May 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 3
“It’s supposed to rain,” I mentioned to my editor on the eve of my departure for Cape May, New Jersey, I thinking he might suggest I postpone the trip. Commanding the very southern tip of the state and celebrated for its beaches, its Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, and its hospitality to flocks of migrating birds, Cape May would be paradise in fine weather. But in the rain in the coldest April in living memory?
“Cape May looks good in the rain,” Richard answered.
“It’s going to rain for three days,” I said grimly to the bird watcher on staff, still hoping for a reprieve.
“When the rain lets up, the birds sing their loudest,” Fred replied, “and that’s the best way to spot them.”
So that bright spring morning we headed south to the last exit on the Garden State Parkway. “See that dark ridge of clouds over there?” my husband asked our two boys. “That’s a sure sign of a storm front moving in.” As Route 109 turned into Lafayette Street, modest weathered-shingle bungalows gave way to three- and four-story houses trimmed with bargeboards, balustrades, and cupolas, each freshly painted in cheerful palettes. (I briefly imagined the early eager trips to the paint store, the descent into bickering and reproach, the vast stretches of basement storing rejected quarts of turquoise and lavender.) More than 600 authentically restored Victorian structures survive in Cape May, one of the largest concentrations in the nation.
The downpour began around noon, just as we stopped to pick up a map at Cape May’s Welcome Center, housed in an old church. ( KEEP DOOR SHUT , pleaded a sign posted at the entrance. HEAT IS ON .) Inside, a VCR showed scenes of sunburned vacationers in horse-drawn carriages. The film gave a good introduction to Cape May’s history: its early days as the hunting and fishing grounds of a tribe of Lenni Lenape Indians, its rise as a resort in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its struggles in the twentieth century as Atlantic City and Wildwood built casinos and roller coasters, luring away all the tourists.
After we checked into the hotel I’d chosen for the sake of the children—it had a rooftop restaurant (closed) and a heated pool (empty)—we set off for the nature preserve a few miles down the road. When the rain let up, we took a white pebble path that began at the parking lot, walking on tiptoe, instinctively whispering. Within seconds a flock of exotic-looking birds with curved bills banked and wheeled just above our heads. We attached ourselves to a man with long gray hair who had thought to bring a field guide and binoculars. “Glossy ibis,” he murmured. He also identified the kill-deer drinking out of a puddle and then moved off in the direction of the ocean. The path continues half a mile or so to the beach, where signs remind visitors to be considerate of nesting plovers.
Cape May is named for a Dutch explorer, Captain Mey, who sailed up the bay in 1621. The first settlement was situated here on the southernmost part of the peninsula. Lost to erosion, what was once the town of South Cape May is now a brackish wetlands and marsh attractive to many species of birds. In spring and fall, thousands of migrating songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl stop here on their route along the Atlantic flyway.
Bird watchers have been coming to Cape May since the days when they studied rare species by shooting them and mounting their skins. Alexander Wilson, a Scotsman who was an early rival of John James Audubon, visited in 1810. At nearby Egg Harbor (named for its abundance of swan, goose, and duck eggs), Audubon painted the snowy owl and bald eagle.
Nonbirders came to escape the heat in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. According to tradition at least, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay, Ulysses S. Grant, and Harriet Tubman all visited. President Benjamin Harrison vacationed here in 1890 and 1891, introducing Americans to the concept of a summer White House. The four-story colonnaded Congress Hall where he conducted business still stands. Later in the century, hotel owners piled on additional floors to squeeze in more guests.
On our second day in town, the boys bicycled off to play miniature golf while I visited the Emlen Physick Estate, an imposing gabled residence open for tours several times a day. I joined a group led by Mary Ann Schrobsdorff of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. Emlen Physick, she told us, was the grandson of Philip Syng Physick, the father of American surgery. Perhaps prompted by family pressures or his unusual name, Emlen Physick trained as a physician, but he retired from his practice at 22 to devote himself to buying and selling real estate. The house he built in Cape May in 1879, attributed to the architect Frank Furness, has 18 rooms lit by gasoliers. Each fixture looks jury-rigged out of a random collection of hardware catalogues; when styles or technology changed, Dr. Physick just added another arm. Each gas jet, our guide explained, provided the equivalent of a seven-and-a-half-watt bulb; to read or see your companion, you had to pull your chair right up under the fixture.
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.
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.