and unsavory practices like drinking and smoking were banned, the Admiral remained THE place to hang out, even for secularists. The top-floor terrace had been enclosed to become another dining room, and McIntire added an auditorium, Gardener Hall, onto the east wing to hold religion classes and rallies. It became a community center, hosting antique shows and other public events. When no Shelton College officials were looking, drinking continued and the happy party atmosphere prevailed alongside McIntire’s evangelical messages broadcast regularly from the hotel and later from a boat anchored several miles offshore.
Sue Carroll, along with Lorraine Schmidt and several other women, organized and hosted a “really elegant” dinner in the first-floor dining room as part of Victorian Week. “We were sneaking wine bottles in and all kinds of devious stuff,” recalls Tom Carroll. After dinner, while the live band played, everyone would wait for the McIntires to go upstairs to bed so the dancing could begin. McIntire banned dancing and smoking. Music was okay – it was just the dancing that was naughty.
The first concerts of the Cape May Music Festival were in a grand presentation room off the lobby opposite the dining room, recalls Tom Carroll. Concertgoers could listen to the music and look right out through picture windows behind the musicians and see the ocean. “It was an elegant setting,” he remembers.
Like the others before him, McIntire could not keep the aging building afloat. Plagued by accreditation problems at Shelton College and controversy over his radio broadcasts, he moved his ministry to Florida, and once again, the monument stood empty, now in the hands of the McIntire grandchildren. The construction problems inherent in the original project were now taking their toll as parts of the building literally began to fall apart and were judged hopeless by more than one civil engineer.
On top of everything else, the seaside climate was doing its work on the structure: its steel supporting columns were rusting and disintegrating inside their decorative brick enclosures. The city and its residents fought for the Admiral’s survival in the face of fact after fact detailing not only the progressive damage, but the cost to halt and repair it. Numbers like $20 million were bandied about, with no promises that the fixes would hold. Tom Carroll had conversations with several engineers, including one who was a member of the New Jersey Historic Trust. The engineer inspected the rafters and concluded that the entire roof needed to be completely removed and rebuilt. “He said we would be looking at $60 or $70 million before even starting to think about the rest of the building.”
It was inevitable and a little ironic when a deal was finally struck to demolish the condemned building, sell the land for development, and use the income to restore what had become the Admiral’s sister property, Congress Hall Hotel. East Cape May had come full circle.
The winter of 1995-1996 was one of the longest and coldest in recent memory. By November icy winds were already blowing off the ocean. It was a wet, unpleasant season, but through those bleak months, well into March, day after day, Cape May locals bundled up and ventured down to the asphalt sea wall on the beach facing the Christian Admiral Hotel. They came to watch their beloved building disappear, a process that proceeded painfully beginning in December. Finally, on Monday morning, March 25, the last of the beacon and tower, landmark to locals, longtime summer visitors, even fishermen, came down.
The usual crowd was on the seawall, in the street, or in their cars. These people, perhaps a couple of hundred, had been there almost every morning starting around 8 a.m. through the bitter winter to watch the process, share their stories, and mourn the building’s passing.
On the site, on this last day, thick steel cables were wrapped through the building’s window frames, as they had been on so many days before. One long cable looped around the rear east corner where an elaborately decorated column housed a metal chimney. After coping with several of those stubborn columns around the building, project manager Skip Bushby of Winzinger, Inc., the demolition contractor, declared his determination that this last one would fall with the rest of the building.
“Three pulls,” went the word through the crowd. By now, everyone knew what that meant – they had seen it several times already. The cables were hooked onto a powerful tractor, nicknamed “Big Yellow,” that would move slowly and gradually forward, pulling the cables taut. It would keep moving until its force pulled the cabled section down.
So it would all be over today. Until time for the pull, there was the endless, now familiar, flow of bulldozers and men, sorting, dumping, tossing, cleaning wood and metal from the ever-higher piles of brick and plaster rubble – the remains of the eight-story monument to history, elegance and, finally, failure.
It was foreman Alex DePalma’s last day. Would he miss us? He shook his head.
“I won’t miss that ride every morning, I can tell you,” he said, looking forward to a new assignment closer to his Bricktown home. “And this is the windiest city I’ve ever been in.”
While they waited for the pull, people talked about what they would do when they no longer felt compelled to show up here every morning. Most laughed about getting their lives back, cleaning their houses, getting to work on time.
At last, at about 10:30 a.m., the first pull came and part of the remaining corner fell. A rusty water tank blew out its burden of black sludge as it spun down and clanged onto the pile of rubble.
When the dust cleared, DePalma climbed up the pile and entered the narrow section of building that was still standing. Spectators watched him inch along an interior wall and up what remained of a staircase, inspecting a cable that seemed to be buried in the dust. He leaned out a window, adjusted the cable, then crept cautiously back down along the wall and out onto the rubble, now nearly three stories high.
The crew cleared the area for the second pull. That one took away the staircase DePalma had just climbed, some fluorescent orange-painted windows, and the last of a series of bathtubs that had appeared as each layer of rooms was exposed after a pull.
Then word passed that there would be a wait. Winzinger’s top project manager was on his way. He had just called from his car phone at the red light at Exit 10, and was expected momentarily. The crowd was restless; it was later than any of the pulls before.
When he arrived, the manager climbed a pile of rubble and focused a camera. DePalma stood at the foot of the pile, shouldering a video camera. The cable around the last, rear corner was moved, adjusted, maneuvered, first by men, then by machines. The last, slim section of the Hotel Cape May faced the ocean, white interior walls exposed, blue sky shining through vacant window frames.
Big Yellow puffed black smoke that rose over the rubble. The cables slowly tightened until they were taut. Nothing happened. The machine moved forward a little, then back, tightening the cable again. Some tiles fell from the roof.
Another forward-back motion, a hard jerk, and the structure shook. Someone yelled, “Look! The chimney!” as the top section of the corner tower broke off and flew over the rooftop.
Another pull. The broad face of the structure shook, then twisted, turning its west wall inward. Then it fell, toppling forward. And it was gone.
The blue sky seemed to be a gaping hole, a rip where a solid surface had been. It was a shock to look up and see – nothing.
To this day, many people insist that the building could have been saved. They don’t believe the extent of the hidden damage or the figures quoted to repair it or they don’t believe the money couldn’t have been raised somehow. They look at the mansions erected along the site with disapproval and sadness, even as they celebrate the restoration of Congress Hall. They want both; they want their Admiral back. They want the pool, and the parties, the eighth-floor view and an elegant place to dine in full formal dress.
Want more on the Christian Admiral? Read “Watching History Go Away.”