CAPE MAY, N.J. — The wide, roofed colonnade that surrounds Congress Hall, this resort city’s grande-dame hotel, protects the rooms on three floors of the four-story hotel from the hot summer sun. It offers a shady place to sit in a rocking chair and read and sip something cool while time moves slower in the gentle ocean breeze.
“I’ve been coming here 57 years,” said a lady rocking nearby. “Except when it was closed, of course. I still came to Cape May then, but I went someplace else, but, I tell you, these bed-and-breakfast places don’t feel like you’re on vacation. I don’t like their coffee or doughnuts.
“I started coming here with my grandparents, then my parents, and now sometimes my grandchildren come to see me here. You don’t know how glad I am that Congress Hall is back.”
Unsolicited testimonials are easy to come by at Congress Hall, one of the nation’s first resort hotels at what is claimed to be the nation’s oldest seaside resort. Those guests who have come here over the years would not think of going anywhere else.
The colonnade, with its roof 32 feet overhead, is a distinguishing mark of Congress Hall, which, like many other Cape May hotels, is L-shaped. Bar service, in addition to the rocking chairs, is available under the colonnade. The top floor, above the colonnade roof, has dormer windows.
Congress Hall was opened by Thomas H. Hughes in 1816 as the Big House, so named by Hughes. Far different from today’s accommodations and amenities, it basically was a boardinghouse built of wood, with one large room downstairs and partitioned quarters for guests on the upper floors. Local residents hooted about Hughes’ barnlike Big, or Large, House and named it “Tommy’s Folly.”
The name was changed to Congress Hall after Hughes was elected as a Republican congressman in 1828. About 20 years later, Congress Hall was enlarged to twice its size, and it and Cape May found their place in the sun, becoming premier summer destinations.
Although a fire destroyed the hotel and much of Cape May in 1878, Congress Hall was rebuilt — in brick this time — and reopened within a year.
To get away from the humid Washington summer, President Benjamin Harrison conducted the nation’s affairs from Congress Hall, which gave the hotel its name as the summer White House. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan also escaped Washington’s heat to vacation there.
Composer and band master John Philip Sousa also liked Congress Hall and conducted concerts on the hotel lawn. He composed the “Congress Hall March” for the hotel in 1882 — and today’s owners would love to have a copy of the march.
Hard times came in the first years of the 20th century, but by the early 1920s, Congress Hall had been renovated and reopened. After the repeal of Prohibition, Cape May’s first cocktail bar opened on the site of today’s Brown Room in Congress Hall.
Congress Hall entered another phase from 1968 to 1995, when the late Rev. Carl McIntire, a radio evangelist who led counterprotests to marches against the Vietnam War, used the hotel as part of his Cape May Bible Conference. For much of its existence, Cape May was popular as a summer religious retreat house for several denominations.
Mr. McIntire is credited with keeping Congress Hall intact while similar resorts at Cape May were being demolished to make way for motels. He also is praised for buying threatened old houses and moving them to new locations for preservation.
Since 1965, Congress Hall has been under the same ownership, Cape May Resorts, which includes Curtis Bashaw, a grandson of Mr. McIntire’s.
The new owners brought Congress Hall up to date while retaining the hotel’s charm of an old-fashioned beach resort. Seventy tons of new steel were inserted into the old building — along with 47 miles of new wiring and 11 miles of plumbing. Coat all of this with about 240,000 gallons of paint and, presto, the revived Congress Hall. The renovation also added a spa and a fitness room.
The hotel’s large, long bathtubs were retained during the renovation, as were the dark, wide, wooden floors in the corridors and under carpeting in the guest rooms. The rooms are painted in a different pastel color on each floor.
Congress Hall is quite comfortable; visiting the hotel for the first time can seem like meeting an old friend again. These days, there seems to be a trend that many hotels are amorphous, so much alike that they could be substituted for one another in a different city and still be the same. This is not so at Congress Hall, for it is a hotel of time and place. It has meant Cape May to many guests, and it still has that identity and feeling.
The Blue Pig Tavern has two dining rooms — one is gardenlike, the other more a tavern scene. Additional tables outdoors are very pleasant, especially for breakfast. On the Blue Pig site in the 1700s, Cape May’s first tavern — for whalers — was operated by Elias Hughes. The Boiler Room, in the Congress Hall basement, is a popular nightspot, open until 2:30 a.m.
The Grand Ballroom, graced by its restored original chandeliers, is popular for large groups for conferences, banquets and weddings. The large gift shop is unusually interesting — especially for a unique souvenir: a large Christmas tree ornament shaped and painted to look like Congress Hall itself.
Congress Hall is across the street from the Atlantic Ocean and his a private beach, where food service and cabanas are available. Food is also available near the swimming pool in the large grassy area between the hotel and the road.
The affection Mr. Bashaw and Patrick Logue, director of operations, have for Congress Hall and other properties is obvious. Mr. Logue first worked at Congress Hall in 1984 during summer break from the University of Delaware. The summer job, with room and board, turned into a hotel management apprenticeship.
“My positions over three summers at Congress Hall included night watchman, dishwasher, desk clerk, waiter, tour guide, painter, lifeguard and any other position you can name,” Mr. Logue says. Add to that general manager of Congress Hall and, earlier, of the venerable Virginia Hotel in Cape May, a property Mr. Bashaw’s group rescued from condemnation.
The Virginia has been turned into a charming, friendly boutique hotel and is the home of Cape May’s highly praised Ebbitt Room restaurant. The decorator for the hotel is Mr. Bashaw’s sister, Colleen Bashaw, who touched the rooms gently with elegance, keeping them light in color and atmosphere. One of the brightest elements in a guest room is a lamp base that looks like red coral and a res shade on another lamp.
