This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine.
Cape May’s streets are lined with beautiful and historic homes, built by notable architects for some of the city’s most influential families. The Cherry House on Hughes Street is an excellent example. Built (supposedly) by notable local Lemuel Leaming in 1849, the Federal-style architecture harkens to a bygone age when Cape May’s thriving tourist trade made the city the “Queen of Seaside Resorts.”
The house, or parts of it, is old for sure. But there are some odd quirks in the old girl’s history. In Cape May, Federal style architecture had mostly given way to Victorian architecture by 1849. And Leaming only owned the property for five months. If he built it, he was a very fast carpenter indeed.
Could the home (or a part of it) have been built before 1849? Is the elegant Federal-style façade just that – a façade – added onto an existing structure? Was the original building used as slave quarters? Like most buildings in Cape May, the Cherry House has been added to, renovated and rehabilitated so many times; it’s difficult to tell what came first and what was added later.
The speculative stories make great conversation, but let’s start with what the research supports. The last slaves in Cape May County were freed in 1823 . The island itself was heavily influenced by Quakers from nearby Salem County, who did not believe in slavery, and the founding Presbyterians in Cape May Point, who were more interested in converts. Servants quarters? Possibly.
The Cherry House is currently the home of Frank and Beth Acker (and maybe a ghost or two), Pennsylvania transplants who bought it in May of 2000. Before that the home belonged to Lois Kulp, who bought the house in 1969 and stayed there until she was in her 90s. Beth Acker tells me that Lois’s family was among the founders of Bucknell University. It seems Lois was very fond of the house, and may have stuck around to make sure it was well cared for.
“Interested in a ghost story?” asked Beth. “Okay. When we bought the house we had issues with doors opening. During our first winter here, we would close the doors of certain rooms to save on heat. Well, we’d find them open all the time. It was only the two of us here and I kept telling Frank to close the doors, but he insisted he was closing them.
“We also heard some noises too, and had some issues with a rocking chair – there was motion in the house. We were going for lunch one day and we closed all the doors – for certain. When we came back all the doors were open. But we just lived with it. In fact a neighbor told us there had been sightings of an elderly gentleman on the steps. But I didn’t pay any attention because I always had a good feeling about the house.
“About a year later we were renovating the kitchen over the winter and we were living in Pennsylvania at the time. We had a friend come and check on the house. He told us the workers were leaving the door open. I called the builder and he said he WAS closing the doors.
“So the workers got really into it and would deadbolt the doors from the inside while they were there. But when they looked back, they’d be open again. This goes on and it gets to be a game.
“Then one day a contractor came in to use the phone. All of a sudden the room got real cold and out from the wall comes the apparition of a little old lady. He went screaming out the back door and never came back. I think it was Mrs. Kulp checking up on us. The workers met up at the C-view later and the guy told that story. But we haven’t had anything since then.”
According to Beth, the name Cherry House comes from the family that owned the house in the 1920s.
“Lucy Bolton-Cherry purchased the house in 1925 and paid $6,000 for it. They stayed for 22 years. But we were interested in researching the early years, before it was named for the Cherry family. We back tracked it to the Revolutionary War.”
The Revolutionary War? Really?
“Well, the property anyway,” said Beth. “Back then Hughes Street was just a cow path on the plantation of Memucan Hughes. Memucan’s son was Israel Hughes, and Israel’s six kids inherited the parcels of land around Hughes Street when he died. Sophia Hughes inherited this lot – what’s currently 637 Hughes Street. She was married to Aaron Bennet and they had six children. She died three years after her inheritance. In March 1849, Lemuel Leaming purchased the lot for $265 and the property at the end of the Street for $164. He sold the property five months later to Samuel and Martha Swain for $300.
There’s a sign in front of the Cherry House, a sort of historic marker, claiming Leaming built the structure.
“If Leaming built this house in the five months he owned the property, well, he was pretty good. Or was there a house already here? Some local historians think the house is older than 1849. But when you go back through all the deeds, they don’t mention houses, just the property,” said Beth.
I asked Beth why she thinks the house is older than 1849.
“Leaming paid $101 more than the lot at the corner and they were the same size. Was there already a building here? I’m not sure. But there must have been something here to make him pay more for it.”
There’s the rub. The house seems compartmentalized, as if successive owners built additions onto the original structure. Different portions of the house are on different levels. The roofline is the same – not one uniform line, but different pitches and different heights. But determining which section of the house is the original is the tough part, since the real estate records from the 1800s didn’t mention the structures, just the lots.
The center of the house, with a large fireplace, is reminiscent of colonial slave quarters, at least the ones at Colonial Williamsburg; just one room, perhaps 20 feet by 10 feet with a big fireplace. Could the center of the house, the section that’s now the dining room, be the original structure, built to house servants?
“This area was a plantation during slave times,” said Beth. “Someone told me that this dining room was the slave quarters. Then as different families acquired it, they added onto it. But that’s all hearsay.”
Frank says the basement indicates there have been many modifications to the house.
“There are three separate parts of the house,” said Frank. “If you look in the basement, there’s a very tiny space in the back, but there’s a full basement under the basement, and then under the front of the house is a crawl space.
It’s the owners of the house in the mid-1800s who most interest the Ackers. James MeCray, who is the listed owner from 1854 until 1892, was a local physician who studied at the University of Pennsylvania and operated the local pharmacy.
“He entered the Navy and served as a surgeon during the Civil War. We actually own some bottles from his pharmacy,” said Beth.
The house passed through several different families, including the Miller family (Jonas Miller built the first Congress Hall) in the 1890s, the Cherry family in the 1920s and ’30s, and several owners in the mid-century. John Heckel, a local dentist, owned it in the 1960s until Lois Kulp purchased it in 1969.
“A woman contacted me a few years ago and told me she was born in this house. Her maiden name was Cherry. Her grandparents owned the house.” said Beth. “Another woman stopped by this summer and told me she was married in this house. Her name was Spect. The Spects owned the home in the late ’50s.”
Like the real estate records of many Cape May homes, the transaction records indicate several $1 transactions throughout the years.
“I don’t understand [that trend],” said Frank. “I don’t know if it was because of bankruptcy or what.”
“There’s one transaction in the deed history where Lucy Cherry sold the house to a man named Hogan for $1 and then bought it back the same day for $1,” added Beth.
The Ackers tell me the windows in the front of the house are original. The porch on the side is now closed to the outside, but was probably open at one time. Frank found an old piece of granite that he thinks was part of an old outhouse. The kitchen was in the back of the house. Beth thinks the kitchen may have been the servants’ dining room. The shutters are working shutters and are numbered so that if they were removed, they could be put back in their proper space.
Today the Cherry House is a comfortable home and is featured on the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts historic home tour. And like all good historic Cape May structures, it’s still in use.