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Cape May: Victorian by the Sea


I have to start by admitting I've only barely been to Cape May in the past, and my most recent visit, last October, was in, well, the 'off' season, so I lack the expertise to tell you what it's like in summer. But I have hints, and I have history, so...


Part of that history is how Cape May, which is famous for its seemingly endless parade of Victorian and pseudo-Victorian homes happened to have that seemingly endless parade. And the answer is, Fire. A fire in 1869 destroyed thirty-five buildings in the not-too-large town, and another, in 1878, burned for five days and destroyed 30 square blocks of the town center.


Rebuilding was fairly quick in both cases, and, since it was the Victorian era, most of the newly-built houses were built in Victorian styles. And they have been preserved. Only San Francisco has more well-maintained Victorians, and since 1976, the entire city has been a National Historic Landmark, the only city that's completely designated.


Many of the houses were built large, bigger than many families needed, because that made space available to rent out to summer vacationers; quite a few operated as boarding houses (or, as we might call them now, bed and breakfasts). Even then, one of Cape May's biggest industries was its visitors.


That's earlier than most resorts can claim, and Cape May is arguably the country's oldest beach resort. Conveniently located down the Delaware River from Philadelphia and  at the point where the Delaware meets the sea, it started attracting summer visitors from Philadelphia in the mid-1700s. A hundred years later, the railroad arrived, bringing even more visitors.


Of course, tourism hasn't been the only industry; commercial fishing has played a role, especially after a sheltered harbor was developed in the early 20th century. And, because of its strategic location at the mouth of the Delaware, it has had a cluster of Navy facilities, especially during World War II.

Earlier than that, in the 1860s, a local man established a gold leaf business, where gold was rolled and pounded into ever-thinner sheets to be applied as decoration on all manner of objects, and on domes and roofs and steeples. The business lasted just shy of a hundred years, and enabled its owner to build a large house with its own railroad siding.


Strolling the streets in early fall, without crowds, it's easy to be impressed with the good condition, and often bold colors of the buildings. It's clear that it takes a good bit of maintenance to keep them that way, and I saw quite a few people at work on it.

P1090899P1090904While Victorian gingerbread is the style of choice, it's not all there is to be seen, although quite a few of the non-Victorians have a bit of gingerbread applied. And, some of the houses near the center are a good deal older, having survived the fires of the 1800s. The red one above dates to 1700, and the white one, which goes by the name of The Screen Door Slams, is an 1832 house rebuilt in 1863.

P1090897P1090950That's not the only whimsical name to be found; Mama's Beach House is out there, and a string of others, but the dignified or pretentious can be found, too. And so can bits of whimsical decor; one house has a bird house in the yard that's a miniature Victorian, and this one has a fanciful 'mer-horse' ready to dive off the porch. It was this week's One-Clue Mystery; George G solved it.


Porches, some of them quite large, are a prominent feature here. In the years before air conditioning, vacationing families as well as locals appreciated evening breezes that didn't necessarily reach their small rooms.


As with any architectural gesture, enough of it can become too much of it and inspire buildings that almost seem self-parody. The first may have once had a second-floor porch before it took on pretensions of Tara; the second is the Congress Hall, a much-extended 1816 building that calls itself the country's oldest seaside resort. Twice it served as a 'Summer White House' for Presidents Grant and Harrison. It took the Congress Hall name in 1828 when its owner was elected to Congress. And, Sousa wrote a march for it in 1882.


Towers and turrets of various sorts have their place as well; Cape May is well supplied with them.


And, to be honest, after an afternoon of enjoying a really nice walk through really nice streets with really nice houses, it was a refreshing change to find at least one example of true re-muddling.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Me, too, and I will! Aside from the houses, I was really impressed with a couple of very nice small parks, and one of the best-I've-seen re-imagining of the downtown retail area.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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