Cape May, N.J., is our country's oldest seaside resort (actually it is even older than the country, since it was first used as a summer camp by the Lenne Lenape Indians) and the whole town has just been designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior. That in itself is unusual, putting it in a class with Williamsburg.
But unlike Williamsburg, Cape May has not had years of careful reconstruction and restoration - in most cases, people have not even tried to return buildings to their original appearance. Cape May is full of important examples of American Victorian architecture - in whiteface.
"You have to remember," says Carolyn Pitts, architectural historian for the National Park Service, "that Cape May was not really preserved by design. The reason these buildings still look the way they do is that nobody had the money to tear them down. It was benign neglect. The houses themselves were designed to be painted in warm earth colors - there have been a couple of attempts to restore the original appearance, and we hope there will be more. But the town went white sometime before the First World War and a lot of people are used to seeing it that way."
Even in its relatively new color, Cape May is worth seeing. This is architecture from the time when form followed function - and the function was to show off. No roof was considered really finished without a fringe of complicated curlicues, brackets, crockets, finials and an acroterion (acroteria are those funny-looking spindly things like midget Gothic spires that made high Victorian roofs look even higher). Sometimes, in white, the whole house looks like a big doilie edged in wooded lace.
The Mainstay is one of the best of these - restored inside to the way it looked before the Civil War, when it was a combination gambling house and "sporting club for gentlemen." There is also a carefully preserved room upstairs that was used by James Cardinal Gibbons on his vacations in Cape May in the 1890s (when the place was probably a lot less disorderly).
The Emlen Physick house was designed as the largest private residence in town by Frank Furness, a Philadelphia architect famous, even in Victorian times, for going to Gothic extremes. It is now the property of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, and has been painted something like the original colors - dark greens, earthy yellows and a beetling, dull-red roof. It looks entirely different from The Mainstay - at once gloomier and hilarious, like the castle of a cheerful troll.
Like The Mainstay, the Emlen Physick mansion is being restored inside, and is crowded with examples of early Victorian furniture, some of it the original house furnishings designed by Furness himself.
Those are only two of the fine old buildings in town - there is also the Pink House (painted pink sometime in the 1920s), the Victorian House (designed by Samuel Sloan, one of America's most important pre-Civil War architects), the Lafayette Street Community Center (restored to its original forest-green and gray after paint archeology by the Historic American Buildings Survey). Something odd or exotic on almost every corner.
"Well," says Carolyn Pitts. "The centennial of 1876 popularized the jigsaw, and ornamental jigsaw work became a great national fad. Something like glass brick was, much later on. If you wanted to build, or rebuild, or rdecorate, you just had to stick some of it on somewhere."
Besides houses, Cape May has a Victorian Mall - which is engagingly semi-authentic, and full of places that sell antiques or bathing suits or little plaques that say THE OPINIONS OF THE HUSBAND OF THIS HOUSE ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE MANAGEMENT - all at winter prices.
It would be nice to say that everything is rosy - but Cape May, like other historic landmarks, is almost always in a state of crisis. The huge old Windsor Hotel, built so long ago that it has slave quarters still standing in back, seems to be slipping closer and closer to an absolutely unrepairable state. And some bureaucrat from the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission wants to remove all the gas street-lamps to save energy - or get a name for saving energy - street-lamps that were the town's first attempt at restoration, back in 1967. But old-time Cape May enthusiasts are not in despair. Somehow, somebody will find a way to make things come out right. They always have. Motel rates are extremely cheap in fall (you can find a double room with an ocean view, heat and kitchenette for as little as $15 a night). The small beach and promenade are ideal for relaxing nighttime walking (dress very warm, move fast, breathe deep - in five minutes your conscience and your sinuses are clear).
To reach Cape May, take Route 50 from Washington Beltway exit 31, go over the Bay Bridge and take Route 404 to Georgetown. From there take Route 18 to Lewes, Delaware, and a ride on the Cape May-Lewes ferry that is long (an hour and a half or so, depending on weather), a little expensive ($8 for the car and $2 more for each person - but you're saving the money on the motel room), and lots of fun. Inside is a big snack shop that sells execrable coffee but good cold beer ($1). Stand in back and you watch and gulls string out behind the boat, hanging in the air motionless and then falling sideways down the sky. Stand in front (dressed very, very warmly) and you get the spray, the salty wind, and the company of couples who range in age from 18 to mid-50s, and who cannot - as you will not - resist the temptation to snuggle.