For as long as I can remember I have firmly believed that summer is as much a state of mind as a season of the year, and the quintessence of any summer worth its salt -- so to speak -- is the seashore. No summer is really summer without the beach, but to savor the summer fully in all its flavors, it is necessary to combine a seashore vacation with the reenactment of certain ancient and often-forgotten human rituals.
They should be rituals that remind one that summer is a time to slow down and take it easy; but even more than that it is a time of nostalgia -- a time to get reconnected with the past. Never am I more keenly aware of this than when I return to the Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May, N.J., to rediscover one of the most venerable of those rituals: the art of front-porch-rocking-chair-sitting.
The Chalfonte is both an institution and a grand old hotel. Built in 1876, the three-story, Victorian gingerbread, wood-frame building is both ornate and primitive, and evocative of a genteel decadence that has all but vanished from the face of the earth.
It's in a seashore resort at the southernmost tip of New Jersey that flourished during the last half of the 19th century, then fell on hard times and became dormant for the next 60 or 70 years. Since around 1970 the town has undergone something of a rebirth, and it's now one of the primary examples of restored Victorian architecture on the East Coast. The Chalfonte survived the bad times as well as the good, and it is probably one of the few places in America where the art of front-porch-rocking-chair-sitting has been preserved in its pristine form.
I first happened on the Chalfonte on a hot August afternoon eight years ago, after driving the full length of the Garden State Parkway near the end of a vacation spent partly in New England but mostly on turnpikes. I was looking for a refuge from the 20th century, and the Chalfonte met my needs.
Our rooms (like all the others) lacked air conditioning, television and a telephone. So when not at the beach -- two blocks away -- we practiced the art of front-porch-rocking-chair-sitting with the other guests, sometimes for hours on end. And a lovely, wide old front porch it was, wrapped around the front and side of the hotel, complete with green and white awnings to shade us from the afternoon sun. Conversation was optional, the reading of books and magazines popular. And many of us were content simply to rock and watch the parade go by -- the pedestrians and bicyclists en route to the beach during the day, a horse-drawn trolley making the rounds of the restored Victorian-era buildings during the evening.
There were spoon bread, fresh biscuits, fresh fish and fresh orange juice for breakfast every morning, and fresh south New Jersey produce, ham, roast meats, shellfish and chicken for dinner at night. Everything was served family style, prepared under the direction of Helen Dickerson, the head cook, who represented the fifth generation of her family to cook meals at the Chalfonte.
Green paint was peeling from the walls and ceiling in the dining room, but the management insisted that gentlemen wear coats and ties at dinner, and in the interests of proper decorum young children took their meals in a children's dining room. Mary Satterfield, a classic grande dame whose family had owned the hotel since 1915, still spent all her summers there, and her presence helped give the place an ambiance of permanence and stability, if not antiquity.
Mrs. Satterfield had managed the Chalfonte with her husband, Calvin, from 1919 until he died in 1943, and then she managed it herself until 1975. That year she turned operating responsibility over to Anne LeDuc and Judy Bartella, two teachers at the George School near Philadelphia, who have tried to preserve the Chalfonte as it was a century ago.
I've returned to the Chalfonte four times in the last eight years, the most recent visit being last summer, and a little has changed but much has not. Mrs. Satterfield celebrated her 90th -- and last -- birthday at the Chalfonte with her grandchildren on Bastille Day last July. She took sick in August and died in Richmond last November, two years after having finally sold her family's interest in the Chalfonte to LeDuc and Bartella.
The pea-green paint in the dining room has been replaced with a lighter off-white, and it's no longer peeling. But coats and ties are still required at dinner, spoon bread is served at breakfast, young children eat in a separate dining room, and the art of front-porch-rocking-chair-sitting is still practiced.
The porch is still a splendid place for a cup of coffee and the daily newspaper in the cool freshness of a summer morning before the dining room opens for breakfast, or for a drink before dinner in the evening. It's the right place to be in between the morning trip to the beach, the afternoon trip to the beach, and meals. There are also a parlor, a reading room and a writing room on the main floor, where such quaint activities as writing letters and reading books sometimes occur.
The guest rooms, equipped with iron-frame beds, marble-topped dressers and cane rocking chairs, are still without television, air conditioning and locks on the doors, and most lack private baths. At certain times of day it's likely to be necessary to wait in line for the shower, but the bathrooms are spaced at convenient intervals along the old hotel's long, narrow hallways, and it's said that lasting friendships have been made among those who meet by chance while waiting in line.
