New Jersey: Cape May Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A National Historic Landmark, the city of Cape May is a well-preserved nineteenth century oceanfront resort community. It contains approximately six hundred public and private buildings constructed between 1850 and 1910, with most built between 1878 and 1890.

Site Office

Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts

1048 Washington Street

Cape May, NJ 08204

ph.: (800) 275-4278; (609) 884-5404

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Given all that Cape May has been through, it is a wonder that it is still standing: For more than a century, the oceanside resort town, located at New Jersey’s southernmost tip, has weathered a series of devastating fires, powerful storms, and speculative land developments that, by all rights, should have rendered it a ghost town several times over. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of preservationists, helped along by Cape May’s natural attractions of a pleasant climate and beautiful beaches, the town has survived, with much of its Victorian-era charm intact. In fact, Cape May has today become a popular tourist destination for those longing to see its beautiful oceanfront, its preserved Victorian architecture, and its special events and seasonal festivals, qualities that have helped to make–and sustain–this community as the nation’s oldest seashore resort.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic Landmark city, Cape May today boasts more than six hundred preserved nineteenth century structures. Nearly all were built between 1850 and 1910, with most constructed between 1878 and 1890. Among the preserved buildings are private residences, hotels, and churches, some of which were designed by such famed architects as Frank Furness and Samuel Sloan. Many of these structures continue to fulfill their original purposes, as is the case with many of Cape May’s guesthouses. These charming turn-of-the-century inns have been authentically restored, right down to the period furniture and decorative appointments.

Most of Cape May’s preserved structures are located at the town’s center. They can be perhaps best seen on guided walking or trolley tours sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, the organization responsible for spearheading most of Cape May’s preservation efforts. These tours even provide access to the interiors of some of the structures. Those wishing to view Cape May on their own can walk through the historic district, although visitors should be aware that many of the buildings are privately owned and not open to the public.

Visitors can find some of the best examples of preserved Victoriana along Hughes Street, called by one travel guide “the prettiest street in town.” Other architectural treasures can be found along nearby Columbia Avenue, Howard Street, Gurney Street, Ocean Street, Beach Drive, Congress Place, and Perry Street. Particularly noteworthy are the Chalfonte Hotel at 301 Howard Street, built in 1876 and the oldest continuously operated hotel in Cape May, and the Emlen Physick House and Estate at 1048 Washington Street, a once-abandoned mansion that helped spark much of the community’s preservation drive.

The land on which Cape May is located is at the southern point of New Jersey, where the Atlantic Ocean meets Delaware Bay. While this land for all practical purposes resembles a cape, it is technically an island, cut off from the “mainland” by a creek and canal that run the width of the peninsula.

These progressive influences were limited, however, as most of Cape May’s structures reflected the simple styles that had been in vogue at mid-century. Charming though it may have been, however, this architectural conservatism contributed to Cape May’s decline as a resort. By the turn of the century, Cape May had become a “country town by the seashore,” as one author described it. Those seeking resorts with more glitz, glamour, and activity began flocking to such stylish locales as Saratoga, Newport, and Atlantic City. With the elimination of legal gambling in 1897 and legal liquor in 1899, Cape May lost two of its last remaining attractions.

Ironically, the architectural conservatism that helped bring about Cape May’s decline would be the spark behind its later rebirth. Many years would pass, however, before this regeneration occurred.

Early History

Sir Henry Hudson is credited with being the first European to arrive in the area. He noted the cape’s existence while on a 1609 exploration voyage. However, Hudson made no claim to the land. In fact, no such claim was made for another twelve years, when Dutch seaman Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey sailed by while on a voyage for the Dutch East India Company. Mey, whose name was later Anglicized to May, claimed the land for the Netherlands and bestowed his own name upon it. He believed the land possessed great beauty and tremendous potential for development. He was right, but his thinking was several hundred years ahead of its time. Cape May would develop, but without much influence from the Dutch.

In the years following Mey’s claim, a few Dutch settlers followed, but most of the area’s early population growth, beginning in about 1638, came from transplanted New Englanders. These resettled Yankees moved to the area in hopes of developing a whaling industry. As time passed, the whaling industry did not live up to expectations, so many of the new arrivals and their descendants took to farming for a living. By 1660, the area came under English control, prompting most of the Dutch settlers to leave; they either moved west to Delaware or north to New Netherland (which would quickly become New York).

Little changed over the next century. Whaling and farming sufficiently sustained the residents of Cape Island, as the area was known then. On June 20, 1766, a small but significant event took place that would ultimately set the region on a new course. Robert Parsons, a Cape May farmer, placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette, enticing summer vacationers to come enjoy “the healthful benefits of bathing in local waters.” The ad further went on to invite “paying guests” to his spacious home. So it was that Cape May’s tourist industry was born.

Long History as a Vacation Spot

Although the Pennsylvania Gazette advertisement was the first known document to solicit the business of paying visitors, vacationers had been summering at the cape on a more informal basis for some time. The Kechemeche Indians, for example, had been coming to Cape May for many years to get away from the inland summer heat. The cape was a popular destination for such escapes because, as a peninsula, it received the cooling breezes of both the ocean and the bay.