Besides the fine restaurant, a piano is nearby in the Virginia for nightly performances. For mornings, breakfast is served indoors and on the porch.
While Congress Hall is a family resort, the Virginia Hotel is a quieter refuge where, according to a brochure, “Children 13 and over are happily accepted.”
Another option offered travelers by Mr. Bashaw’s group is the Star Inn, near Congress Hall. The Star offers three styles of accommodations, which include the inn itself with nine one-bedroom accommodations; two two-bedroom apartments with deck views of the ocean; and 10 efficiency units that go beyond being like motel rooms, for they have back yards and are furnished with more pizazz than is expected in a motel.
Guests at the Star Inn have access to Congress Hall’s swimming pool, beach cabanas, fitness center and in-room food service.
A more recent acquisition by Cape May Resorts is the Sandpiper Beach Club, also nearby and recently reopened after renovation.
Congress Hall and the Virginia Hotel are part of the history of Cape May, originally Cape Mey for Dutch explorer Cornelius Jacobsen Mey, who spotted the area in 1621. It is not known whether he came ashore to greet the Kechemeche Indians, who later disappeared because of diseases introduced by the Europeans and because of marriages with the early settlers. Later, English-speaking Colonists involved in the whaling industry in New England moved south and settled in Cape May, which became a whaling port, according to “Cape May History,” compiled by the city of Cape May.
Shortly before the Revolutionary War, residents from Philadelphia discovered Cape May as a summer retreat, arriving by conveyances of the day, from wagons to schooners. Accommodations ranged from taverns to private homes, predecessors of the bed-and-breakfast industry. The year 1816 brought major growth to Cape May when “side-wheel steamboats came from Philadelphia via New Castle, DE, where passengers from Baltimore and points south joined them for the trip to the Cape,” according to “Cape May History.”
Within 20 years, wealthy residents from New York and Washington joined those from Baltimore and Philadelphia who favored the southern New Jersey shore. A new hotel could house 300 guests, three times the number accommodated by the early Congress Hall.
In the mid-19th century, a major renovation was occurring at Congress Hall, and construction began on the Mount Vernon Hotel, which developers planned to accommodate 3,500 guests. Capacity reached 2,100 guests when fire destroyed the hotel in 1856.
More disastrous was the 1878 fire, which destroyed 35 acres of Cape May buildings, including Congress Hall.
Rebuilding became less grandiose and resulted in much of the Victorian architecture cherished today by residents and visitors. During the Civil War, a railroad was completed between Philadelphia and Cape Island, after which Pennsylvania residents began building summer homes in Cape May. The city was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
Although Cape May was overshadowed by Atlantic City’s growth with the development of large hotels that were demolished to make room for today’s infusion from the gambling industry, the resort to the south has survived with the conviction that less can be more.
Cape May has many other accommodations in hotels; motels that morphed into that silk-purse term “motor inns,” the same way that a bus has become a “motor carriage”; and bed-and-breakfast quarters are the modern glorification of what once was known as “tourist homes” and the residents’ homes of the 1700s.
Besides a convention hall, a bird observatory and a nature center, Cape May has plenty of activities and festivals that take place year-round. Victorian and mystery weekends are scheduled throughout the year, and the old houses are decorated in style for the city’s Victorian Christmas celebrations.
Cape May is yesterday brought up to date on a human scale, sparkling in the summer sun and glowing in winter, proudly flying the Stars and Stripes and patriotic bunting in the ocean breeze. It is a place where “Miami Beach” brings shudders.
Getting to, staying and dining in Cape May
From Washington to Congress Hall hotel in Cape May, N.J., take Interstate 95 north to Delaware Memorial Bridge; take the bridge to Route 40 east. Follow Route 40 to Route 55 south to the end (at Route 47 south). Route 47 south to the Garden State Parkway south. Continue on the parkway to the end at Exit 0, then on Route 109 south, proceed over the Cape May bridge onto Lafayette Street. Follow Lafayette Street about 1.5 miles to the dead end at Jackson Street. Turn left onto Jackson Street and immediately turn right onto Mansion Street. Continue to the stop sign and turn left onto Perry Street. Make the first right onto Congress Place and turn left into the hotel reception area.
An alternative route includes taking the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, which crosses the Delaware Bay between Cape May and Lewes, Del. The driving time to Lewes is about three hours from Washington. For information on schedules, tickets and entertainment, visit www.capemaylewesferry.com.
For information on properties of Cape May Resorts:
Congress Hall, 251 Beach Ave.; call 609/884-8421, fax 609/884-6094, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Virginia Hotel, 25 Jackson St.; 609/884-1236, www.virginiahotel.com, e-mail email@example.com
Star Inn, 29 Perry St.; 800/297-3779, www.thestarinn.net
Sandpiper Beach Club, 11 W. Beach Drive, Cape May; 609/884-6579, www.sandpipercapemay.com
Inn at 22 Jackson, 22 Jackson St., bed-and-breakfast accommodations; 609/884-2226, www.innat22jackson.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
For information Cape May events, from a jazz festival to fishing tournaments, visit www.capemaylinks.com and click on Things to do or other links. Another source is the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts; phone 609/884-5404 or 800/275-4278 Ext. 153, or visit www.capemaymac.org.
For information on other Cape May accommodations, visit www.capemaytimes.com/hotels/cape-may.htm. For information about restaurants, accommodations and shopping, call the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May, 609/884-5508.
Birding information is available from the Cape May Bird Observatory; phone 609/884-2736 or visit www.njaudubon.org/centers/CMBO.