CAPE MAY, N.J. -- Cape May is a town of mauves and chartreuses, ochres and pinks, the colors of hundreds of Victorian-era summer cottages that have made the old resort a national landmark.
At the southern tip of New Jersey, dangling into Delaware Bay just below the Mason-Dixon line, Cape May draws people from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and points south; Lewes, Del., is 70 minutes away by ferry.
Cape May also stands apart from the rest of the Jersey shore. It's a cozy, genteel haven.
Cape May, once a base for whalers, was a thriving resort by the 1850s. Carriages rolled across the broad beach front; steamships came up the coast; vacationers filled big, L-shaped seaside hotels. In 1865, a railroad link to Philadelphia was completed. But arsonists repeatedly devastated the town; the largest fire, in 1878, destroyed 35 acres. The fires meant rebuilding; as a result, much of the city dates from the 1860s through the 1890s. Yet by World War I, Cape May had been overshadowed by other seaside towns, from Atlantic City to Newport, R.I. It became a quiet outpost, used for fishing and as a military base.
With little redevelopment, the 19th-century summer cottages remained. Eventually, some residents began to see the whimsical old homes as a potential attraction. A preservation movement, begun in the 1960s, put Cape May's 600 Victorian buildings on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970, and secured landmark status in 1976, though not before some beach motels had been established. Part of Washington Street was converted to a pedestrian shopping mall; dozens of cottages were turned into bed-and-breakfasts, more of them each year. Gradually, Cape May won back its tourists.
Now, visitors are an unlikely coalition of beachgoers, Victoriana buffs and bird-watchers, who prize Cape May's location on major coastal migration routes. The town also has some of the best restaurants in New Jersey.
Until recently, the Southern Mansion was a haunted-looking three-story house occupying an overgrown city block. But new owners have poured millions of dollars into renovation. Built in 1863-1864, the house is an American version of an Italian villa, with a 48-foot-long ballroom and 14 guest rooms. A 10-room annex, scheduled for completion before New Year's Eve, imitates the style of the original building. The exterior has been repainted its original shades of green, beige and chocolate-brown, and a meticulous renovation has put new slate on the roof and fresh gold leaf on the ballroom's giant mirrors. Even the door hinges and window locks are highly decorated brass.
Cape May is still a fishing town. Along Fisherman's Wharf, a working fishery has grown into a tourist complex, with a restaurant, a raw bar, a souvenir shop, a fish market with a takeout counter and a bar that serves drinks on a schooner.
Whatever restraint the Victorians may have exercised in their deportment and discourse, their summer cottages repressed nothing.
Turrets and gables poke up asymmetrically, windows are scattered across facades, shingles lose their corners and woodwork trim becomes lace, spider webs, vines and arabesques.
The Abbey (Columbia and Gurney streets) is a Gothic-revival fancy with a 60-foot tower; a house at 130 Decatur St. has three peaked roofs, an arch like an eyebrow and porthole-shaped windows on its turret. The Henry L. Hunt House, at 201 Congress Place, sticks out in various directions and styles, including a circular belvedere on the second floor that looks like a miniature merry-go-round.
The lighthouse at Cape May Point is a slim, conical tower 157 feet high, which was built in 1859. Not long ago, it was repainted from white to a historically accurate tan, with a red top. It is still a working lighthouse, America's oldest, with an automatic beacon. But the town's Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts now administers it as a museum, and tourists can climb the 199 steps to the top.
The cast-iron staircase is perforated in a diamond pattern that creates magnificent moires from above and below. With a
landing about every 30 steps, the climb isn't difficult. The view from the top includes a marshy wildlife refuge next to the point's beach and an offshore concrete bunker built under the beach during World War II; 50 years of erosion have raised it well above the waves.
Nearby is Sunset Beach, which faces west. It has a rougher, more pebbly texture than the main beach; among the pebbles are so-called Cape May diamonds, sea-polished bits of quartz.
And offshore is another hunk of concrete: a failed experimental ship built after World War I, which became beached while being towed.
The concrete boat was called the USS Atlantus; like its namesake, it sank.
Pub Date: 10/27/96