This article originally ran in the August 2011 issue of Cape May Magazine.
If the vision of one of East Cape May’s founders had caught on with future cottagers, homes on Beach Avenue east of Madison Avenue might have looked more Spanish Mission style today than Victorian. Nelson Zuinglius Graves, who built what is now the Mission Inn B&B on New Jersey Avenue, was a wealthy manufacturer who made his money from a paint-and-varnish business in Philadelphia. A summer resident of Cape May with a home at South Lafayette and Congress streets, he was deeply committed to the future of Cape May and devoted much of his fortune to building the town’s infrastructure and appeal.
Graves’ business interests were pragmatic and diverse. He bought the Cape May Light and Power Company and acquired the town’s trolley line. He also established a farm and dairy operation in Cold Spring that was considered a model of its day for its cleanliness, efficiency and production.
The Cape May Star and Wave, in its May 14, 1910 edition noted Graves’ and his family’s return for the season:
We are glad to welcome him again to Cape May in which he has taken so much interest and in which he has shown so much faith by his large investments. It is a boom of great price to Cape May to have men of this character become so largely interested for it is a guarantee of a great future for the resort.
Graves stepped up to perhaps his most challenging role in helping Cape May when, in 1911, he agreed to take over the Cape May Real Estate Company, which was facing financial ruin. A small group of investors formed the company at the turn of the century with the hope of turning Cape May into a thriving seaport and tony vacation spot. Key to their plans was a massive development project on the east side of the island, which required dredging the harbor and using the sand and silt they removed to fill in the marshlands covering eastern Cape May. Ultimately, the principals of the company envisioned a town of East Cape May populated by grand cottages and elegant hotels.
Graves became the company’s third and, arguably, its most successful president. Under his direction, the company went on to finish the dredging project and to build two entertainment venues he hoped would make the community more popular with visitors – the Fun Factory, an amusement park on what is now the Coast Guard base, and the Cape May Casino, which later became the Cape May Playhouse. He also began work on a new house, located at 1117 New Jersey Avenue, a building he hoped would create a new architectural style for East Cape May and distinguish it from its close neighbor to the west. Graves’ vision for East Cape May was distinctly “unVictorian.”
He had visited California earlier in the century to buy a lead mine to supply his paint business. While he was out west, he fell in love with Spanish Mission architecture. Its open airiness appealed to him, in contrast to the closeness of Victorian structures. When Graves was ready to build his own house in East Cape May, he shared his vision with architect Lloyd W. Titus. Titus had designed a very different and more traditional style of home for an earlier president of the East Cape May Company, Peter Shields, whose home today is the Peter Shields Inn on Beach Avenue.
Work began on Graves’ new house in the summer of 1912, an event chronicled in the August 31issue of the Cape May Star and Wave:
The New Spanish Bungalow
Work has begun on a bungalow on New Jersey Avenue above the Life Saving Station for Mr. Nelson Z. Graves that will be a departure from anything yet constructed in Cape May. It will without doubt be a refreshing relief to the eye and prove to those admirers of the artistic that seashore architecture is capable of a different version than that which we have become accustomed to.
The architecture is essentially American, being an adoption of the Spanish Missions of Southern California, with construction of hollow terra cotta blocks covered with cream white stucco. The broad projecting roof, whose shadows are so welcome in the summer sun, will be covered with red Spanish tile.
Graves’ house took nearly two years to build. Many of the materials needed to construct it were shipped down the Delaware River by barge, and western cypress, used for woodwork inside the house, arrived from Oregon by rail. Cypress is better suited for damp, humid climates.
The house had even closer ties with the railroads, however. To accelerate work on the East Cape May project, Graves negotiated with the town to extend the railroad tracks up New Jersey Avenue. The rail work coincided with the construction of Graves’ house. A practical man, he substituted beams of rail for those of steel – the more common material – to support the house’s veranda, porch and solarium. A report written to the Cape May Historic Preservation Commission in 1993 also notes the house’s builders were “Italian railroad workers.”
Graves apparently never lived in the house after it was completed, nor is it known whether he ever intended to. By 1914 Graves’ heavy investment in Cape May, coupled with an economic depression forced him to declare bankruptcy. His home went into receivership.
A husband and wife from Philadelphia, William H. and Grace Vane Huelings, bought the house in 1916, and lived there for nearly 30 years. East Cape May had grown by the time they left, but their house was still one of only a handful of homes in the community, largely as a result of war and the Depression.
On the outside, at least, the Graves’ house retained much its Spanish Mission character under its subsequent owners, but each occupant stamped very different and distinct personalities on life inside the house.
Another husband and wife from Philadelphia, Dr. Robert and Johanna Ridpath, bought the house in 1945. Mrs. Ridpath was an accomplished singer and harpist who performed under the stage name Joanna Ogredowski. She was also a painter. Not surprisingly, the Ridpaths were generous supporters of the arts, and one beneficiary was the playhouse Graves had built as a casino, only steps away from his new house. By the mid-1940s, the Cape May Playhouse had developed a loyal and appreciative following, not only among its patrons, but also among many of the leading actors and actresses of the day, who often starred in performances. As supporters and practically next-door neighbors of the theater, the Ridpaths are said to have entertained theater legends such as Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson and Diana Barrymore when they were in town to perform. Surely, the Ridpaths’ grand home rivaled many of the stages on which they had acted.
