‘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