Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cape May, New Jersey

Tomorrow, I'll pull together a wrap-up post highlighting all of the interesting tidbits I learned at the Spring 2012 meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference. However, Today's post will focus on the meeting's charming host city: Cape May, New Jersey.

The first European settlers came to Cape May, the southernmost point in New Jersey, in the late seventeenth century, and the city first became a tourist destination in the early 19th century. For much of the 19th century, it was one of the most prominent resorts in the country.

The city's chief attraction is, of course, its sandy beach, which the city and state are trying mightily to protect from erosion. Of course, when one is strolling along the shoreline on a peaceful spring evening, the fragility of Cape May's coast doesn't weigh heavily upon one's mind.

Many of the hotels on eastern Beach Avenue, which runs parallel to Cape May Beach, were built during the early or mid-20th century. The Kate McCreary House at 1005 Beach Avenue, which was probably designed by the firm of Zantziger, Borie, and Medary and built in 1922-1924, is one of them. Local residents have long referred to it as the "Mae West House" on account of its protruding porches, and the current owners have capitalized on this fact by naming it the "May West House."

However, owing to an 1878 fire that destroyed much of the city's center, many of the extant buildings in the heart of the city were built during the late Victorian era. Congress Hall, the conference hotel, is one of the most significant of these late 19th-century structures. The hotel, which was designed by J.F. Meyer, hosted a number of current and former Presidents, including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Benjamin Harrison, who made the hotel into the "summer White House" and conducted affairs of state within its facilities. Composer John Philip Sousa was also a frequent guest.

The William and C.S. Church-designed Colonial Hotel, which was built in 1894-1895 and expanded in 1905, is another fine example of a late Victorian hotel on Beach Avenue.

Noted American architect Stephen Decatur Button designed a substantial number of the hotels and private residences that were built in the wake of the 1878 fire. The E.C. Knight House at 203 Congress Place is an excellent example of his work.

The Jacob Neafie House at 26-30 Congress Avenue predates the 1878 fire: it was built in 1865-1866. Several other structures on Congress Avenue also survived the flames.

This modest but charming home on Perry Street is likely another survivor of the fire.

A significant number of the homes in Cape May are shingle-style structures. This home on Ocean Street is a fine example.

The home at 102 Ocean Street was built in 1881-1882 for the family of Cape May native and Delaware River pilot Douglas Gregory. It is now part of a cluster of four homes that comprises the Queen Victoria Bed and Breakfast.

The Queen Anne-style home at 26 Ocean Street was built in 1886 as a summer home for William Essen and his family, who had immigrated from Germany. Now it's home to the Columbia House guesthouse.

This Ocean Street shingle-style home has a porch that was almost certainly added some time after the home was built. It's a bit of a visual hodgepodge, but attractive nonetheless.

I'm a sucker for wood-frame Gothic Revival churches. This structure on Franklin Street, which is several blocks away from the beach, which was designed by C.H. Brown and built in 1879, lost its steeple in a storm at some point in the early 20th century. It was home to the First Baptist Church until 1916, and for several decades afterward it served as a Methodist church. It now houses condominiums.

I love this simple yet elegant window.

This modest home sits directly opposite the former First Baptist Church. It's older, smaller, and plainer than the late Victorian homes closer to the shore. However, the sign in front of the building explains its significance: it was built in 1846 for Stephen Smith, an African-American clergyman and abolitionist who owned a Philadelphia lumber business. Smith was a wealthy man, and the simplicity of his summer home contrasts greatly with that of the large, ornate seasonal residences that were built closer to the shore in the decades that followed the 1878 fire. One wonders whether other affluent people built similar homes prior to the Civil War or whether Smith, who was verbally and physically attacked during the Philadelphia race riots of 1834 and 1835, felt compelled to keep a low profile.

If you ever get the chance to visit Cape May, by all means do so. It's a lovely place.

Note: unless otherwise indicated, all information about the history of the structures depicted above is taken from Wikipedia, s.v. Cape May Historic District.

1 comment:

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