Even for people who have been in Cape May for generations, the Cape May of just 50 years ago is a real juxtaposition with today’s town, where houses are generally well-maintained and have median appraisal values exceeding half a million dollars. Who can even remember the invariably white-painted, poorly-maintained, old fashioned houses of the 1960s or Washington Street before it became a mall? Even pictures don’t totally tell the story of how houses fell into – and out of – disrepair.
One story of how Cape May became blighted went like this (as told by a city employee in 1969 Senate testimony). First, large houses were built by wealthy out-of-town families who needed space for their families and servants. Then, various events occurred such as the 1929 depression which resulted in these properties being taken over by people with more moderate incomes who could not afford to maintain them. New owners divided once single family properties into multiple rooms and apartments for summer rental. Hard use by renters contributed to ongoing deterioration right up until the 1960s when summer visitors were drawn to new, modern motel rooms. Cape May’s rooming house era had ended. Once-elegant homes were now viewed as undesirable “white elephants.” Cape May was ripe for change.
So many American communities had fallen into this same disrepair that Lyndon Johnson made the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) a central component of the War on Poverty. With it came funds to eliminate slums and create opportunities for economic development. While Cape May residents wanted to improve their town, not everyone was enamored with accepting federal funds, especially those from Democrats. The townspeople – or at least some of them – were beginning to think about how Cape May could be changed. Some wanted to highlight the Victorian homes. Others wanted to create ratables. Enormous destruction from the 1962 storm forced people to consider state and federal programs to assist in rebuilding the town.
The first recommendation to pursue federal funds came in 1963 from the Planning Board with recommendations to give the go-ahead to Blair and Stein Associates to prepare an application for an urban renewal project. The application came with a $1000 fee. City officials sold the project by informing citizens that this would be the only taxpayer cost. Even the required city contribution would use previously awarded state funds used to build the promenade following the 1962 storm. Then as now, Cape May residents were conservative about spending taxpayer funds. Blair and Stein were to determine project boundaries, estimate costs, and shape ideas to match renewal fund requirements. The Planning Board suggested a focus on three geographical areas. The Elmira/Bank Street area was destined for complete renewal and for public housing. The Washington Street business center required some demolition and reconfiguring to become a viable commercial center, and the area between the business center and the beach would become an historic area. As part of preliminary planning steps, architectural historian Carolyn Pitts completed a 1964 survey of Victorian properties within what was expected to be the urban renewal district. The survey identified properties for renewal or demolition but, then as now, city decisions about demolition were not necessarily based on the survey. Many historic properties were demolished to accommodate new and non-historic projects.
By 1965, the city approved the $3.2 million 77-acre HUD-designated Victorian Village Urban Renewal Project. In the end, there were more than 100 demolished properties, three “new” streets and several large parking lots in the center of town, low income housing projects, beachfront changes, and the massive Victorian Towers to house elderly residents. Then as now, nothing was accomplished without the fights, legal suits, and government changes through which groups express their opinions.
A city-distributed urban renewal progress report outlined Cape May goals “to rehabilitate a complete center-city area into a reborn Victorian showplace designed to attract hundreds of thousands of American and foreign tourists; to revitalize downtown shopping areas; provide scores of improvements through new construction and renovation; and most important, to provide new bases of economic security for all its citizens.” Staff were hired to run the project and an office was established in the 300 block of Washington Street. The first project to be completed was the Victorian Village Plaza. Dedicated in 1966 and described as providing “the major nucleus of a revitalized merchant community,” the project required relocating a train station and demolishing a train depot and a number of other properties to create a 200-car parking lot and six retail stores including the Acme grocery store. Right across Washington Street, a whole block of businesses and a hotel were leveled to provide the large parcel of land needed for Victorian Towers. Additional properties were demolished to extend Ocean Street further north to Lafayette Street. A whole area of Cape May had been reconfigured.
Most of the urban renewal work was centered in the middle of the town. Creating a new business district and clearing out areas around Lafayette Street were primary targets. Three blocks of Washington Street were selected to be closed off into a walking mall, an action that city fathers stated will “engender more life in the main shopping area particularly in the fall and winter.” Numerous properties were demolished on the mall blocks to be replaced by modern “Victorian-like” stores, a trend that has continued right up to the present. On the eastern end, the Liberty Theater was demolished and replaced with a series of small stores lining a newly-created Liberty Walk. A modern two-story building, built as Charles Sandman’s offices, eventually becomes a shopping mall complete with an escalator; another newly constructed building was a mid-century modern building with a front façade of vertical wood boards. Other properties were demolished to create three walkways paralleling Ocean, Decatur, Jackson, and Perry streets named for Cape May heroes, Edwin Draper, MD, Henry Sawyer, and Edwin Hill.
