Cradle Of The Bed-and-breakfast

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The tour included upstairs bedrooms with hand-carved headboards but shallow closets (clothes hangers hadn’t been invented yet) and a kitchen and dining room filled with specialized tools and dishes. “You’d serve celery in a celery holder,” Mary Ann said, “so that everyone would know you could afford celery.” The woman who owned the house in the 1950s had painted the whole kitchen pink, even the stove.

Perhaps the most indelible impression I took away from the Physick house is a 1970 photograph of it that hangs on a wall in a downstairs lobby. Although we now tend to think that Victorian mansions have always been in demand (and the Wall Street fortunes to take care of them plentiful), in this photo every trace of paint has vanished, and the roof and porch sag. Children used to cross the street to avoid passing the house, Mary Ann told us, and it was easy to see why.

Cape May’s latest renaissance grew out of the scene captured in that photograph. Nineteen seventy was the year a few dedicated preservationists won a federal grant to begin restoration of the Emlen Physick house, only to have the local government turn the money down, preferring to build something on the site that could be counted on to bring in tax revenue. Both sides had a point, of course; towns need income to survive. Fortunately for those of us who love old buildings, the preservationists won the day. They recruited volunteers to sand and paint, fix the roof, reglaze the windows. And saving that house turned out to be a first step in a sort of reverse domino effect.

IN SPRING AND FALL, THOUSANDS OF MIGRATING SONGBIRDS, RAPTORS, AND WATERFOWL STOP AT CAPE MAY ON THEIR ROUTE ALONG THE ATLANTIC FLYWAY.

Tom Carroll was a Coast Guard ensign stationed in Cape May when he joined in the fight to save the Physick estate. Soon afterward he and his wife launched the second stage of Cape May’s revival. “Sue and I,” he explained, “were the first to take a Cape May rooming house, which nobody stayed in except for purely budgetary reasons—it was cheaper than a motel—and try to turn it into something we had experienced in Europe, the bed-and-breakfast. There were a few in New England at the time, but it was nothing like the industry it’s become today.” The Carrolls bought an 1872 Italianate villa that had once been a gentlemen’s gambling club and transformed it into the Mainstay Inn, 12 elegant rooms furnished with antiques. “After that,” Carroll continued, “along came hotels like the Queen Victoria, restaurants like the Washington Inn and Louisa’s CafÉ. The volunteer firemen got involved by doing a fire museum. The Rotary Club took on re-creating the band shell.” Starting around 1982, at Carroll’s urging, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts got involved in preserving the 1859 Cape May Lighthouse, the centerpiece of the park on Cape May Point, surrounded by miles of nature trails through the bird refuge. I asked Carroll if he was a birder. “I can pretty much pick out a redwing blackbird,” he said. “I’m getting better, though. When you have breakfast with guests every morning, you learn about a lot of things.”

Cape May now has scores of fine hotels and bed-and-breakfasts; the challenge is to narrow the choice to just one. The best solution may well be to visit more than once and spend your first stay plotting your second. Many of the inns invite passersby to tour the downstairs; at Captain Mey’s, when I dropped in, the lady of the house was in the dining room explaining to visitors the painstaking process of cleaning the chandelier.

On the second afternoon of our stay, the sun began to filter through the storm clouds, and we made our way to Higbee’s Beach on Delaware Bay. Primeval-looking shrubs anchor the dunes, their twisted forms interspersed with what might have been beach plums in bloom. We found a spot out of the wind, turned our faces to the sun, and watched the sandpipers skitter along the shore. Behind them, the car ferry from Lewes, Delaware, crossed the bay and eased up to its landing. If Cape May looks good in the rain, it dazzles in the sunshine; on the way back into town, I searched longingly for a FOR SALE sign on a cottage near the lighthouse.

One warm afternoon the following September, walking in my landlocked urban neighborhood, I heard a toddler in a stroller wail to her father, “I want to go back to Cape May.” I knew just how she felt.

TO PLAN A TRIP