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Convention Hall is Closed

Convention Hall is closed. And, although it’s not the first time, it may very well be the last time for this particular structure. On Friday, April 4, city officials announced that a structural analysis conducted on the 46-year-old facility found that, “The present condition of the Convention Hall is structurally unsound. Due to the amount of deterioration observed, the structural integrity of the floor framing is severely compromised. It is our professional opinion that this building be closed to public use until repairs can be performed in accordance with the recommendations outlined in the RVWE reports.”

A Bethlehem, Pennsylvania firm, Pennoni Associates Inc, recently ranked fourth of the 25 best engineering firms by the Philadelphia Business Journal, performed the structural analysis based on evaluation reports previously prepared by Remington, Vernick & Walberg Engineers, who had found the structure to be compromised but still safe. Pennoni Associates’ findings were based “solely on our visual observations and field measurements made while at the site.” The last study conducted by Remington, Vernick & Walberg was in 2007. According to City Manager Lou Corea the past year has wrecked even more havoc on the structure.

The move left non-profit and commercial organizations scrambling to find alternative venues for events which have been months in the planning.

But Convention Hall has had a precarious existence since its opening in the summer of 1918. In Don and Pat Pocher’s book:Images of America: Cape May in Vintage Postcards, the Grande Dame is shown with a patriotic crowd standing in front, apparently waiting for the Fourth of July parade to pass by. According to the Pocher book, the city purchased the former Stockton Hotel’s 434-foot wide riparian rights [Riparian water rights – or simply riparian rights – is a system of allocating water among those who possess land about its source] in 1917 for $20,000 from the estate of the late Dr. Emlen Physick. The city hired a local contractor, Sherman Sharp, to build the entertainment pier.

It was a time when free concerts were held within Convention Hall on Sundays with the “Symphony Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Artists.” Other evenings the municipal Dance Orchestra played ballroom music, but on Wednesdays and Saturdays one hour was set aside so the children could dance with the orchestra. Free dance lessons were given on those afternoons to young people wanting to learn the “skirt dance,” the Waltz or the Fox Trot. Friday evenings in the late 20s often featured a Children’s Review talent show.

Convention Hall, built as it was against the sea, has always been vulnerable to the forces of Mother Nature. In August 1933 a nor’easter hit the Jersey coast with a vengeance. Propelled by winds topping out at 90 miles per hour, waves literally picked up the 300-foot boardwalk in Cape May.

Another disaster occurred on September 14, 1944, while the city still experienced dim outs even though an end to the war was in view with the Normandy invasion on June 6. Remnants of the Great Atlantic Hurricane swept the island with winds packing 55 to 63 miles per hour. In its wake Convention Hall sustained considerable damage and its fishing pier was ripped away. According to an account in Emil Salvini’s book: Summer City by the Sea: “The musical instruments that had recently been used to serenade ocean lovers were scattered everywhere. It was reported that the orchestra’s baby grand piano was dumped into the Atlantic and pieces of it were later found as far as the Stockton Beach. Less than thirty feet of Convention Hall’s ballroom dance floor survived.”

Although the exterior of Convention Hall remained virtually in tact, the storm severely damaged the underbelly of all the piers and snapped the pilings.

But it was the Nor’easter of ’62 that completely destroyed the lovely elegance of the 1918 Convention Hall. Commonly referred to as the Ash Wednesday Nor’easter, the three-day blow leveled more damage than any other single storm in Cape May’s history. On Thursday, March 8 the Cape May Star and Wave reported: Cape May today reeled and staggered under the impact of the worst storm damage in its more than 300-year history as it began to dig out of the mass of rubble, debris, and wreckage that little more than 72 hours ago had been its normally calm and placid beachfront.

Damages were estimated in excess of $3 million. Beach Avenue was almost totally destroyed. Convention Hall was totaled. Save for two blocks, the boardwalk was destroyed. The current concrete walkway, now known as the promenade, is further evidence of how the city tried to protect itself from another devastating storm like that one. Virtually every hotel and motel along the two-mile beachfront was damaged or destroyed.

The present Convention Hall is a testament to what was built as a “temporary measure.” Now, 46 years later, that temporary measure has been condemned. City officials and concerned citizens formed a Convention Hall Committee as an off shoot of the Revitalization Committee, to study plans and designs for a new Convention Center. Demolition of the existing structure was slated to begin in December with the new facility opening in the summer of 2010. But in early February, Mayor Jerome Inderwies announced at a work session of City Council that plans for a new Convention Hall would be delayed for one year to investigate other architectural designs which might include better use of the “back” of Convention Hall facing the ocean.

Cape May Mayor Jerry Inderwies said the delay will not jeopardize a $300,000 Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) grant set aside for the project.

However, at another City Council meeting, the head of the Convention Hall Committee, Skip Laughlin, urged city officials to move foreword with plans to demolish in December of this year, predicting that the cost of delay may be high. Two days later the report came in advising the close of the facility.

No matter what design is finally accepted, the project is not to exceed $10 million. To that end, a bond ordinance for $10 million was passed by council April 14, following the condemnation of Convention Hall.

City Manager Lou Corea said the numbers are still not in regarding the possibility of band-aiding the center to allow its use for the summer months. Council would have to weigh the risks of spending money to fix a facility which is already reported to be structurally unsound.

One thing is certain, city officials certainly don’t want to repeat an occurrence of 1925 when a pier at a band pavilion along the boardwalk collapsed under a crowd watching a staged lifeguard rescue. Sixty victims sued the city.

UPDATE: Cape May, May 6 – It took City Council all of about three minutes to decide at Tuesday’s workshop session to not spend in excess of $300,000 to shore up Convention Hall to make it quasi-safe for the summer season. So it will remain closed for the season, pending possible demolition in the fall. Best case scenario, the new Convention Hall would open for the summer of 2010. Construction of anew facility will take an estimated 14-18 months.