THE SOUTHERN MANSION
A Historic Preservation Case Study
In her youth, Cape May was known as “Up North, Down South” due to her status as a favorite destination for antebellum southern gentry. During this period Cape May mimicked the architectural and social trends of southern cities of the mid-1800s. In 1879 a great fire swept over Cape May, taking with it many of the grand structures built during this era of southern influence. Fortunately, one iconic Italianate mansion survived the fire, and despite ensuing years of neglect, today has received a complete restoration through the efforts of the New Jersey Farmers Cooperative.
In 1863 the Philadelphia industrialist, George Allen, built an Italianate villa of bracket, post and beam on the island of Cape May. Designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Samuel Sloan, and constructed by Henri Phillipi, this seaside palace was used by Allen and his descendants as a country estate for the next 83 years.
In 1946, the last of Allen’s direct relatives, Ester Mercur, passed away. Her husband, Ulysses, sold the estate with all its furnishings for a pittance–– just $8,000. Purchased as income-producing property (and before Cape May began its own renaissance), the building was converted into a boarding house, and immediately a different type of clientele began to occupy the home.
The period earth-toned exterior was painted white, while the interior was partitioned into many small rooms. Unfortunately, the conversion caused structural weaknesses. During the next half-century the house fell into disrepair. By the 1980′s, the boarding-house license was revoked for lack of upkeep.
While vacationing in Cape May in early 1994, Barbara Bray-Wilde, Director of NJFC, walked along the north side of the abandoned property in sheer disbelief. How could such a beautiful house with enormous grounds in Cape May be in such disrepair? Then she saw the for-sale sign. By August of 1994 the house had been purchased and Ms. Bray-Wilde and the NJFC team began wading through 130 years of history. Having sorted all the important furnishings, artwork, family mementos and heirlooms into four tractor-trailers, the NJFC removed 25 dumpster loads of garbage! Over the next eighteen months, the Mansion and grounds were restored to historical accuracy.
The main beams were rotting with age, and new I-beams were installed to support the Mansion and straighten the rolling hallway floors. Electricity and plumbing were replaced, including the addition of a new HVAC and sprinkler system to conform with current codes.
Outside, the entire house was sanded down to the bare wood and repainted to period-appropriate earth-tones and all five chimneys were rebuilt using the original bricks. The slate and tin roofs, copper gutters, brackets, porches, soffits, trims, moldings, and fascia boards were replaced. Finally, the finial was re-gilded, the entire grounds were tamed and the Italianate gardens were re-established. Inside, all of the original architectural elements, furnishings, including the gasolier fixtures, walls, ceilings, floors, stairs, doors, and windows have been restored to their original splendor. The 30-inch granite basement walls were waterproofed and phase I of the project was complete.
Inspired by a Samuel Sloan lithograph of the house entitled “The Southern Mansion” (which now hangs prominently in the entrance hallway), the house was re-opened with that name in the spring of 1996, and phase II of the renovation was begun. The new South Wing houses ten additional guest suites, twelve bathrooms, a second ballroom, a commercial kitchen, three balconies, a gallery, verandah, solarium, and two magnificent circular staircases, all designed and built in the same style as the original Mansion.
By the summer of 1997 our NJFC project was complete, and genuine southern hospitality had returned to Cape May.