In the ensuing years, word gradually spread about Cape May. Development was slow at first, but after the War of 1812, the community entered a period of steady growth. In addition to its sparkling beaches and beautiful weather, Cape May had another advantage in its proximity to the major population centers of the time–one hundred fifty miles from New York, eighty miles from Philadelphia, and one hundred twenty from Washington, D.C. Even though land routes to the area left much to be desired (as they did in much of the country at that time), the cape was readily accessible by water, and this significantly helped fuel Cape May’s growth.

Increasing Popularity Among Travelers

With the emergence of sailing ship (and later steamboat) service to the cape, visitors began flocking to this new vacation destination. Initially, the journey by boat from most major nearby ports took two or three days. A voyage of such duration was still a far more attractive option than an equally long and far more uncomfortable journey over land by horseback or stagecoach, the most common modes of land transport available at that time.

With the arrival of more and more tourists, the Cape May landscape began to change. What had been a sparsely populated farming and fishing community was being transformed into a bustling resort town. With the number of tourists quickly eclipsing the number of guestrooms available in the homes of local residents, hotels began springing up, with nearly two dozen in place by 1850.

Cape May’s growth as a resort community also led to growth in the town’s land area and permanent population. This expansion brought with it a corresponding increase in public construction and infrastructure development. A school was built in the 1830’s, and two churches, one Methodist and one Presbyterian, were erected in 1843 and 1844, respectively. Simultaneously, the street system developed and expanded, resulting in a formal surveying in 1850. In 1851, the town was officially incorporated as the city of Cape Island. In the years that followed, additional public buildings were constructed, such as a city hall, a firehouse, a post office, and several additional churches.

As Cape May’s street system took shape, there was also new residential development. At first, residential lots were sold primarily to townspeople. By the 1850’s, an increasing number of lots were sold to out-of-towners seeking to build vacation cottages. Well-to-do tourists who once sought accommodation in the hotels gradually began to seek refuge from them by building their own housing. With the emergence of this trend, Cape May was on the way to being owned largely by seasonal residents.

By the 1850’s, Cape May’s reputation as a resort was well established. For the next fifty years, it would be a favorite vacation destination of both the well-off and the well-known. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and James Buchanan all spent time here before, during, and/or after their terms in office. Other dignitaries, such as composer John Philip Sousa and industrialist Henry Ford (who once even raced one of his automobiles against Louis Chevrolet along Cape May’s beachfront), also visited.

Boom-and-Bust Cycles

Cape May was not without its problems. A series of events launched the town into a pattern of boom-and-bust cycles that caused fits and starts in Cape May’s growth and evolution. The first major blow came in 1856, when Cape May was at the height of its popularity. A railroad line connecting the nearby blossoming resort town of Atlantic City with Camden, a New Jersey suburb of Philadelphia, was completed. As the new resort grew, it gradually began siphoning off business from Cape May. Five years later, when the nation was plunged into the upheaval of the Civil War, development in Cape May came to a virtual standstill.

The decline was not to last forever. In 1863 a railroad line was built to Cape May, bringing renewed interest in development. This trend gained momentum after the Civil War, especially for residential construction. New subdivisions were established, greatly accelerating the building of new homes, particularly tourist cottages.

Just as growth was beginning to take off, a devastating (and suspicious) fire struck Cape May in August, 1869, destroying a number of hotels, a portion of the business district, and other structures. This setback was overcome in a period of rebuilding and new growth that lasted for several years. Then came the financial panic of 1873, which brought development to a halt. Growth resumed in 1875 and continued steadily, although less robustly, until 1878, when an even more devastating fire swept through the resort, virtually leveling the town.

Unlike the aftermath of the 1869 fire, reconstruction following the 1878 fire proceeded slowly. This was largely due to the restrained development plans put in place during that period. Instead of erecting new, modern structures, hotel developers and homeowners who lost buildings in the 1878 fire constructed facilities that were only slightly updated versions of their forerunners. These “new” buildings–mostly revamped editions of 1860’s-style structures, with few modern twists–gave Cape May a look that was considered decidedly “old-fashioned” for the time.

Architectural Conservatism

The conservative architectural nature of the reconstructed buildings did much to inhibit Cape May’s future growth. While the area’s quaint ambiance may have appealed to its established (and aging) tourist base, it did little to attract new, younger vacationers. It also did little to encourage the purchase of residential lots in the area’s new subdivisions, which were located increasingly farther from the center of town. This lack of interest, combined with inadequate local ground transportation, helped prompt the failure of most of these new real estate developments. Cape May had begun to decline.

Why had Cape May’s architecture become stuck in a time warp? In part it was because Cape May persisted in viewing itself as a small town (despite its success in attracting tourists from far and wide), and small towns were slow to adopt innovation at that time in U.S. history. It also may be partly due to all the changes that Cape May had been through in the last half of the nineteenth century–and the fact that its conservative, established residents were more willing to embrace the familiar than experiment with new ideas.

