Yellow Victorian house
Architecture,  History,  Travel galleries,  USA

Gallery: the Painted Ladies of Cape May

‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike…’

Paul Simon

Until I visited, all my images of New Jersey came from song lyrics – Paul Simon’s traffic-clogged turnpike and Bruce Springsteen’s urban working class childhood.

So Cape May came as quite a revelation. This seaside town is noted for the large number of Victorian houses that line its streets.  Popularly known as ‘Painted Ladies’ because of their elaborate trims, they present a beautifully harmonious appearance, despite each one being unique at least in its detailing. These houses have led to the town being designated a National Historic Landmark.

The preponderance of these houses is actually the result of a disaster.  In 1878 a fire wiped out 30 blocks of the town, including a number of elegant hotels. These dated back to the start of that century when Cape May first began to attract visitors (it claims to be the earliest seaside resort in the country).  To replace these a massive building programme was initiated. And for the most part what was built were individual family homes, naturally in the fashion of the day. That meant one of two popular Victorian-era US architectural styles: Stick-Eastlake homes with angled wooden framing and decorative trim, or Queen Anne ones with round towers, lots of ornamentation and gabled roofs. Only San Francisco has a greater concentration of Victorian buildings in the United States.

The Painted Ladies today

In the 1970s these beautiful houses were under threat of demolition; with changing times very few families wanted or could afford such large and grand homes. Luckily, although quite a few were lost in the push to modernise, very many more were saved.  And as they were too large for today’s lifestyles, most have been turned into inns, bed & breakfast accommodation or apartments; so today Cape May can continue to welcome visitors.  There are larger hotels, but it is these wonderful ‘Painted Ladies’ that give the town its real charm and character.

I visited Cape May in 2008

22 Comments

  • rosalieann37

    As always, beautiful photos.

    In 2014, I made a trip from Maryland to Vermont to see my grandson who was in Vermont. I took the chance of going up the coast of New Jersey visiting lighthouses. I had heard about Cape May so we drove up through Delaware and took the Cape May ferry from Lewes and spent the night at a hotel there before we started our lighthousing. Originally I was going to stay in one of the “painted ladies” but it wasn’t possible to get a ground floor room so we stayed in a larger hotel with an elevator. The next day we visited the lighthouse and park. The next lighthouse was the one in North Wildwood (Hereford Inlet) which is also a Victorian house.

  • TheRamblingWombat

    Some years ago now , when I was at uni, I spent a summer working at Wildwood, a seaside town not far from Cape May. I recall visiting here one day and the beautiful Victorian houses. Thanks for brining back wonderful memories.

  • June Pickering

    I love the photos, Sarah. So many of my friends who, like me, grew up in Philadelphia, spent many days in this beautiful town. The houses remind me, too, of the neighborhood where I grew up…. old Victorians.

  • Michael Dempsey

    Its funny…the USA is loaded with great properties like these amidst our bad urban areas. Cape May has the CONCENTRATED in one place. I went here summers with my drum and bugle corps…it was out vacation/practice. 2 weeks of great views and even Better foods! Its amazing YOU recognise Cape May…..its a keeper!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much Michael 🙂 As I said to Malcolm above, I found out about Cape May while researching places to combine with a visit to NYC, and it made a perfect contrast to our time in the Big Apple!!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Malcolm 🙂 Cape May took us by surprise too, when I started to research the area. We were looking for somewhere to stay as an add-on to a New York visit and this made a great contrast!

  • starship VT

    Cape May, probably my favorite place in the world! Cape May has nearly everything I love — a glorious ocean-side location and stunning beach, an abundance of Victorian architecture, restaurants, stage productions and themed weekends, nearby natural areas for migrating birds and sea creatures, and the perfect summer hometown feel (retro). Sarah, thanks for bringing Cape May to light and for the excellent photos — it may be even prettier now than when you visited!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sylvia – I thought of you while posting this because of the pretty ‘Painted Lady’ in the postcard you sent me from Cape May, and because I know you love the town 🙂 I agree, it has so much to offer, and we had a lovely week there 🙂

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