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Victorian Cape May

Cape May, New Jersey's collection of Victorian homes attracts visitors from all over the world. It's no wonder. The entire New Jersey seashore town is a National Historic Landmark.

Who would have thought that such a magnificent architectural treasure trove got its start with a catastrophic fire?

Cape May looked a lot different before the fire of 1878. The town is the oldest seashore resort in the nation. In the 1800's, Cape May had quite a collection of classically designed seaside hotels.

The fire of 1878 wiped out 30 blocks of the early seashore town, including some of the resort's major hotels, including the original Congress Hall.

To this day, when someone in Cape May talks about "the fire" they're referring to this major event more than a hundred years ago.

The town wasted no time rebuilding. And, for the most part, the new buildings that went up were built in the modern style of the day...later known as the Victorian style... lots of gingerbread trim, gables and turrets.

That explains the huge concentration of late 19th Century dwellings in Cape May today...everything from Gothic Revival to Queen Anne design...all part of the country's Victorian era.

The homes were mostly single family seashore homes. They're often called "painted ladies" because of their colorful appearance. But those beautiful Victorian homes faced a new threat a hundred years later...just as serious as the fire of 1878.

It was the push to demolish the old, to make way for brand new construction in the last half of the 20th Century that almost did more damage than the fire of 1878.

Many fine old buildings were lost in the new building blitz before the entire town was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

But once they were saved from demolition, what would become of these relics from the Victorian era? Few modern day families could maintain an eight or ten bedroom house, with high ceilings, formal parlors, and often maids' quarters.

Slowly, many of Cape May's huge Victorian seaside "cottages" have been turned into bed and breakfast inns, guest houses and even restaurants.

Part of the charm of visiting Cape May today is taking a guided tour or a casual stroll through the historic district...the site of so much devastation in 1878.

Horses and carriages now patrol the streets as they used to do and there are annual Victorian festivals that draw history loving folks from all over the country. Although there are many structures built before the Victorian era in the area, (see Cold Spring Church as an example) Cape May has become synonymous with the Victorian period.

It hasn't been easy for the city's painted ladies to survive, but they've done it. And they welcome seaside visitors today, just as they did over a hundred years ago.

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