High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

The Grey Ghost

Text by Karen Fox. Photographs by Macy Zhelyazkova.

It is a summer place. But as the days shorten, the shadows lengthen and waters turn steely, the Grey Ghost in all of her high Victorian Gothic elegance takes hold of the landscape and reigns over land’s end where the ocean and bay meet.

Lofty dunes thrown up by winds and storms protect the Grey Ghost’s first floor backside. Spectacular views open wide from second and third floor windows, decks, verandas and screen porches. Each vista offers a special look. Many views framed in bedroom windows and porch pillars are as well composed as the watercolors that hang about the house. There are scenes of the Cape May Point Lighthouse, the Cape May-Lewes ferries, fishing and sailing boats, oil freighters, beachgoers, dolphins playing in the surf, native vines and bushes lacing the dunes, and the manicured gardens below. The place is magical.

Beloved by artists and photographers for its romantic porches, finial-topped dormers, peaked roof lines and the special light that plays off the waters, the Grey Ghost’s image is among the most popular at Cape May Point. There it shares history with other architectural treasures – the lighthouse, St. Mary-by-the-Sea, St. Peter’s-by-the-Sea and the John Wanamaker Cottage.

The Grey Ghost began its historical journey as a cottage in the Sea Grove development. More than 130 years later, it is one of the best preserved early Victorian buildings at the Point.

Owner Anne “Mimi” Thorington says the house is believed to have been built in 1879 as one of the cottages erected as part of the Sea Grove community. “According to old maps,” she says, “this house originally stood on Beach Avenue, then on Diamond Avenue, and finally here at Cape and Pearl avenues. The house was moved twice to prevent destruction by the sea. The original locations are in Delaware Bay.”

In the beginning, the house stood next to the American-bracketed, villa style Wanamaker Cottage. It, too, has been moved and, ironically, is still a neighbor, now situated diagonally across the street from the Grey Ghost.

Anne Thorington purchased the Grey Ghost in 1987. She had been fascinated with the house for years, as had been her mother. She bought it as soon as it was for sale, before it went on the open market. The house at the time had just undergone a major renovation and she added some finishing touches, including the lovely garden that provides colors and textures from spring to late autumn.

“When Fred Ohliger purchased the house before me, in 1985, it was virtually unsafe,” says Mrs. Thorington. “For the next year the house underwent extensive rehabilitation under the supervision of Mr. Ohliger’s associate Ruth Frost and performed by contractor Shramm and Hallman. Sections of the house had to be jacked up to make it level. The second floor porch was about to fall off. Existing porches on the first and second floor were rebuilt and third floor porches were added. Back stairs were revamped and a bathroom added.”

The cramped Victorian kitchen was transformed into a utility room featuring the home’s original sink. A large handsome kitchen was installed in a “catch-all” area. The big white globe light fixtures in the kitchen and utility room are antiques from a post office. And the old tins atop the cupboards were found in the house.

An unusual feature is an antique elevator from the first to the second floor, installed for a previous owner who was handicapped. The mechanisms are in place, but not functional. The Thoringtons use the elevator shaft areas as closets.

The interior of the cottage, like the sea and sky on a perfect summer’s day, is bright and airy, with sheer and lace curtains. Wallpapers and fabrics cool in soft pastels and the furniture is a happy combination of white whicker and white metal/brass beds. The floors and staircase are pine restored to a silky gloss.

The Grey Ghost is a demanding property, says daughter Debbie Thorington. “The blowing sand acts like sandpaper on the home’s paint, and winds from the nearby ocean can make dampness a real problem. The house with its two tones of grey and maroon trim frequently takes on the spirit of the weather around it and on a foggy rainy night seems almost spooky.”

“No one is sure how the Grey Ghost came by its nickname,” says Mrs. Thorington, “but before its renovation, it did look ghostly.” She is too practical to believe in ghost stories. However, there was a painter who refused to work on the house because he apparently heard about ghosts there.

Anne Thorington loves houses – and horses.

