In the mid-1800s Cape May was called "playground of the presidents." Presidents these days are more likely to play in the South, but the cape's remarkable collection of Victorian architecture remains.

Five presidents - Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Harrison - took to the waters of the internationally famous resort and gambled in the Mount Vernon, the largest hotel in the world. Sen. Henry Clay and Rep. Abraham Lincoln were among those vacationing here attracted not only by the local amenities, but also by the visiting dignitaries.

In 1867 a fire destroyed the Mount Vernon and most of the town's summer "palaces," but residents quickly rebuilt. Not to be rivaled by the up-and-coming Atlantic City, Cape May's new summer homes were a hybrid combination of Gothic, Romanesque, Italiante and Second Empire. As a result, Cape May now has one of the largest concentrations of Victorian architecture in North America.

One of the gems of the town is the Physick house, now restored and open to the public. It was designed by Frank Furness, a Cape May resident and a principal architect of the Victorian period. He was hired by Dr. Emlen Physick, a prominent Philadelphian in 1878, to design a 16-room cottage. The Emlen Physick Mansion, completed in 1881, represents the "stick style" of the 19th century - bold designs, steeply gabled roofs, tall proportions, irregular silhouettes, upside-down chimneys and hooded dormers - very different from the popular lacy gingerbread cottages.

Early in his career Furness studied under Richard Morris Hunt, the great Beaux Arts architect who designed Biltmore mansion in Asheville, N.C. In 1867 he left Hunt to begin a partnership in Philadelphia with John Fraser and George W. Hewitt. When Hewitt left the partnership to come to Washington, Furness took on Louis Sullivan, later the great art nouveau architect, as a young draftsman.

In later years, in his memoirs about Furness, Sullivan reflected, "He effected the English in fashion . . . wore loud plaids and a scowl . . . his face was snarled and homely as an English bulldog's . . . and he swore like a trooper." Despite Sullivan's rather stern but colorful evaluation of Furness' character, he greatly admired Furness' designs and believed him to be a brilliantly gifted draftsman. Sullivan knew talent. When he left Furness to start his own firm, he hired as a draftsman young Frank Lloyd Wright, who was to become the great American architect of the early part of this century.

Before the Civil War, Furness designed churches, schools, railroad stations and part of the Philadelphia Zoo. He is credited with altering the old John G. Blaine residence in Washington, D.C., at 20th Street and Massachusetts Avenue, designed by Fraser.

After four years of planning and building, Physick, then 23, moved into his Gothic Revival house. He lived in the 16-room mansion, until his death in 1916.

In the 1960s the house, in bad repair, was purchased by a local developer who tried, and failed, to convert it into a restaurant. The developer then decided to raze the house and sell off the property, not an unfamiliar occurrence in Cape May. Before this could be done the city of Cape May and the Physick estate was selected as a National Historic Landmark by the government's National Register of Historic Places.

The house now stands in the midst of restoration sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. With funds raised by the center and matched by the federal government, the center has been able to complete the exterior restoration of the overgrown cottage.

Unlike most of Cape May's white gingerbread houses, the Physick Estate is faceted with dark shadows. The exterior is painted in its original colors - dark green trim and cream-yellow wood siding.

As you step into the entrance hall the tour guide will kindly explain some of the restoration in progress.

The ceiling and walls are papered with "lincrusta," a technique designed to look like etched leather. When the original lincrusta was installed it was applied to the ceiling and walls with a paste made of molasses. The molasses drew so many flies and bugs that the restorers decided against this recipe and used a chemical paste.

To copy the four different lincrusta pattern displayed in the house, a portion of the original pressed paper is used to make a rubber mold. A mixture of fiberglass and plastic is poured into the mold and left to dry. The thin sheets are then painted in deep rich colors copied from the original paper and applied in pieces to the wall. This process was originated by the members of the center and is manufactured in the cellar of the estate. "This is the only manufactured source of lincrusta in the United States," explains the Physick estate brochure.

The dining room, now under restoration, and family parlor are decorated with Victorian clutter and lighted with brass and crystal grape-leaf pattern chandeliers.

Wax and china dolls dressed in delicately tatted and embroidered gowns fill the children's nursery. The remaining rooms are arranged in a museum style displaying furniture, fixtures (some designed by Furness) and clothing of the Victorian period.

At a time when urban renewal seems to employ a slash-and-burn method of modernization, and small shore towns are prey to urban sprawl and condominium building, a band of concerned citizens has saved the architectural ancestry of Cape May.

(A 79-page handbook has been complied as a result of the extensive restoration in Cape May to aid individual restorers. The Cape May Handbook is available by writing the City of Cape May, Cape May, N.J. 08204, or the Atlantic Richfield Co., 1500 Market Street, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101).