200 Congress Pl, Cape May, NJ 08204, USA
Photo by Congress Hall
Staying at Congress Hall Enriches Your Historic Cape May ExperienceAll the way south at the tip of New Jersey off the Garden State Parkway's exit 0 where the Delaware River meets the Atlantic Ocean, America's first seaside resort recently celebrated its bi-centennial anniversary. Cape May, an architectural gem of a walk able town, is steeped in Victoriana including an historic district encompassing nearly 600 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places including the venerable hotel Congress Hall.
Upon checking in, it's tempting to think that Congress Hall has been a lovingly preserved permanent fixture from the day it opened in the summer of 1816. But like many historic properties, this one has a long complicated story with many twists and turns throughout its life accompanied by multiple rebirths reflecting Cape May's own trajectory through time.
Congress Hall began first as a simple boarding house for summer vacationers with owner Thomas H. Hughes dubbing it The Big House. Skeptical locals nicknamed it Tommy’s Folly convinced the property was far too large to ever be successful. It had a single downstairs dining room serving all guests who stayed on the two upper floors in simple rooms partitioned with bare walls and communal bathrooms. Despite these rugged conditions, markedly different guest expectations at the time filled rooms to capacity for many years.
By the middle of the 19th Century, Cape May became a booming Northeastern coastal summer escape rivaling other favorites like Saratoga and Newport but a catastrophic fire in 1878 destroyed 38 acres of the town's oceanfront including Congress Hall. Rebuilt in brick within a year, it soon enjoyed high profile popularity as a summer retreat for Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan. President Benjamin Harrison made Congress Hall his summer White House conducting business while the actual White House was being outfitted with electricity.
Extensive renovations in the early 1920s reduced the room count from 350 to 107 incorporating private bathrooms into each guest room. Following another stretch of success, Congress Hall shut down during the Depression not to reopen until after World War II. There was also a long stretch from 1968 through 1995 when Congress Hall operated as part of the Cape May Bible Conference. Although not exactly a mainstream usage, it preserved the property from the wrecking ball during a time when many Cape May landmarks were demolished in favor of modern styled motels.
Current owner Curtis Bashaw purchased Congress Hall in 1995 with the goal of fully restoring the 4 story Federal-style hotel to its 1920's glory only this time completely enhanced with resort grade amenities. It took years to line up financing and municipal approvals before finally embarking on their major overhaul completed in 2001. Totaling $22 million, restoration included replacing the roof's more than 18,000 slate shingles, installing 11 miles of new plumbing & 47 miles of wiring, reconstructing their 55 signature yellow exterior columns, and cleaning & reusing 158,000 original bricks.
Congress Hall now includes 2 on site restaurants, several gift shops & boutiques, 2 swimming pools, and a spa. Entering through the original 12-foot tall ornate wooden doors facing Congress Place, you step onto the marbled-floor foyer where ocean breezes, palms, and wicker furniture captures the ambiance of a vintage seaside retreat. Heading out the back entrance to the sweeping verandah outfitted with a bar and lined with wooden rocking chairs provides the perfect vantage point overlooking the lawn, pool area, and ocean in the distance.
Understated luxury defines the overall vibe here making you equally comfortable walking around in sandy feet and wet bathing suit as in an evening gown and high heels. Wide corridors feature curved plaster walls, wooden floors with carpeted runners, and milk glass globe lighting casting soft shadows after sunset. Seating in the lived-in, lounge-like common areas outside the entrances to Blue Pig Tavern and The Brown Room as well as stairway landings are punctuated with windows overlooking the Atlantic.
Guest rooms outfitted with lacquered 4-poster beds, carpeting modeled after patterns in traditional rag rugs, and subway tiled bathrooms maximize natural light while windows freely open to the ocean air completing the carefree beach house ambiance.
This being The Garden State and the fact that Congress Hall originally had its own on site gardens, Curtis Bashaw knew he had to reclaim this aspect of the property's roots as well. Their very own 62 acre Beach Plum Farm along with satellite growers throughout South Jersey supply all Congress Hall affiliated restaurants with more than 100 varieties of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs along with free range eggs, poultry, and pork from their sustainably-raised heirloom Berkshire hogs.