Bed Check: In Cape May, casual meets elegant at Congress Hall

(Zofia Smardz/ The Washington Post ) - Even before a recent renovation, the Brown Room lounge in Congress Hall, a seaside hotel in Cape May, N.J., emanated a sense of casual elegance.

(Zofia Smardz/ The Washington Post ) - Even before a recent renovation, the Brown Room lounge in Congress Hall, a seaside hotel in Cape May, N.J., emanated a sense of casual elegance.

In the Brown Room at Congress Hall, it’s musical chairs time. Otherwise known as cocktail hour.

At 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday in late February, the warmly elegant lounge in this grande dame of a hotel in Cape May, N.J., is packed to the gills. And more folks are flocking in nonstop. My husband and I are standing near the massive bar, forlorn: It’s a big, big room with lots of seating, but we can’t find two places together. Boo.

But wait. There is one empty leather armchair over there in the corner. And here — a man sitting at a small table signals that the other hardback chair beside it is free. Yay. We drag the chair to the corner and settle in with the wingback. I’m a little anxious about displacing the furniture, but oh, silly me. Over the next hour, as the seat-seekers swarm in, we watch as random chairs, tables, ottomans, pillows, cushions and more are shifted, transplanted, hauled around, tossed from sofa to armchair and back again in a dizzying roundelay of rearrangement.

And not just the inanimate objects. Patrons perched in makeshift stations — that would be us — watch hawk-eyed for any movement in others’ positions, ready to pounce at the first opening. The prime seating is the big brown sofa facing the grand, blazing fireplace: Yes, folks, a real chimney, with real wood and real flames and real heat, and everybody’s angling for the best — and closest — view (have I said that the Brown Room is big?).

Though we’re not sitting that far away, we miss a couple of chances to snag the sofa, even after one vacating couple gives us the high sign as they get up to leave. Just call us the Slowskys. But on the third opportunity, we nip in just ahead of another couple circling in wait.

Score!

The cavernous, high-ceilinged Brown Room isn’t known as “Cape May’s living room” for nothing. It does seem that everyone in town makes their way through its doors on an off-season weekend. That’s partly because, even though Cape May is mostly a beach resort, historic Congress Hall keeps its doors open to tourists — and townies — year-round.

But it’s also because, well, what a great hangout — comfortable, conversation-conducive (even with strangers!), elegant but relaxed and highly casual. (Right after our visit, the lounge closed temporarily for a quick renovation, mostly involving the installation of new wall paneling and lighting; I smiled to hear general manager John Daily describe it as an effort to give the place a “more casual” atmosphere. More casual?)

Of course, I admit: “Casual” isn’t the first word you think of when you see Congress Hall. Large, sprawling, becolumned and mansard-roofed, it’s as fancy and formal-looking as all get-out. But you know that saying about looks and deception. There’s nothing stuffy about this hotel.

Built in 1816 by one Thomas Hughes, who fondly called it “the Big House” (while others snickeringly proclaimed it “Tommy’s Folly”; boy, were they wrong), it earned its current moniker when Hughes was elected to Congress in 1828. Like most hostelries of its ilk, it’s had tons of famous visitors: presidents Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant. John Philip Sousa wrote the “Congress Hall March” here. President Benjamin Harrison made it his summer White House.

But also, like so many hostelries of its kind, it’s had some rough patches. When I first visited Cape May 30 years ago, it was down-at-the-heels and sad-looking (but still standing, thank goodness!). Fifteen years later, as it geared up for restoration, I took a tour. The guide led us past the rooms where Harrison had bunked in the late 19th century. The long hallway was dim and dingy, covered in a dark floral paper that peeled away from the walls.

The flowers disappeared with the hotel’s renovation in 2002, replaced by a simple grass paper far more suited to the seaside environs. But happily, the restoration kept the good stuff, such as the louver doors that helped cool the guest rooms in pre-A/C days, and didn’t try to plasticize the place. Our room on the top floor charmingly showed off its age with dipsy-doodle floors that bowed and bent in unexpected places.

The guest rooms are also where the casual and the beachy come on strong. Though equipped with all the amenities (flat-screen TV with DVD player, minibar, free Internet, Aveda toiletries), fancy they’re not. Ours was painted a pale lime green, with simple white-framed beds and carpeting in a multicolor pastel stripe. Who needs fancy when you can stare out the window at the ocean shimmering just beyond the lawn?

Casual’s the word of the day in the Blue Pig Tavern, too. The hotel restaurant gets its name from a painting of a, yes, blue pig that was discovered under some drywall during the renovation. That pig was apparently a reference to a famous club and gambling spot of the same name that once stood on the Congress Hall lawn (it’s a big lawn). And those tidbits, in case you were wondering, came from my breakfast place mat. I loved reading about hotel history over — or rather, under — my Greek omelet.

There’s another huge (working) fireplace in the Blue Pig, and we sat right beside it, toasting up for a walk on the windy beach and then a stroll through Cape May’s pretty pedestrian mall. Coming back late in the afternoon, I was tempted to take a seat on one of the rocking chairs that line the hotel’s beachside colonnade — in summer, I imagine, you’d hardly have a shot at one. But then I thought, nah.

Let’s just go to the Brown Room instead.

Congress Hall

200 Congress Pl.

Cape May, N.J.

888-944-1816

www.congresshall.com

Rates vary by season, day of the week and length of stay. March rates from $99, April rates from $159. Check Web site for special packages.

 
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