Cape May, article Cape May, article Gingerbread City
Cape May Houses
San Jose Mercury 9/16/01

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America's Prettiest Painted Town Is A Time Trip By Antoinette May

On a clear day you can see forever from the top of the Cape May lighthouse. It's a gorgeous view. Of course, it takes 199 steps to get there. I counted all of them. Penance to the calorie goddess.

The tiny jewel box village below has a surprising number of sinfully good restaurants. I'd managed to track most of them. Through the lighthouse windows, you see Cape May's beach extending in both directions. It's not grand like Newport or gaudy like Atlantic City, but it does have history-plenty of it.

New Jersey's Cape May, America's oldest seashore resort, has a unique character and a story that goes way back. Sir Henry Hudson first spotted the place in 1609 and was

quickly followed by Cornelius Jacobsen Mey who colonized it.

When the English supplanted the Dutch and New Amsterdam became New York, Cape Mey morphed to May. The first tourists arrived in the 1750s, traveling by horse-drawn wagon, stagecoach, sloop and schooner. They came to "take the waters." Of course, for the next 150 or so years they didn't do much swimming. Their sedate, but popular pastime was known as "wading on the strand." Wading, that was it-their feet never left the sand.

A string of bath houses lined the beach for discrete changing. It was unthinkable that anyone would wear their wading costume on the street. Initially, men and women didn't even visit the strand at the same time. A white flag warned men that the beach was off limits. They were not to approach unless the women indicated distress of some kind. But, as time passed, more and more women

did signal 'distress" and the flag business was abandoned altogether.

First the pre-Civil War southern aristocracy considered Cape May their private preserve, then Philadelphia's financial barons. Presidents Franklin Pierce, Ulysses Grant and Chester Arthur vacationed at Cape May while in office, and Benjamin Harrison made his summer White House there.

The march king, John Philip Sousa, performed his "Congress Hall March" at the hotel of that name and composed the tune, "Our Flirtation," while honeymooning there.

During those high old times, the largest hotel in the world was constructed in Cape May with accommodations for 3500 guests. Curiously, the town's current reputation rests on a twisted set of circumstances that came after the era of the grand hotels. The Victorian architecture that has caused Cape May to be voted the Prettiest Painted Place in America by the North

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America Paint Quality Institute exists because, in 1878, a fire destroyed most of the original town.

While a new Cape May was rising from the ashes, other flashier resorts such as Atlantic City came into vogue allowing the little town to languish quietly in its own beauty virtually undisturbed.

What historians, antique lovers, and foodies find today is an incredible collection of 19th Century buildings. There are more than 600 of them-so many that the entire town has been declared a National Historic Landmark. Many of their interiors are easily accessible for they've become B and Bs or restaurants.

The upwardly mobile Victorians who made their homes in Cape May agreed on one thing. There was no such thing as too much. That's what makes this tiny time capsule such fun to explore. Even the outhouses have cupolas.

The town's centerpiece is the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room mansion built in 1879, and considered one of the finest

examples of Victorian "Stick Style" architecture in America.

The house, now a Museum of Victorian Living, was built for an unusual-but very Victorian sounding-household: Dr. Emlen Physick, who never married; his widowed mother and maiden aunt.

Their fortune was derived from a famous Philadelphia medical family. Though forbears didn't concoct the original physic, as one might imagine, an ancestor, Dr. Philip Physick did invent the stomach pump. Among his famous patients was Dolley Madison, wife of the president.

The Physicks had the wherewithal to hire Frank Furness, possibly the top architect of his time, and today considered by the American Institute of Architects one of America's ten greatest, to design their home.

Its distinguished by a grid-like pattern on the exterior walls, gigantic, upside-down corbelled chimneys; hooded "jerkin-head" dormers; distorted, oversized features (a Furness trademark); and

huge stick-like brackets on the porch.

There are Furness signature touches inside as well--interior moldings, fireplaces and even furniture. His artful repetition of designs and patterns are impressive but not nearly so much fun as the telling lifestyle details throughout the house.

I loved the numerous "fainting couches"-chaise lounges conveniently placed in nearly every room. Victorian women, prisoners of their corsets, really needed them. And, as though whale bones stays weren't torture enough, women of the late 19th Century took small amounts of arsenic to keep their complexions fashionably pale and even used leaches to drain their blood before particularly festive occasions.

