Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.

Henry David Thoreau

The Painted Ladies

Monday September 23, 2013
Cape May New Jersey



Cape May looked a lot different before the fire of 1878.


Cape May claims to be the oldest seaside resort in the country. In the 1800's, it had quite a number of classically designed seaside hotels to which many came for the summer.

But the fire of 1878 destroyed 30 blocks of the resort’s ocean front area, including some of the town's major hotels.

This map of the damaged area came from an article in the Cape May Magazine which you can read here.


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When they rebuilt, the new buildings were constructed in the modern style of the day now known as the Victorian style.  They have lots of gables, turrets and gingerbread.  I’ve heard it said that there are more Victorian Homes in Cape May than in any other city in the country.  It’s a town that was nearly entirely rebuilt in very short period of time. The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places.  



  There is a huge concentration of late 19th century homes in Cape May.


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There is  everything from Gothic Revival to Queen Anne design.   I admit that this version of late 18th century architecture appeals to me much more than the castles of  Newport. 

Mostly they were single family seashore homes often called "painted ladies" because of their colorful appearance. But, as with the homes in Newport, they ultimately became too difficult for a family to support.  There was also the push after WW II to demolish the old, to make way for brand new construction in the last half of the 20th Century.


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Many fine old buildings were lost in this new 20th century building frenzy before the entire town was luckily listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1976.  Some folks really loved the town to work so hard to get the entire thing listed.  It’s a lot of paperwork and documentation.


But once they were saved from demolition, now what?  Not many could maintain an eight or ten bedroom house, with formal parlors,  high ceilings, and often maids' quarters.


Today many of them have been turned into guest houses, restaurants and bed and breakfasts.  Some are divided into apartments and rented as summer beach cottages. But others still are single family homes and we saw many of them on our walking tour around Cape May. 





Horses and carriages travel the streets as they used to do while giving visitors tours of the beautiful buildings. We see a number of them today and I may look into the cost if we return to Cape May but this time we are on a walking tour of town.


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I ask at the visitors center for any walking tour brochures they have.


The woman behind the desk tells me that they used to have quite a few but they haven’t reprinted them because there are too few people who want to walk.  Apparently they all want to do a driving tour of one sort or another.  But she has a few left over xeroxed paper pamphlets entitled “A Look At Historic Cape May” so we take one and set out to see the 16 buildings listed.

Like Provincetown, Cape May parking is expensive.  But here if you are willing to walk just a bit you can get beyond the expensive lots and metered parking which is what we do.



One of our first stops is at the Chalfonte Hotel built in 1876.


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It was built two years before the fire and was just beyond the area burned.  It has been open every summer since its construction by Col. Henry Sawyer, a former prisoner of the Confederacy later exchanged for Col. R.E. Lee, Jr. Son of General Robert E Lee.  Col. Sawyer was the one who sounded the fire alarm at the time it was first spotted.






It has porches all around and when I walk up to see them, I also find  women hooking rugs who tell me that 40 rooms in the hotel have been taken over by their group taking classes in rug hooking.


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They call themselves the Happy Hookers.


Two groups of them return during different weeks in the fall every year to pretty much  take over the old hotel.  They are quite enthusiastic about how much fun they are having and what a beautiful place it is.


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I’m told I must go inside and see the rooms in which the classes are taking place.  Boy there are a lot of “hookers” in these two rooms.


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In the second room I meet an instructor Cheryllyn and Gail who is working on a story  rug.  It’s a shame that this picture doesn’t do this beautiful art work justice. 

This very large rug tells the story of Gail’s marriage from where she and her husband met, at work in the upper left corner all through their life together.  It shows their home, beach vacations, their children and much more.  A lot of love and time has gone into this beautiful creation.  It will no doubt occupy a special place on the wall of their home and be a family treasure forever.  Thanks so much Gail for taking time from your work to show it to me.



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They ask me where I am from and are interested in the idea of full timing.  I mention that in a few weeks we will be stopping by our hometown of Charlottesville Virginia and they tell me I must see the rug being done by Lydia.  And I do.  She happily tells me her rug is a gift for her daughter who just graduated from The University of Virginia my former employer in Charlottesville.  What a wonderful loving present to spend so much time to create this treasure to mark such a special occasion in her daughter’s life.


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She has put her daughter’s sorority house in the lower left, Jefferson’s famous Rotunda is in the middle and his serpentine walls off on the middle left.  Near the bottom right is beta bridge on Rugby Avenue.  this bridge is painted and repainted every few days all year long with all sorts of announcements.  By now I think the concrete could crumble underneath but the layers of paint will keep it standing.  Today on this rug, it says Congratulations Elise.  And for the true Virginia fan, the very bottom of the rug will say Wa Hoo Wa!  Only UVA-ites will understand all of this.

Isn’t it amazing.  Here I am walking around Cape May and I run into someone hooking a rug about my home town.



And then, at the war memorial I find the only sad thing I see all day.