Horses are part of her local history, past and present. When she was a girl her mother packed up the family in Philadelphia, including Anne’s pony named Betty, to spend the summer in Cape May. More recently Mrs. Thorington acquired a Cape May Carriage horse that eventually led her to competitive driving.

She has owned several Victorian homes in Cape May. The first, at 210 Congress Place, required extensive work. The next, the rosy-pink house with the blue shutters and white gingerbread trim, located on the corner of Hughes and Franklin streets. “I put a picket fence around it,” she says, “because when I came out the door, there would be strangers on my porch. Hughes was too far away from the ocean for me.” She moved closer to the water, purchasing 23 Ocean Street. “The house needed a lot of help,” she says. “I completely renovated it, including restoring the exterior Victorian detail. I named it Beaver Cottage after its first owner. It is now Beauclaire’s B&B.”

And then, the Grey Ghost at the Point. Because the house was moved, Mrs. Thorington says its early history has been difficult to trace through the normal channels of deeds and mortgages at the courthouse. A previous owner had commissioned a gentleman by the name of Gil Gilbert to put together a nomination for Historic Landmark status. The nomination was never submitted, but the information helps tell the early story of what is now the Grey Ghost.

The porches, tall façade, hard-angled dormers and gables lead to a description of the Grey Ghost as “the largest and the ‘purist’ in style of a number of Gothic cottages,” designed by Philadelphia architect James Charles Sidney in the Sea Grove development.

Sidney, born in England, was a leading surveyor in the United State and had experience in civil engineering, cartography (map making) and landscape design. He is credited with designing a large portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and homes for the affluent in Chestnut Hill and Germantown.

He was a logical choice when wealthy wool merchant Alexander Whilldin and retail merchant John Wanamaker decided to carve a religious community from the wilderness and call it Sea Grove. The two merchants, devout Presbyterians, were dismayed by the sinning – the gambling, prostitution and drinking – at resorts, including the city of Cape May. Sidney’s assignment was to design a community that would become “a moral and religious seaside home.” It was to be a place where the devil was not welcome.

The 260 acres of tangled forest were owned by Alexander and Jane Whilldin, who transferred the property to Sea Grove for $42,000. There were 980 building lots. When Sea Grove opened in the summer of 1875, more than 200 lots had been sold and 27 cottages were ready for occupancy. As fast as the community developed, it failed financially.

By 1878 Sea Grove’s name was changed to Cape May Point, and only a few more cottages were being built. One was the original of the Grey Ghost. Albert G. Croll, a Philadelphia dry goods merchant, bought a plot of land on the beach in 1878 with the provision he build a house in 14 months and the construction apparently was completed within a year.

According to Mrs. Thorington, “We do know that in 1917 John Sharp Blackburne, Jr. and his sister, Agnes Croll Blackburne, moved the house to its current site, which had been the location of the Centennial Hotel. Built in 1876, the hotel was destroyed by fire in the early 20th century. The Blackburnes were from Philadelphia and, in fact, Mr. Blackburne owned and leased the land on which the John Wanamaker store stood, an obviously enviable financial situation.”

The two Blackburnes summered at the house from 1917 until Mr. Blackburne’s death in 1969. It was known as the Croll-Blackburne House or Blackburne Cottage. Mrs. Thorington says that in 1970 the property was sold to George and Sarah Qualls, (later to become Sarah H. Thompson). The couple subsequently was divorced and the property divided, with the wife getting the house and the husband the vacant land. The land was sold and a new house was to be built on it. But Anne Thorington, a couple of years after she bought the house, purchased the vacant land to once again make the property whole. It is used as a natural area for birds and butterflies.

That’s the story of the Grey Ghost. But are there ghost stories? Certainly the house has been home to many personalities. And the building itself has a strong personality, an etheric, the ability to provoke awe and spiritual connections with the sea, sunrises, sunsets, through all kinds of weather, especially when the fog rolls in. Then she rises out of the haze in all her high Victorian, Gothic elegance. It’s part of her mystique, and perhaps one can imagine ghosts – or angels – there.