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A look inside the future home of the Harriet Tubman Museum

The exterior of the Howell House in November 2019 | Photo: Michelle Giorla

You’ve probably driven past the Howell House at 632 Lafayette Street and never noticed it. For years, the decaying and vacant parsonage of the Macedonia Baptist Church waited behind a chain-link fence. But in 2020, the house will begin its new life as the home of the Harriet Tubman Museum.

First some history. 

The Howell House, built as early as 1799 and prior to 1850, was owned by Philadelphia merchant George Howell. Looking at it from the street, the house’s style is a mix. According to Preservation New Jersey, its Colonial bones were modified during the late 19th century, adding the Gothic gable, porch, and dormers. But don’t be fooled by the Victorian touches. The Howell House is an example of pre-Victorian architecture, predating the 1878 fire that destroyed 40 blocks in Cape May across eleven hours. 

The front porch | Photo: Jessica Leeburg

Around 1909, Howell donated the house and land, located in a thriving African-American community, to the Macedonia Baptist Church. They constructed the current church on the neighboring lot and designated the Howell House as its parish house. The land behind it sold to the municipality to be used for the Franklin Street School. Howell House served as a parish house until the early 80s, but since that time, it sat empty, falling gradually into disrepair. Eventually deemed an unsafe structure, in 2012, Preservation New Jersey listed the parsonage as one of the top-ten endangered historic sites in the state

But in spite of the deterioration caused by decades of neglect, the fact that it sat untouched for years is why so much of the original pre-Victorian structure can be seen today. 

We met with Zack Mullock, one of the restoration project leaders, on a sunny November afternoon. He enthusiastically walked us through the progress they’d made so far, starting in the back of the house. The first step had been demolishing the old addition. Then a new A-frame addition called the Grand Gallery was tied into the existing ridge, opposite the house’s original A-frame roof. The exterior, once weathered to a dreary gray, was painted white. 

Inside, the structure was completely reframed—including underneath the floor, in order to preserve it. The drywall hadn’t been installed before our visit, leaving the original hand-hewn lumber exposed. A portion will be left uncovered, Zack said, as an example of early American architecture and building techniques. Along the house’s front wall, plywood boards blocked twin spaces where the original French doors will fit. They’ve been restored, including their original 1790’s glass panes, and wait in storage. 

The restoration is receiving public support. Local services and organizations are generously donating time and materials to complete the project. Zack Mullock (whose family owns the Chalfonte hotel), Cape May Contracting, and Bob Gleeson are serving as head contractors. Mohr Masonry poured the addition’s foundation. Fulcrum Design Group worked pro bono to design the new addition. Swain’s Hardware is donating all paint for the house. Cape May Lumber worked to secure a discount on the wood Jeldwen windows pitched in toward the remaining cost. Cape May Electric and Bud’s Plumbing will work wholesale. And Boy Scouts Troop 73 from West Cape May has painted the exterior for the past five weekends. 

When complete, the museum will occupy the house’s first floor. The two-story Grand Gallery will house automated exhibits and provide space for talks. In addition to information about Harriet Tubman, the museum will be home to historic African art and the Reverend Davis exhibits. It is scheduled to open on June 19, 2020 or Juneteenth, a day which commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States.

Next year also marks Harriet Tubman’s 200th birthday.

Harriet Tubman in Cape May

Harriet Tubman was 30 years old in 1852 when she worked as a cook in Cape May to fund her expeditions to free fugitive slaves. For more information about her time here, please read Harriet Tubman’s Cape May Connection (Cape May Magazine, June 2016) which is available free on our magazine’s website.

How you can help

We know our readers are passionate about historic preservation. Every time we post something about the Christian Admiral, we see dozens of reactions from people wishing it could have been saved. 

You can help ensure that the Howell House stands for future generations by giving a few dollars toward its preservation. The museum accepts donations through their website or at The Harriet Tubman Museum, PO Box 2385, Cape May, NJ 08204. All donations go toward building materials.

Visit harriettubmanmuseum.org or follow their Facebook page for updates.