The mall was anchored on the eastern end by the Victorian Village Plaza. The western end, along Perry Street and Congress Place, included Congress Hall’s parking garages and three historic properties – the Pink House, Moon’s Drug Store, and the small hotel/boarding house called the Elberon. One idea was for the Pink House to be moved and turned around so that it faced the end of the mall. But, properties were taken by eminent domain and suddenly seven properties were being demolished to create land space for the modern Victorian Motel, destined to provide city ratables that the Victorian properties may not. Before the wreckers got to the Pink House, it was purchased by Tom Hand and moved across the street to a lot on Perry Street next to his Cape May Star and Wave offices where today it looks as though it has been there forever.
Creating the pedestrian mall eliminated street parking and store access thereby requiring redesign of the area around the mall to recreate parking and give delivery access. The solution was to carve out two new wide streets on either side behind the mall by demolishing still more existing properties to create roadways with diagonal parking. Although little accommodation was made for trash or storage, most stores had back doors for deliveries and many stores actually fronted on these new streets. Lyle Lane was created on the north from Mansion Street and renamed Lyle Lane in honor of a local Cape May family. A section of Layle Lane was renamed back to Mansion Street when Perry Collier opened the Mansion House restaurant and discovered the street’s original name. Carpenters Alley already existed south of Washington between Decatur and Ocean and was extended over to Ocean Street demolishing four more houses, renamed Carpenters Lane, and continued behind the other two blocks over to Perry Street resulting in another 20 demolitions. In fact, the massive number of demolitions created another problem for the city – how to dispose of the buildings once they were torn down.
The mall may have been the cornerstone project, but large tracts of land in the center city area were cleared of businesses and houses to create parking. Many properties were identified as Victorian in the survey, but they were torn down anyway. Tiny Chestnut Street, running parallel to Perry between Mansion and Broad Street, was virtually obliterated by demolishing all 14 structures on the street to create a city parking lot. Additional properties across from the parking lot and from the corner of Lafayette to Broad were destroyed including the long popular Opera House. Another 10 houses were torn down along Lafayette between Jackson and Decatur to create another parking lot, which at the last minute became Rotary Park, an eventual location for city-sponsored concerts. This area was cleared by destroying businesses and homes of the African American community. Even more African American-owned properties were demolished along Broad Street and further east on Lafayette and replaced with affordable housing units. City fathers created a “War on Blight” in the center of town that physically demolished houses and businesses while simultaneously almost eliminating 60 African-American businesses and simultaneously contributing to the reduction of the town’s African American population from about 800 to the 200 present day residents.
Little of the beachfront was included in the renewal project district, to the great relief of developers who were anxious to start building those new motels that line today’s beachfront. Like today, owners of existing hotels within the Victorian Village district wanted to offer tourists better accommodations by becoming more modern and up-to-date. Carl McIntyre, a minister from Collingswood, New Jersey, purchased and moved a number of historic properties so that beachfront land became available for the Colonial and other existing hotels got to build adjacent motels with parking. The saved historic houses became dormitories for Dr. McIntyre’s newly opened Sheldon College and, as the college declined, these same properties took on new life as condominiums and a bed and breakfast inn. Other historic properties did not fare so well. The Baltimore Inn on Jackson Street was demolished by the city to create land for a new motel that eventually failed and was reconfigured into the Tides Condominium. Right next door, on the corner of Jackson and Beach, the Hedges, a private home that had already been converted into the then-popular Arnold’s restaurant, was replaced by miniature golf. The very-Victorian Colton Court hotel was torn down to allow a modern motel, also named Colton Court, to rise in its place. The Lafayette Hotel, one of the oldest and most prominent of the remaining Victorian hotels, became another demolition statistic, torn down and replaced on the same site by a new hotel with in-front parking.
The 68 demolitions achieved in the first half of the urban renewal project were listed in the city’s published progress report as an accomplishment. One can only guess at the percent of Cape May properties that were ultimately razed and be grateful that in the Cape May way, a new administration was voted in to stop the widespread destruction before there was little left of the original Victorian properties.
A lot might be said looking backward almost 50 years to the onset of urban renewal. The goal of creating a stable year-round economic base for all residents did not materialize. If anything, Cape May’s economy is more dependent on tourism than ever before in its history. Then as now, few elected or employed city officials have provided knowledgeable leadership to guide meaningful historic preservation efforts although nobody has avoided talking the historic preservation talk when useful. Perhaps urban renewal funds were just the ticket to mobilize Cape May residents and provide a base from which newcomers would create the bed and breakfast, restaurant, and cultural changes to come. In hindsight, we do not, after all, look like other New Jersey shore towns where almost anything historic (or not) is gone. On the other hand, there may be more “Victorians” in Cape May now than in the 1960s if we are willing to count all the newly constructed sort-of Victorians that have been added since the real Victorian period ended.
Editor’s Note: This article is based on a Then and Now picture exhibit put together by Harry Bellangy, president, Greater Cape May Historical Association and exhibited at the Association’s Colonial House during the summer of 2011.
It should be noted that Mickie Blomkvest served on Cape May City Council from 1968-1972 during Urban Renewal. Mr. Blomkvest later went on to serve as mayor of Cape May from 1976-1988.