Victorian residents of Cape May, a tiny microcosm of their time, believed fervently in the Horacio Alger tradition.

Many did rise from rags to riches and wanted everyone to recognize it. This was

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an era when all agreed that more was better. Their "if you've got it, flaunt it" philosophy spilled over into curlicues and cupolas, towers and stained glass, gingerbread and scrolls.

Cape May is easily Victoriana's greatest outdoor museum where one can enjoy splendid examples of Queen Anne, mansard, Gothic revival, Colonial revival, Italinate and "drunken architect" styles interspersed by a few clean-lined Federalist homes. It's a visual feast, but Cape May's sensual pleasures don't stop there.

High tea in the Carriage House of the Physick Estate is a step back into the world of Victoriana. You wouldn't want to miss their cucumber sandwiches with mint butter. The sea view from the Pelican Club, the Washington Inn's sixth floor "penthouse," is also great but so's the delicious grilled yellow-fin tuna served there.

The Union Park Restaurant with its

fireplaces, cherry and mahogany furnishings, antique fixtures and silver service, is another delight. Its owner-chef, Christopher Hubert has received many awards-most recently first place in the national Cervena Venison Plates Competition.

My own favorite is the Ebbitt Room in the historic Virginia Hotel, a lacy gingerbread gothic, where the food has won just about every award imaginable. Don't missthe grilled day boat scallops. But then you wouldn't want to forget the Mad Batter either where the best pancakes in town are served. You can see, the list goes on and on.

The food seems uniformly good in Cape May and dining in rooms seductively rich in curlicue shadows and scrollwork adds to the pleasure.

Don't think of Cape May as merely a summer marvel. Its

season lasts well into November. And humans visitors aren't the only ones to savor its unique potential. Butterflies, egrets, dragonflies, hawks and herons, horseshoe crabs and turtles have been holidaying on the strand for more than 300 million years.

The peninsular geography, westerly winds and diverse habitats creates a perfect environment for birds and butterflies to rest and feed before continuing their migration.

From September through November, Cape May County hosts hundreds of different species of birds, dragonflies, butterflies and the visitors who enjoy watching them. So rare and beautiful is this area that it has been named one of the Last Great Places In the World by the Nature Conservency.

The hawk viewing platform at Cape May Point State Park regularly hosts 100,000 visitors each season and the meadows between Cape May and Cape May Point are a prime place to see dozens of egrets

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gathered for their annual migration.

The fall season offers plenty of opportunity for boat trips to view the last of the dolphins and perhaps a whale or two before the ocean and bay water temperature gradually cools. There are also back bay inlets and salt marsh areas to experience plant life, tidal flows, fish, crustaceans and even some lazy turtles sunning themselves in the late afternoon.

Information about the program may be obtained by calling the Cape May Department of Tourism at 1-800-227-2297 or by going to

To reach Cape May, take exit O off the Garden State Parkway. Its located 47 miles from Atlantic City, 98 from Philadelphia.

The Ebbitt Room, 25 Jackson Street, Cape May, NJ. Reservations: l-800-732-4236.

Union Park, 727 Beach Ave., Cape May, NJ. Reservations: 1- 609 884-8811

Twinings Tearoom, in the Carriage House of the Emlen Physick Estate. l048 Washington Street, Cape May. Reservations: 1-609-884-5404, ext. 138.

Pelican Club, 404 Wasington St. Cape May, NJ. Reservations: 1-609-884-9292

Mad Batter, 19 Jackson St., Cape May, NJ. Reservations: 1- 609-884-5970.

My own true love is Twin Gables, a 1879 vintage Victorian with a broad veranda for rocking. I liked the comfortable wicker furniture and found this a wonderful spot for afternoon teas and delicious breakfasts. The inn is tastefully furnished with authentic marble top dressers and nightstands, high carved headboards and lace curtains that sway to ocean breezes.
Very nostalgic! 731 Columbia Ave., Cape May, NJ. Reservations : 609-884 7332 or 1-888-966-7332.

The King's Cottage, another Frank Furness design, is a lovely example of "stick style" architectue. Each room has a lovely ocean view.
9 Perry St. Cape May, NY Reservations: 1-877-258-1876.

The Mooring has a fantasy feel to its grand entrance hall and soaring spiral staircase that leads to mauve bowers, sea views and claw-footed tubs. 801 Stockton Ave., Cape May, NJ. Reservations: 1-609 884-5425.

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