Touring Historic Cape May

The Old House Web

Text by Deborah Holmes
Photos by Diane Strumello

Emblen Physick Estate

The Emlen Physick Estate, an 18 room mansion built in 1879, is one of the cornerstones of Cape May's Historic District.

Fire is not often regarded as a friend of old houses, but just such devastation in 1878 allowed Cape May to reinvent itself as a Victorian seaside Mecca. A century later the New Jersey city once again faced devastation -- this time in the name of "modernization" in the 1960s. Once again the city rose phoenix-like from the ashes of urban decay to hold onto its self-designation as the country's oldest seashore resort.

Alarmed at the planned destruction of priceless examples of Victorian architecture, a handful of historians and forward-thinking community leaders led Cape May to a second renaissance. At the center of this latest revival is the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, headquartered in the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room mansion built in 1879, and attributed to renowned architect Frank Furness.

The Physick Estate was scheduled for demolition in 1970. Decades of neglect left the grand Stick Style mansion in shambles. The home built by one of the geniuses of American architecture was abandoned and vandalized, and had become the local "haunted house."

Bracket Detail

Shutter and bracket detail on another Cape May Victorian.

Trompe l'oiel porch
Fanciful trim and a trompe l'oiel skylight on a porch ceiling distinguish this Second Empire style Victorian.
Pink House
One of the best known homes in Cape May. The Pink House, or Eldridge Johnson House, is said to the fanciest porch trim in the city. The 1892 house is characterized by pierced wooden balusters, a two-story porch, bargeboard and finial on the gable end, decorative cornices on the first and second story windows and round arched windows on the second story. It was moved to its Perry Street location from Congress Street location in the 1970s. Click here for a measured drawing of the house.

The City of Cape May used state and federal grants to purchase the Physick Estate for $90,000 in 1973. MAC has a $1 per year long term lease of the estate, where it operates a Victorian museum, a tea room, and historic district tours and programs. At the same time, work began to recognize Cape May a National Historic Landmark District. This designation was given to the area encompassing 600 summer homes, hotels and commercial buildings in 1976. As part of the designation, the city adopted strict rules regarding restoration and rehabilitation of buildings in the historic district.

Having temporarily saved the Queen Anne, Italianate, Gothic, Shingle and Stick Style mansions from destruction, the city found itself with a practical problem. Few modern families could afford to purchase and restore, let alone maintain, a 10 or 20 room mansions. The solution came in the conversion of these vacation 'cottages' into bed and breakfast inns, restaurants and shops.

The homes offer the unique experience of visiting -- and living, if only for a weekend -- in the past. But two months of summer visitors are not enough to sustain a business on New Jersey's pricey shore. Business, art and community leaders are working hard to convince tourists that the city is worth a visit any time of year. Visit any one of the sites listed at the end of this story to find activities ranging from January events celebrating black history and entertainers to spring and fall house tours to Christmas festivals.

Cape May history

The earliest structures on the 20-mile stretch of New Jersey coastline known as Cape May date to the 1700s. The area was colonized in 1620, when Dutch Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, explored the Delaware River and named the peninsula Cape Mey, after himself. The spelling was later changed to its modern version. By 1791, the first hotel Cape May had its first hotel, "Atlantic Inn" on Jackson Street.

In 1878, a devastating fire, still referred to locally as "The Fire," destroyed a 30-block section of the town. That event is commemorated today with a walking tour of the area destroyed by the fire more than a century ago. The town, already a busy vacation destination, wasted no time in rebuilding. It couldn't afford to: Near-by Atlantic City, with its "modern" buildings and attractions such as boardwalks and Ferris Wheels, had been steadily luring wealthy Philadelphians away from Cape May.

Cape May Shore

Many still come to Cape May to enjoy a relaxing day on the beach.
(Click on picture for larger view)

Cape May Lighthouse

The Cape May Lighthouse, dating to 1859.
(Click on picture for larger view)

To pessimists, the 1878 fire was a disaster from which there was no recovery. To optimists, the destruction allowed Cape May to reinvent itself. More modest privately held vacation homes replaced some of the behemoth resorts, a conscious decision not to compete with Atlantic City. Cape May became an intimate, relaxed summer destination, a place to enjoy a "health-giving seabath."

Visiting Cape May today

Spiral staircase
This home features an exterior spiral staircase, perfect for warm weather wedding pictures.

Ware House
The Ware House, Hughes Street
(Click on picture for larger view)

(Click here for line drawing)

Gingerbread trim on a private home in Cape May
(Click on picture for larger view)

Dove House
Doves grace the trim as well as the etched glass sidelites of this doorway.

Cape May Garden
Many homes feature vintage gardens.
(Click on picture for larger view.)

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, a local cultural organization, highly recommends a tour of the area if you are a first time visitor. These tours, says MAC, will help you distinguish the round-turret Queen Anne homes from the arched-window Gothic Revival structures and the mansard-roofed Second Empire buildings.

  • Historic District walking tour. Guides lead daily walks that last about 1 hours through the heart of Cape May's historic district. Coordinated by the nonprofit Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts: (609) 884-5404.
  • Self-guided audio tours. Audio cassettes are available for those who want to take their own tour at their own pace. Contact: (609) 884-5404.
  • Trolley tours. Guided trolley tours take visitors through Cape May's historic East and West Ends.Contact: Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (609) 884-5404.

Building Tours

  • The Emlen Physick Estate is a good place to start. Tours through the mansion are conducted several times a day, some with actors playing the roles of the Physick family in the 1800's. Call (609) 884-5404. The Twinings Tearoom, located in the recently restored 1876 Carriage House on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate, serves Victorian luncheons and teas.
  • MAC also offers a self-guided interiors tour of five inns followed by afternoon tea at a historic hotel. Innkeepers are on hand to answer questions about their buildings. For tour information, call MAC at 800 275-4278.
  • The Colonial House tour provides a glimpse into life in pre-Victorian Cape May in the 1700s. This is the oldest house in Cape May, a reminder of the town's long history. Greater Cape May Historical Society, Washington and Franklin Sts.. (609) 884-9100 Open 10AM-2PM, Monday through Saturday.
  • Historic Cold Spring Village is a reenactment of a rural community in the mid 19th century. 729 Route 9 (Seashore Road), Cape May (609) 898-2300. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10AM-4:30PM. May through October.
  • Cape May County Historical Museum offers maritime, military and domestic items from Cape May's colonial and Victorian history. Cape May County Historical Society, In the John Holmes House, built in 1755. 504 Route 9, Cape May Court House (609) 465-3535.


Lodgings are as varied as the architecture in Cape May. Some inns welcome children and pets, others label these would-be visitors as "inappropriate." The sites listed below offer links to lodging information in Cape May.

Cape May Web sites

  • The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts http://www.capemaymac.org/ was formed in 1970 to save the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate from the wreckers ball. Today, MAC operates the Physick Estate as Cape Mays only Victorian house museum. MAC has also restored and operates the 1859 Cape May Lighthouse. MAC promotes the preservation and interpretation of Cape Mays Victorian heritage and the performing arts with a year-round schedule of special events and tours.
  • The Cape May Chamber of Commerce http://www.covesoft.com/Capemay/ offers everything from history to lodging information on its Web site.
  • Another comprehensive site with a variety of information is the Cape May Times: http://www.capemaytimes.com/

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