We leave the happy hookers and walking down the block come upon the town’s war memorial in a tiny park at the intersection of Columbia and Gurney Streets.  It has lovely Victorians on all sides.  The memorial has a side for honoring the soldiers of every war this country has fought in, including all the post Vietnam “conflicts”.




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I find it very sad that the VFW and American Legion have created this plaque to allow for the names of five future conflicts as though they are certain this will happen.  It’s the only sad thing I see today in this lovely town today. 


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Seven swans a swimming yesterday and seven cottages today.


Walking down Gurney we find seven identical cottages all built in 1869-71.  As you can see from the map, the ones closest to the ocean were in the fire area and must have sustained damage but not been totally destroyed.  These cottages only have very small differences in design.  They are mighty cute sitting there all in a row.  There are two bed and breakfasts on the upper end of the row.  David looked up the Gingerbread House, the one on the far right in the picture below, and found that you can stay for $102-$198 a night in the off season week days and $148-$330 otherwise.  They have a suite, deluxe rooms and standard rooms.  The webpage is fun to read about the story of the house.




The other B&B is beside the Gingerbread House on its right and out of David’s group picture.  It is the John Wesley House and has a very elaborate web page.   


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The private homes on the block are every bit as lovely.  Some of them rent rooms.  Others are just grandma’s house.

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The Cape May Inn sits right across from the ocean.


The property on which The Inn of Cape May was built in 1894, at the corner of Ocean and Beach, was right in the heart of the fire.  This structure was built some years later. Considered very modern in its day, it featured the first elevator in town and electric bells from rooms to the front desk.  Wallace Warfield, the Duchess of Windsor, held her coming out party here.   I guess that’s their claim to fame.


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As you can see, the Inn over looks the ocean.  The driver is pointing to the Inn and no doubt talking about its history.


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We’ve been meandering around and really have to pick up our pace now.


It’s getting late and we have a date for Winnona’s cleaning so we are moving more quickly toward the last two places on the map.  This isn’t one of them but it’s huge, and seems to have been converted beautifully into apartments.  Reminds me of a Victorian version of my former home, The Chalet, in Newport.  The picture below only shows the left hand side of the building which is about 1/3 again as long.  It’s called The Empress.




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Of course this is the Pink House and the last one I’m going to put in this already too long post.  Tomorrow I’ll show you the end of our walk and Winnona’s transformation. 


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I really love walking among these beauties and looking at all their lacey finery.


  1. beautiful homes, would love to see them...

  2. Oh, My!!! Those houses are wonderful!!!!

  3. Ooohhh, thanks for the walking tour! Just LOVE all those colorful homes and buildings and their intricate detail!

  4. I had forgotten all about the painted ladies! I took my sons on a shore vacation years ago, and we did a day trip to Cape May. My oldest loved the architecture. Lovely beach town.

  5. All that detail and gingerbread is so dainty. I could see spending an afternoon on the porch overlooking the sea like a step back in time.

  6. I loved the painted ladies tour.I have heard of happy hookers before but they were lsdies who crochet.

  7. Thanks for giving me another reason to see this lovely place someday. I am intrigued by the rug hooking. My mom used to do this, but the pattern was preset. It looks like they draw their own? I love the story rug.

  8. Great pictures of Cape May. When we lived in the Philly area, we spent a fair amount of time in Cape May. We knew someone who had a large B&B there in the 90's. It is a nice vacation spot.

  9. LOVE those kid of houses... what a gorgeous place. wanna go and stay at that hotel... big ol porch ... just love it

  10. Thanks for the lovely tour...brings back some great memories!!! So glad someone loved the town enough to save it for all of us to enjoy:o))

  11. !I love the victorian architecture! My favorite period, I think. Those rugs are amazing and impressive! What a lovely gift for someone and a neat tradition. Pretty place

  12. Loved the houses and my favorite today was the hooked rugs. I have done a little bit of that and really love it!

  13. Those homes are beautiful and works of art but every time I look at them I think to myself who is the poor fellow that has to paint all that trim? ;c)

  14. Was there 2 times many years ago. I stayed a one of the homes with Gail one year. Ernie and I spent the day there ,so long ago it seems. Can't remember the house we staed at other than it was on a corner. Beautiful homes

  15. Thanks so much for the tour of Cape May, just would hate the trip getting there. Sure wouldn't want the upkeep of the painted ladies though.

  16. WOW, what a lot of neat old buildings! And what an inspirational place for the happy hookers to get together! Sounds like a really great place to walk...I am surprised more people aren't interested in doing the same. Sounds like the town needs to promote a self guided walking tour of the neighborhoods.

    Metamorphosis Lisa

  17. You gave an excellent tour with great pictures too! Clearly the painters in this town do not have to worry about unemployment. I just wonder how the owners can afford the rates they must charge. I suppose visitors help support the upkeep in the elevated prices they pay for accommodations.

  18. Sherry you really did our little piece of Heaven very nicely. I was wondering if your going to take the Cape May Ferry back to Va?


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