Cape May’s architectural conservatism during the last half of the nineteenth century was perhaps most attributable to the architects who worked in the town. Many received their first commissions in Cape May in the mid-1860’s, around the time the railroad line was completed and “new” development began. Many of these architects were also well along in their careers, past the point where they were willing to attempt much innovation in their projects. As a consequence, they largely adapted and reproduced the prevailing architectural styles, a practice that endured throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century (and even into the early twentieth century at one firm) in Cape May.

Like the developers who gave them their commissions, most of the architects who worked in Cape May at that time were from Philadelphia. The most prolific of these architects was Stephen Button, who arrived in Cape May in 1863 at age fifty and at the height of his career. Button had distinguished himself in the Philadelphia architectural community as a proponent of designs that reflected clean, simple, classic lines, much like those in the 1850’s clapboard structures that dominated Cape May when he arrived in town. Button employed this vernacular style of architecture in his more than forty designs over the next three decades. From the time of his first commission until his death in 1897–even through the reconstruction periods following the 1869 and 1878 fires–his style would persist, making an indelible mark on the community and profoundly influencing the designs of other architects and builders who worked in town.

Despite the overwhelming impact of Button and his contemporaries, not all of Cape May’s architecture conformed to a uniform aesthetic during this period. Indeed, there were some attempts at striking out in new directions. High Victorian influences began creeping in during the late 1870’s, as evidenced by such structures as the Emlen Physick House and Estate, a design of Frank Furness, built in 1878. The Queen Anne style also appeared in the 1880’s and 1890’s, as seen in some of the area’s cottages and in architectural add-ons fitted to more conventionally styled structures.

Attempt at Rejuvenation

A last-ditch effort at reviving the area’s fortunes came just after the turn of the century with plans for a new development called New Cape May. Located east of the established Cape May community, this speculative venture called for the construction of residential and resort properties, along with an industrial seaport.

Plans for residential development in the land east of Cape May were initiated as early as 1891, but nothing materialized, due to the lack of buyer interest. Plans for the new development were launched in 1901-1902, but financing and construction problems, coupled with widespread skepticism about the viability of this overly ambitious project, led to its eventual downfall in 1915.

The collapse of the New Cape May project marked the beginning of a nearly fifty-year period of virtual inactivity in the area. Some new permanent housing was built after World War II, and a few new hotels were constructed. Little of significance happened until 1962, when nature intervened. A severe wind called a northeaster lashed Cape May, submerging much of the town under water and later burying it under sand. The storm severely damaged many of the town’s now-decrepit structures and nearly wiped out the beaches, which had been gradually eroding for some time. Cape May’s future was clearly in doubt.

Given the extensive damage from the storm, many local business owners and developers “wanted to bulldoze everything that was left,” according to one account. For a time, with the incentive provided by a $2.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it looked as though they just might get their wish. Before the plowing began, HUD ordered an architectural survey of the area, which revealed a wealth of historic information about the surviving structures. The Cape May preservation movement was thus born.

New Redevelopment Plans

In the ensuing years, redevelopment plans were drawn up to preserve and renovate Cape May’s historic structures, while restoring the area as a viable modern resort community. Over the course of the next two decades, those plans were realized through the restoration and preservation of more than six hundred nineteenth century buildings. Although the preservation process was initiated in the mid-1960’s, it received a big push in 1969, when the entire town of Cape May was entered on the National Register of Historic Places. It was further aided a year later with the establishment of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC), the organization that has coordinated much of Cape May’s preservation efforts ever since. Then in 1979, after many long years of hard work, Cape May received the additional distinction of being named a National Historic Landmark. Indeed, Cape May had come back to life.

Today Cape May is once again a popular vacation destination. Weekend and seasonal tourists visit the area to see the beautifully restored buildings and to partake of the MAC-sponsored architectural tours. Some also come for the town’s many special events, such as a summer music festival, a spring tulip festival (in honor of the Dutch sea captain who discovered Cape May), an autumn Victorian festival, and a Christmas festival. Some even come for what attracted Cape May’s original tourists–its beautiful oceanfront and lovely summer weather.

Cape May’s rebirth and continued viability are direct results of the effort that dedicated preservationists have put into the community to ensure its continuance. The town has weathered much and still survived, thanks largely to those who would not let it die.

For Further Information
  • Boslough, John. “The Landmark Hunter.” Historic Preservation, April, 1986. A brief but detailed look at one woman’s role in Cape May’s historic preservation movement. This article examines the work of Carolyn Pitts, an architectural historian for the National Park Service, whose career in helping to preserve the nation’s historic structures got its start in Cape May. While the article is focused on Pitts, it does provide insight into the town’s rescue from the wrecking ball and its rebirth as a historic landmark community.
  • Dorwart, Jeffrey M. Cape May County, New Jersey: The Making of an American Resort Community. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992. Another option in the same vein as Thomas and Doebley’s book below.
  • Thomas, George E., and Carl Doebley. Cape May: Queen of the Seaside Resorts. 2d ed. Philadelphia: Associated University Presses, 1998. Updated and enlarged edition. A substantive historical account about Cape May and its architecture. This comprehensive text, liberally illustrated with many period photographs and drawings, provides detailed histories of the resort and its structures.
Categories: History