Cape May, New Jersey's collection of Victorian homes attracts visitors from all over the world. It's no wonder. The entire New Jersey seashore town is a National Historic Landmark.
Who would have thought that such a magnificent architectural treasure trove got its start with a catastrophic fire?
Cape May looked a lot different before the fire of 1878. The town is the oldest seashore resort in the nation. In the 1800's, Cape May had quite a collection of classically designed seaside hotels.
The fire of 1878 wiped out 30 blocks of the early seashore town, including some of the resort's major hotels, including the original Congress Hall.
To this day, when someone in Cape May talks about "the fire" they're referring to this major event more than a hundred years ago.
The town wasted no time rebuilding. And, for the most part, the new buildings that went up were built in the modern style of the day...later known as the Victorian style... lots of gingerbread trim, gables and turrets.
That explains the huge concentration of late 19th Century dwellings in Cape May today...everything from Gothic Revival to Queen Anne design...all part of the country's Victorian era.
The homes were mostly single family seashore homes. They're often called "painted ladies" because of their colorful appearance. But those beautiful Victorian homes faced a new threat a hundred years later...just as serious as the fire of 1878.
It was the push to demolish the old, to make way for brand new construction in the last half of the 20th Century that almost did more damage than the fire of 1878.
Many fine old buildings were lost in the new building blitz before the entire town was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
But once they were saved from demolition, what would become of these relics from the Victorian era? Few modern day families could maintain an eight or ten bedroom house, with high ceilings, formal parlors, and often maids' quarters.
Slowly, many of Cape May's huge Victorian seaside "cottages" have been turned into bed and breakfast inns, guest houses and even restaurants.
Part of the charm of visiting Cape May today is taking a guided tour or a casual stroll through the historic district...the site of so much devastation in 1878.
Horses and carriages now patrol the streets as they used to do and there are annual Victorian festivals that draw history loving folks from all over the country. Although there are many structures built before the Victorian era in the area, (see Cold Spring Church as an example) Cape May has become synonymous with the Victorian period.
It hasn't been easy for the city's painted ladies to survive, but they've done it. And they welcome seaside visitors today, just as they did over a hundred years ago.- From Cape May Times
One reason for visiting Cape May during Christmas week is to enjoy how the town manages to transform itself from a summer destination to a winter destination also. For example, each year a local charity organization sponsors the annual "Designers' Showcase House." The year I visited the showcase house it was hosted at the "Memucan Hughes" house at 608 Hughes Street. Built in 1847 for Hughes, a ship pilot, this house had many Federal architectural features and had been added to, or renovated several times over the years. It seemed odd at first that the house was not a Victorian which Cape May is famous for, but it was beautiful nonetheless.
For this showcase, each room had been decorated by a different designer, and almost every room had been decorated for Christmas as well. The house is extremely large featuring 11 bedrooms and 6 baths alone, but we were not allowed in the private rooms. The rooms I managed to see were the library, parlor or living room, kitchen, enclosed sun porch, basement spa room, and wine cellar with its own dining room, the upstairs dining room, one bedroom and 2 baths, and the home theatre and game rooms on the top floor of the house. The necessary places had obviously been updated but the rooms sported beautiful furniture sprinkled with just the perfect showing of antiques, inviting linens, fireplaces, and cozy spaces throughout. The many tasteful Christmas decorations and Christmas trees were the icing on the cake.
Also located on the property and to the side of a very good-size backyard was a renovated Carriage House which had no less than 3 bedrooms and 2 baths itself!
This fabulous property was for sale including furnishings for the amazing sum of $3.8 million dollars including the Carriage House. If interested in the Carriage House alone, the asking price was $890,000!!
photos to follow
While not the only terrific thing about Cape May, the Victorian architecture at Cape May is definitely a highlight. These cottages, while not nearly as large as the "cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island, are substantial structures. The ones pictured here have the added feature of facing directly on the oceanfront. These cottages are privately owned, but may often be rented for summer months--not for those with light wallets!
Stroll around the Historic Center of town and marvel at the numerous victorian houses such as those pictured here. Many were built during the periods of the 1870s thru 1890s. Today, many of these historic homes are still lived in while others serve as Bed and Breakfasts and even some are retail shops.
The fancy pink house now houses a bridal shop.
Many lucky people are fortunate enough to own private, summer homes in Cape May about the size of the one pictured here. It may have a small lot, but don't be fooled. Houses of this size could cost probably around $400,000 (2005) or more unless they are in need of major repair. On our recent visit to Cape May (7/4/05), we found prices have sky-rocketed on the Jersey shore. For a somewhat larger Victorian with several bedrooms, and a larger yard than pictured here, you can expect to pay $750,000 and up if it is located near the center of town. The more Victorian detailed homes are the most sought after.
It is unfortunate that the accompanying picture of this little house doesn't reveal just how special it is in shades of cream, mauve and purple with hanging flower baskets of the same colors. I especially love the little window with lace curtains and shutters high up on the second story. (It's a girl thing!) Too bad it doesn't have a large yard, but I will wager that it has a lovely garden in the back.
This beautiful house is another example of the ornate, wordwork trim called "gingerbread" which is the signature feature of houses and often hotels in Cape May. During the 1800's, well-to-do families from Philadelphia and other areas, sea captains, and captains of industry marked Cape May as a summer retreat and built magnificent summer "cottages" here on the Jersey shore. Today, many of these cottages have been preserved and are reborn as Bed & Breakfasts lodgings. You'll pay a fair penny to stay in one of them.
You can imagine the upkeep of these buildings is definitely labor intensive due to the constant wear of the salt air, and intense sun which can prematurely deteriorate the woodwork and paint.
In 1869 a wealthy Pennsylvania coal baron John B. McCreary, decided to build an elaborate home on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Cape May. He contracted a famous architect, Stephen Decatur Button, to design his summer retreat and the result was a beautiful gothic villa with an imposing 60 foot tower, stenciled and ruby glass arched windows, large comfortable rooms and shaded verandas.
Today, this opulent home is a seaside bed & breakfast inn. Furnished with Victorian antiques including floor to ceiling mirrors, ornate gas lighting fixtures, tall walnut beds, private baths, and marble topped dressers, it is a step back to a bygone era.
One of the things that I had heard about Cape May was how many lovely Victorian houses they had. And out of the window of our streetside room, we saw a very pretty one.