An acclaimed artist, Nina Woloshukova Scull, bought the house in 1950, and used it for her studio, gallery and art school. Scull’s work hung in more than 50 galleries across the country, including the Metropolitan Museum and National Academy, and had won numerous awards.
Scull, a prolific artist, painted quickly and passionately. Her work hung floor-to-ceiling in her vaulted living room lining the walls, furniture, and any other hard surface available in the house. Scull often chose one canvas to showcase her art that she displayed in her dining room’s large bay window. Usually, the painting was a majestic scene of the ocean – nearly identical to the view she saw from her porch.
Scull held weekly and, for advanced students, daily art classes in her sun-filled, western-exposure porch. She changed Graves’ original design for the porch and had the space enclosed so it could be used as a studio year-round. A devoted teacher, Scull strongly encouraged her students to develop their craft, even helping them show their work by hosting an annual exhibit at the Beach Theatre, followed by a celebratory pancake breakfast. She also promoted art more widely in the community by establishing Cape May’s first Boardwalk Art Show in 1961, a tradition that continues today.
Like the house’s earlier residents, Scull enjoyed entertaining at home and often threw lavish parties. At one particular gathering, guests were treated to a spotlighted solo ballerina performing on her front lawn – surely, no small feat on grass.
Scull died in 1979. The Cape May Star and Wave paid tribute to her in an obituary: “Her art studios and gallery at her landmark 1117 New Jersey Avenue home have became an institution in Cape May.” Long before her death, however, the house had become known as the Nina Scull House rather than the Nelson Graves House.
Longtime friends Diane Fischer and Judy DeOrio, who owned property on Hughes Street, bought Scull’s house shortly after she died.
“The house had been neglected,” Fischer recalled, “but it had great bones and historic significance. It got emotional for me.”
The new owners spent the next few years repairing the house, repainting, replacing the roof, rebuilding the pergola, and reinforcing the house’s structural supports. Fischer admits the work was more extensive, and more expensive, than they had thought initially.
“We’d paint one side of the house one year and the other side of the house the next year,” she said.
Fischer and DeOrio lived in the house for 13 years as private homeowners. With eight bedrooms, however, it was a large house for two people and Fischer admitted she sometimes played tennis in the living room. By 1992, the friends reached a momentous decision and decided to turn their home into a B&B. Fueled by the town’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1976, and the public’s renewed interest in Victorian architecture, Cape May was awash in B&Bs in the early 1990s. Only a few were a “key historic structure” in the town’s listing, however, which cemented their plan’s call to open their home to the public. After “beachifying” the house with bright whites and vivid colors, the new innkeepers opened their new East Cape May B&B as The Mission Inn in 1992.
“It was like lightning struck,” Fischer remembered. “The paint was still drying in Room Three when guests were at the front door waiting to check in.”
Lightening, perhaps, struck twice when, 10 years later, the Mission Inn was up for sale and a couple from Connecticut, Raymond and Susan Babineau-Roberts, who were looking to open their own inn, toured the B&B.
“I saw this large home that needed nurturing,” Babineau-Roberts explained. “I saw all this potential – the large rooms and the large common areas – and I knew there were things we could to.”
The Roberts closed on the property June 14, 2002.
“We went instantly from the closing to being innkeepers,” new owner, Babineau-Roberts, recalled. “We returned to the inn at 7 p.m.– the closing was from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.– and met our first guests.”
Research guided the Roberts’ next steps and, ultimately, shaped the inn experience they would offer guests. Raymond Roberts, a former owner of an architectural and engineering firm, spent weekends at the county library pouring over archives until staff “booted him out at night,” Babineau-Roberts said. She embarked on her own version of Graves’ California trip to study Spanish Mission architecture, visiting 21 missions from San Diego to San Francisco in a whirlwind five days. She returned home inspired to make Graves’ house even more reflective of the Spanish Mission style.
Nine years later, the Roberts in many ways have succeeded in bringing Graves’ house full circle. They have restored the house’s ceilings and floors, repaired its stucco walls, repainted inside and out, and landscaped the yard in such a way that it complements key architectural elements of the structure. They also extended the Spanish Mission design of the house to the inn’s interior spaces. The eight bedrooms are each themed to a specific California Mission, with each room’s colors, murals and furnishings telling that mission’s story.
“There were times we never knew what we’d find when we pulled up a rug,” Babineau-Roberts said of the ongoing renovations. Finding parquet floors in the dining room was a surprise to them, as was discovering horsehair in the plaster.
Nelson Graves’ vision of a new Spanish Mission style for East Cape May may not have materialized. His larger vision, however, of the new community and the role it would play in strengthening Cape May’s future was achieved, and we have Graves to thank for laying the foundation – quite literally, from sand and silt – for that success.
For more information, visit www.missioninn.net