She was just one of many large hotels in the late 1800s that catered to the elite. Massive hotels they were, with broad verandahs and sweeping lawns that faced the ocean.
John Philip Sousa wrote two songs for Congress Hall. In fact, he introduced them on her lawn. For she was well-known across the nation — presidents set up summer white houses in her halls, and the rich and famous mingled on her porches. These were the days of glory — times of wine and roses.
Now she sits staring vacantly at the ocean. Empty save for a few offices on the second floor, her yellow paint peeling, and windows broken like jagged teeth. She holds her breath as the battle over her destiny rages. What will become of her?
“The devil is in the details, but God is too,” said Department of the Interior National Historic Landmarks Manager Bill Bolger during a November, 1998 visit to Cape May.
When it comes to restoration in this National Historic Landmark town of Cape May, these “details” can be complicated and perplexing. And when it comes to Congress Hall, emotion complicates detail even further.
Bill Bolger was in Cape May City at the request of city officials and worried residents. Cape May was on the “endangered” landmark list. Priority One. It’s “entire town” historical designation was in jeopardy — some said the situation was indeed “perilous.”
The historic Christian Admiral Hotel had recently been torn down in the city’s east side. The east side — already home to 1960s and 70s urban renewal houses, and an area fast gaining a reputation for its new “Palm Springs-style” homes springing up along the beach front. This lack of “Victoriana” in this very Victorian village and seeming dearth of concern for the preservation of an historic hotel like the Christian Admiral whispered ominous messages into the ears of the federal government. Perhaps Cape May didn’t really care about its status. And maybe the entire town itself didn’t deserve the designation — the boundaries could be redrawn.
But the people of Cape May do care. Passionately, as Bolger found out — especially about Congress Hall. Never again did Cape May want to see a death like that of the Christian Admiral. That Congress Hall was owned by Curtis Bashaw, the very man who owned the Admiral too, sent warning signals to the public. The building was deteriorating much as the Admiral had before demolition. Could this happen again?
Bashaw, along with Congress Hall Partners LLC, however, has applied for federal and state funding to rehabilitate the building. With this funding come strict guidelines regarding historical integrity. Bolger himself called Congress Hall an “anchor” building in the town’s National Historic Landmark status. And he cited its current state of disrepair as a factor in Cape May’s endangered status.
“The building is in desperate need of repair,” he said. “It has to be saved. It’s a very important part of the town. I want the building preserved.”
As does Bashaw. But financing such a large project is onerous.
“When we first looked for financing, the banks didn’t want to underwrite it as an entire hotel because there couldn’t be enough money made. They wanted to ‘condominiumize’ the fourth floor leaving 70 rooms instead of 102 as a hotel,” Bashaw says. “I didn’t want to do that. I felt nostalgic and wanted to keep the whole thing a hotel so we looked at other avenues through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority which led us to the Housing and Urban Development fund. The whole reason we shifted to preservation was not to have to ‘condominiumize’ and destroy the building’s historical integrity.”
Both state and federal funding has been approved, however restoration work has not begun. There are still more details to work out. And a lawsuit.
Bashaw’s concern now is blending the old with the new and meeting Department of Interior guidelines. He states quite matter-of-factly that in order for the building to thrive, it must become successful financially. And that’s tough in today’s energetic world of competition. To become viable, in addition to restoration of the 102 guest rooms, Bashaw plans to add a conference center, reinstall a swimming pool complete with changing-room cabanas, rehabilitate the “annex” — a separate building used primarily through the decades as employee quarters — for shops and a below-street-level restaurant. He also wants to provide 202 parking spaces on the hotel’s front lawn.
The addition was the first to spur public complaint. Bashaw’s designs called for a stained-glass domed walkway leading into a new area designed similarly to that of Congress Hall. How could that meld with the existing building?
Department of Interior guidelines are very specific regarding additions. “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size and scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment. New additions shall be undertaken in such a manner that if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property and its environment would be unimpaired.”
Bashaw says his conference center plans conform to these guidelines. The New Jersey State Historic Preservation Office agrees. So does the Department of the Interior. But there are those who disagree. Those, in fact, who take umbrage with the entire project and have taken that umbrage to court with the intent of suing Congress Hall Partners LLC, the city and mayor of Cape May and various state historical preservation agencies.
As the lawsuit is pending, details are sketchy, but the plaintiffs have been vocal in the past finding the project too contemporary, the parking plans creating too severe of an impact, and the project itself not adhering to federal guidelines.
“There is no reason new construction, additions and restoration cannot become an intricate part of Cape May for years to come,” says Bill Bolger. “They can become, in their own time, contributing parts of the town.”
He admitted setting new construction guidelines is extremely difficult. “The worst building I’ve found is the one designed by a committee,” he says, adding that basic regulations should “prohibit the building of Victorian imitations.”
Bolger says Cape May is leading the nation in the field of preservation in many ways. Other towns will look to Cape May as an example.
“The most damaging thing is for a town to be frozen in time,” Bolger continues. “We should preserve the town and add to it.” New Jersey State Historic Preservation Specialist Daniel Saunders calls this a “new design challenge area” and says the field of preservation is “very young.”
And indeed it is, for it’s really only today that we are acutely aware and appreciative of the past, our young past. The question now is how to preserve this antiquity properly and make it economically viable — existent for generations to come.
While the question remains to be answered, Congress Hall sits empty, waiting, caught between today and tomorrow — an illustration of our times.