CapeMay.com Blog

Blog

The Road Not Taken: An Excerpt from “The Summer City by the Sea”

Chapter 11 from The Summer City By The Sea, Cape May, New Jersey by Emil R. Salvini

SCBTSopener

A contemporary description of the 1878 pre-fire Cape May skyline, observed from the deck of a passing sailboat, spoke of the “flashing lines of festival lights connecting the continuous row of monstrous four-floored buildings, seeming to touch each other…”

These lights were anchored on each end by railroad properties, the Sea Breeze Excursion House on the western end of the city and the great Stockton on the east. Although both of these hotels survived the inferno, the “continuous row of monstrous buildings” between them was now reduced to ashes.

The impact of this fire differed significantly from the 1869 blaze in two ways. The first was its size; the 1878 fire destroyed a much greater area — over 35 acres.

The second major difference was that the earlier blaze occurred in the midst of the railroad economic boom. Plenty of investors were eager to rebuild before the arrival of the next summer season.

The 1878 fire took place at the end of a boom period; the resort and nation were still emerging from the 1873 depression. To make matters worse, Cape May’s competitors had grown in number and success, and the Queen of the Seaside Resorts’ crown was tarnished.

Popular architect Stephen Decatur Button designed the Senator John B. McCreary summer cottage which was constructed in 1869/70.  The building still stands today on Gurney Street at Columbia Avenue. (Historical American Buildings Survey)

Popular architect Stephen Decatur Button designed the Senator John B. McCreary summer cottage which was constructed in 1869/70. The building still stands today on Gurney Street at Columbia Avenue. (Historical American Buildings Survey)

A rather disingenuous article appeared in an Atlantic City paper immediately after the fire that claimed to sympathize with its neighbor to the south. The reporter said that while many believed that “Cape May cannot recover,” he was confident that out of the ruins “will arise a handsomer and more modern city” (like Atlantic City), and “will have the attraction of being new and clean.”

The writing was on the wall; Cape May was losing the war for Philadelphia dollars with Atlantic City. A sweltering day in the Quaker City caused so many Philadelphians to seek the relief of Atlantic City that the railroads, in an effort to accommodate the masses, would press into service boxcars with makeshift benches.

Stockton House, Mr. J.B. McCreary’s cottage, Mrs. Hallenback’s villa, and others of our most beautiful buildings, paid us a visit, displaying some superb drawings of hotels which may yet adorn the places made waste by fire. We gladly welcome this ardent friend of Cape May among us once more. His visits have not been frequent of late.”

Stephen Decatur Button was sixty-five years old in 1878. He had established himself as a leading architect in the decade preceding the Civil War, and had spent several years designing homes for the wealthy in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Button had won the commission to design the Alabama Capitol building in 1847 and produced a building typical of the early American Greek revival style. He later moved to Philadelphia, where his contacts with the railroad eventually led him to Cape May. Button first commission in Cape May was to modernize the Columbia House in 1863 for West Jersey Railroad executive John C. Bullitt. During the next decade he designed numerous cottages and hotels in Cape May and the wooden summer city by the sea fell in love with his classical style.

Amusement rides such as the Epicycloidal Swing (1879) and later the Ferris Wheel (1892) attracted the young in droves. The first Easter Parade was held in Atlantic City on April 16, 1876 and proved an immense success. Though it had been so earlier, Cape May was no longer considered a serious contender of Newport, Rhode Island for the nation’s leisure class trade. By 1874 there were over 500 cottages and villas in the New England resort. In 1878, the year of the fire, there were as many Philadelphians summering in Newport as in Cape May.The writing was on the wall; Cape May was losing the war for Philadelphia dollars with Atlantic City. A sweltering day in the Quaker City caused so many Philadelphians to seek the relief of Atlantic City that the railroads, in an effort to accommodate the masses, would press into service boxcars with makeshift benches.

(Left to right) E. C. Knight House (1881/82), 203 Congress Place; J. R. Evans House (1881/82), 207 Congress Place; and Dr. Henry F. Hunt House (1881), 209 Congress Place. All three were constructed after the fire of 1878 when Congress Place was cut through the rear of the Congress Hall property. (Historical American Buildings Survey)

A short article in the Cape May Wave on December 7, 1878 gave a clue to the direction Cape May was to take after the fire.

“Mr. S.D. Button, the able architect of the Stockton House, Mr. J.B. McCreary’s cottage, Mrs. Hallenback’s villa, and others of our most beautiful buildings, paid us a visit, displaying some superb drawings of hotels which may yet adorn the places made waste by fire. We gladly welcome this ardent friend of Cape May among us once more. His visits have not been frequent of late.”

Stephen Decatur Button was sixty-five years old in 1878. He had established himself as a leading architect in the decade preceding the Civil War, and had spent several years designing homes for the wealthy in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Button had won the commission to design the Alabama Capitol building in 1847 and produced a building typical of the early American Greek revival style. He later moved to Philadelphia, where his contacts with the railroad eventually led him to Cape May. Button first commission in Cape May was to modernize the Columbia House in 1863 for West Jersey Railroad executive John C. Bullitt. During the next decade he designed numerous cottages and hotels in Cape May and the wooden summer city by the sea fell in love with his classical style.

Stephen Decatur Button designed the Layfayette Hotel for Victor Denizot in the traditional L-shape Cape May style, allowing for the maximum amount of rooms with an ocean view.  The hotel stood ay Ocean Street and Beach Drive (Library of Congress)

Stephen Decatur Button designed the Layfayette Hotel for Victor Denizot in the traditional L-shape Cape May style, allowing for the maximum amount of rooms with an ocean view. The hotel stood ay Ocean Street and Beach Drive (Library of Congress)

By 1878, Stephen Button was no longer in demand by a fashion-conscious leisure class that preferred younger, more progressive architects like Richard Morris Hunt, a favorite of the Vanderbilt family. The fire represented an opportunity for the aging architect.

