Text by Linda Fowler
You check into a high-end hotel where the owner – say Donald Trump or one of the Hiltons – shows up to extend a personal welcome. After sharing some family anecdotes and a few laughs, the hotelier suggests a private tour of his establishment’s source of pride, whether it be the skytop suite or the multimillion-dollar wine cellar.
Dream on: This kind of camaraderie doesn’t occur at luxe lodgings. But it does, in a sense, at the humbler B&B. A treasured attraction fancied by guests and tourists, such as an heirloom or striking architectural element, is an innkeeper’s rendition of a show-stopper – and cause for conversation.
In Cape May, it could be the antique Wedgwood china at the John Wesley Inn; a 1911 wedding gown preserved at the John F. Craig House, or the Dormer House’s stained-glass window depicting the movements of the sun. Dormer House owner Lucille Doherty says the window even catches the eye of horse-and-carriage guides, who point to it during excursions along Franklin Street.
“There certainly are plenty of inns that feature photos or other family-oriented artwork,” says Jay Karen, president and CEO of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International in Haddon Heights. “They might be on the walls, in the stairwell or in other common areas for guests to enjoy.”
By collecting and inheriting unique items through the years, B&B proprietors are like curators of their own mini-museums, and prize certain acquisitions. Cape May Magazine asked four inn owners to play show-and-tell with their favorite things:
Naughty and nice
Sandy Miller, owner of the Windward House on Jackson Street, suspects the scantily-clad diving-girl figurines inside her curio cabinets are tipsy. “I think these girls drink at night,” she observes. “Once in a while I come upstairs and they’ve fallen over.”
Not surprisingly, some depict flappers from the Twenties. Her bisque bathing beauties, also known as “naughties,” became popular collectibles in the years following the death of Queen Victoria, when the strict code of etiquette loosened like an unhooked corset. Meticulously painted, some complete with minuscule fingernails and teeth, these beach babes frequently had real hair and dainty maillot swimsuits of lace and other fabrics.
“They were giveaways,” explains the blue-eyed, silver-haired proprietor. “If you went to a store and bought a set of furniture, when you left the store they always gave you a present, sort of like Cracker Jack, to encourage you to come back and buy more. … It was a very good marketing tool at the time.”
Ranging in size from a few inches to a foot or more, the poised figures fill two display cases and are so numerous that Miller has lost count. The array is the main draw during tours of the inn.
“I always say, ‘We have some guest rooms open on the second floor if you’d like to see them,’” Miller remarks about open-house attendees. “Sometimes they’re older and they don’t want to climb the stairs; they just want to sit. I always entice them and say,” [here she clears her throat] “ ‘In case you don’t want to go upstairs, you’re going to miss out on a wonderful collection. It’s my husband’s collection of Victorian pornography.’ Then they all go, ‘Oh, wow!’ and run upstairs.”
For Miller, the collection’s value is overwhelmingly sentimental. She and her husband, Owen, began shopping for the girls and mermaids, as well as era-complementary artwork, in the mid-’80s. After Owen’s death in 1991, she purchased her largest “nudie” in his memory and for all to see: a statue of a long-haired nymph who holds a scallop shell and graces the Windward’s front garden.
Cradle of liberty
Thanks to a visit to Cape May by a vacationing couple from Denver, the Henry Sawyer Inn on Columbia Avenue became the new home for a baby cradle carved by Thomas Lincoln, whose son would one day grow up to be President.
“They had amazing things,” Barbara Morris remembers of Miles and Joan Fairchild’s 1992 stay, “and their only daughter wasn’t interested in antiques. They bought the cradle at auction in the Midwest when they were first married… and they had it authenticated through the carver’s markings.
“They said to us, ‘We’d like to have it someplace where it could be more accessible to the public,’” continues Morris, who owns the Henry Sawyer with her mother, Mary. “And they asked us if we would like to have it. We said, ‘Oh, of course.’”
The butternut cradle, believed to have been built around 1800 in Kentucky, converts to a small crib when its rockers are removed. Indentations near the finials suggest it was originally outfitted for a canopy. Its mattress had to be replicated.
The Henry Sawyer was built in 1877 as a residence for Eldridge Johnson, a dozen years after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Visitors today, especially children, are still “always thrilled” to see an object associated with the Great Emancipator, says Morris, who is a professor of English and speech at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.
“I think it’s just a very special part of history,” she adds. “And, as such, it’s something that you cherish.”
The “chimney staircase” at the Victorian Lace Inn on Stockton Avenue, when viewed upward from the ground floor, calls to mind the surreal images of M.C. Escher or the floating steps of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But it’s a lot more practical than fantastical.
This quirky architectural innovation was an advanced heating and cooling system for summering Victorians. Placed strategically at the center of the home, with two fireplaces on each level and a window on every landing, the staircase functioned as a chimney by creating a draft.
“It wasn’t exactly an air-conditioning system, but it did ventilate the house quite efficiently,” says engineer and architect Andy O’Sullivan, who owns the circa 1869 inn with his wife, Carrie. In addition, second-floor bedrooms had a louvered door and solid wood door installed on the same jamb so the original occupants, the McIlvaines of Philadelphia, could further control the air flow.
O’Sullivan put his expertise to work some 14 years ago by designing an addition and modernizing the mechanical system and duct work; that meant replacing the staircase windows with hand-crafted, stained-glass light panels bearing the family crest and Irish motifs. Hanging at the pinnacle of the 34 steps, three floors up, is a light fixture resembling a starburst.
When the inn was chosen by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) to be part of a restoration tour, Carrie O’Sullivan recalls, MAC scouts had difficulty identifying where the commingled addition and other renovations began and ended.
“It’s the only one we know of in town,” says Andy proudly about the couple’s architectural oddity. He gestures to a bench in the entrance foyer, set at the bottom of the stairwell. “One of the fun things is to let people sit there and look up.”