From time to time there has been talk of installing private baths in all the rooms -- but only talk. "They decided they couldn't put bathrooms in the rooms without destroying the fabric of the building," said David Fogle, an associate professor at the school of architecture at the University of Maryland. He leads expeditions of architecture students to Cape May every summer, before the peak of the vacation season, to do restoration work at the Chalfonte.
In exchange for room and board and two weeks at the beach, Fogle's students work six hours a day at chores ranging from scraping old paint off the outside woodwork to replacing the ceilings in the lobby, then hear lectures or watch slides and films at night. The Chalfonte supplies the material -- it took 625 pounds of spackle one year to fill the holes and cracks in the dining room plaster -- but it gets the benefit of hundreds of hours of labor. The architecture students get three semester hours of credit.
"It has the perfect combination of architecture and restoration opportunity, and the beach and seashore activities," said Fogle, who first began leading student expeditions to work at the Chalfonte in 1980. "It's totally unchanged from its original date of construction. I've never found a place like it."
Fogle's students represent only one of a half-dozen groups that come to Cape May each year to do volunteer work at the Chalfonte, which, like most of the old buildings in Cape May, requires a sustained effort just to keep even with the aging process.
Fifty miles south of Atlantic City, Cape May began drawing summer crowds from the urban centers of the Northeast in 1817, when the first regular steamboat service started along the Delaware River between Cape May and Philadelphia. It was one of the premier seashore resorts on the East Coast between 1820 and the last decade of the century when up to 150,000 visitors would gather at the peak of the summer season to enjoy the sun and the broad, gently sloping beaches.
Then the town elders decided to ban the sale of liquor and people started staying away in droves.
"It was an economic disaster, but it preserved the city," observes Fogle. Change and development brought the 20th century to the rest of the New Jersey coast, but they mostly bypassed Cape May, leaving it a 19th-century backwater. A disastrous fire in the 1870s had destroyed much of the town, but that was at the height of Cape May's popularity as a spa and it was rebuilt within a few years, creating a superb collection of Victorian architecture for the preservation enthusiasts 100 years later.
The whole town is now a National Historic Landmark, and of the approximately 600 Victorian-era buildings there, 95 percent have been restored to one degree or another, estimates Michael Zuckerman, the director of the Cape May-based Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts. They range from private homes to bed-and-breakfast places, restaurants, museums and inns, and they stand, incongruously, alongside an assortment of miniature golf courses, saltwater taffy stores, souvenir shops and video-game arcades -- the legacies of those years when Cape May was in serious economic decline.
"All those little concessions are part of the picture. In a funny kind of way that's part of the charm of the place," says Fogle, adding that while the juxtaposition of Victorian architecture and 20th-century commercialism may suggest a certain panache, it also reflects a delicate balance that could be disastrous if seriously upset.
Semi-isolated from the rest of the East Coast for most of this century, Cape May moved a giant step closer to the mainstream in 1954 when the southernmost segment of the Garden State Parkway was opened, providing a direct connection with the New York metropolitan area. It moved another step closer in 1964 with the commencement of regular ferry service across the mouth of the Delaware Bay between Cape May and Lewes, Del., providing a connection with the Washington-Baltimore area. But it was not until the preservationist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s that the rebirth of Cape May took hold.
Of the major hotels in the town, only the Chalfonte has remained in continuous operation. It was built by Col. Henry Sawyer, a Union Army Civil War veteran who was captured by the South and held as a prisoner of war in Richmond until exchanged for a son of Gen. Robert E. Lee who had been captured by the Union. Since 1876 the hotel has opened every summer around the end of May and closed for the season early in September. (For the first time, this year the Chalfonte will remain open throughout the month of September.)
Sawyer owned and operated the hotel until the 1890s, when it went through a series of ownerships until it was acquired by the Satterfield family in 1915. When she was a child growing up in Lexington, Va., Anne LeDuc's parents were friends of the Satterfields, and she first stayed at the Chalfonte during the summer of 1929, when she was 2 years old.
"It's been my summer home all my life," said LeDuc. "I did a lot of growing up there. I can remember running on the long porches as a child, running under the louvered doors and not being allowed to run in the dining room." As a college student, LeDuc worked summers as a desk clerk at the Chalfonte, and she returned during the summers after joining the faculty at the George School, where she is now the director of athletics. When Mrs. Satterfield, tired of managing the hotel herself, started thinking about selling it in 1975, LeDuc volunteered to help out, and then eight years later purchased the building with Bartella.
LeDuc said she simply couldn't stand the idea of the Chalfonte's being sold to someone who would try to run it differently from the way it's always been run.
"I was told I was doing it for all the wrong reasons, that there was no money in it," said LeDuc. "But there have to be a few nuts in the world. For me, it's been a love affair with a building and a love affair with an institution."