The famous Cape May strand proved to be the savior of the troubled resort after the 1878 fire.  None of Cape May's competitors could offer the public the gentle sloping floor of beautiful white sand that has made Cape May famous. (Cape May County Historical Society) Click for larger

The famous Cape May strand proved to be the savior of the troubled resort after the 1878 fire. None of Cape May's competitors could offer the public the gentle sloping floor of beautiful white sand that has made Cape May famous. (Cape May County Historical Society) Click for larger

It became immediately clear, with few exceptions, Cape May would rebuild itself as a smaller, scaled-down version of its pre-fire era.

The northern end of the Congress Hall property was subdivided. A new street, Congress Place, was cut through the property and cottage lots were sold. Congress Hall was rebuilt as a smaller version of the great hotel. Brick was used in its construction to advertise that it was modern and fireproof but the hotel was constructed in the traditional L-shaped style, that provided an ocean view for the maximum number of rooms. Although Button was not the architect for the new Congress Hall, he was later hired in 1880 to make improvements to the structure. Button designed the Joseph Evans cottage on one of the new Congress Place lots (205 Congress Place) in his classical style. He received two commissions; the first to design a new oceanfront hotel, the Windsor, and the second, a commission for Victor Denizot’s Lafayette Hotel, located at Ocean Street and Beach Drive.

Photo courtesy H. Gerald MacDonald. Click for larger

Photo courtesy H. Gerald MacDonald. Click for larger

The two new hotels that Button designed mimicked the traditional seaside hotel popular thirty years earlier.

Because the majority of the cottages built after the fire were constructed without architectural plans, it was common for carpenters to follow the lines of existing cottages or lift designs from the popular pattern books, collections of Victorian homes of varying costs and styles. In the case of Cape May, most were styled after the simply-ornamented Italianate “Button” style that the resort had fallen in love with decades before the fire.

The property owners of Cape May were presented with a blank canvas after the rubble of the 1878 fire was carted away. Their decision not to compete with the more popular resorts limited the town’s growth but it fortunately preserved the intimate character of the town that so many value today.

The city was rebuilt as a smaller, scaled-down version of itself after the 1878 fire.  This decision preserved the intimate scale of the resort that is so valued today. (above) Turn-of-the-century view of Perry Street taken from the boardwalk. (Author's collection) Click for larger

The city was rebuilt as a smaller, scaled-down version of itself after the 1878 fire. This decision preserved the intimate scale of the resort that is so valued today. (above) Turn-of-the-century view of Perry Street taken from the boardwalk. (Author's collection) Click for larger

A popular nineteenth century poem titled The Humors of Cape May spoke of frolicking in the famous Cape May strand, the gently sloping floor of beautiful white sand where the surf breaks. Cape May had been blessed with a strand that was superior to any of its competitors. (It was not until after the turn of the century that man would tamper with nature and unwittingly damage forever the resource around which the city was created.)

Vacationers seeking excitement chose Atlantic City. Those wishing to demonstrate to the world that they had “arrived” traveled to Newport, but the nineteenth century sojourner in search of a “health-giving” seabath still preferred Cape May.

Cape Island had, according to an 1881 Cape May directory, “a rolling surf, safe at all times, and within easy access from the shore and boardinghouses” with numerous piers that afforded a “delightful view of bathers during bathing hours.”

This directory also described the impact that tourism had on the city’s population. “The season for bathing commences about the 20th of June, and closes the 1st of September. A very small number of visitors is found there at either of those times; but in the course of the season, it is estimated that as many as seventy-five thousand persons visit the place; and during a portion of the time, there are as many as ten thousand at once, or, including children and servants, twelve thousand.”

During the summer season, even government offices modified their schedules to suit vacationers. The directory noted that the post office’s “summer arrangement” was “open for general business from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., except Sundays and while sorting mail.”

The beach became the engine that would drive the growth of the area destroyed by the fire. The “burned area” was too close to the Atlantic to remain undeveloped for long.

Congress Hall was rebuilt after the 1878 fire as a traditional L-shaped Cape May beachfront hotel.  Brick was used in the construction of this smaller version of the grand old hotel in the hopes of fireproofing the building. (Author's collection)

Congress Hall was rebuilt after the 1878 fire as a traditional L-shaped Cape May beachfront hotel. Brick was used in the construction of this smaller version of the grand old hotel in the hopes of fireproofing the building. (Author's collection)

The boardwalk was repaired to extend from Broadway to Madison Avenue. By 1880, Beach Drive and the Boardwalk were illuminated with gas lamps purchased by the city from the Pennsylvania Globe Gas Light Company. The lights were placed at equal distances, seventy paces, along the entire length of the boardwalk.

The Cape May Wave reported that “the effect thus produced being exceedingly brilliant and attractive…”, and all agreed that the city be congratulated for this attempt to “beautify and improve this, the grandest of nature’s gifts to us as a watering-place.”

As competition with Atlantic City intensified, The Cape May Wave stated that that while over seventy Atlantic City hotels advertised in local Atlantic City newspapers, clearly understanding the value of printer’s ink, Cape May’s lack of advertising caused the publisher to wonder if his paper was a breeder of “some dire pestilence.”


The Summer City by the Sea, Cape May, New Jersey: An Illustrated History
by Emil R. Salvini
11″ x 8.5″. 150pp
158 B&W illustrations
Hardcover: $27.95

Available at bookstores everywhere or can be ordered directly by calling Rutgers University Press at 1-800-446-9323. Please mention you found it on CapeMay.com