Break Out Your Bonnets

From tea dances to murder mystery dinners, Cape May’s Victorian Week will put you in a gingerbread frame of mind.

Courtesy of Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Maciej Nabradalik.

From tea dances to murder mystery dinners, Cape May’s Victorian Week will put you in a gingerbread frame of mind.

Ironically, the ornate architecture that has defined Cape May for the last 125 years might have died out long ago if not for a devastating fire. Cape May was a retreat for the prosperous when the fire of 1878 destroyed 40 acres in the center of the city, west of Ocean Street. The blaze razed most of Cape May’s huge luxury hotels, including the original Congress Hall. In the aftermath, it was decided not to compete with ascendant Atlantic City by rebuilding the big hotels.

Instead, the emerging middle class built numerous cottages, which, in a frenzy of conservatism perhaps influenced by the destruction, were produced in styles popular in previous decades, like French Second Empire and Italianate.

“They looked 30 years old the day they were finished,” says Elan Zingman-Leith, curator of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, which includes the Emlen Physick Estate, a lovingly preserved 1879 mansion that serves as Cape May’s Victorian house museum (1048 Washington St., 800-275-4278,

Cape May will be showing off its gingerbread during the 37th annual Victorian Week, October 9-18 ( Parking is plentiful and there is a wealth of things to do.

The non-profit MAC is headquartered at the Physick Estate and runs guided walks, trolley rides, and events throughout the year. For Victorian Week, MAC adds special events that allow visitors to commune with ghosts, innkeepers, psychics, vintners, and Mother Nature.

The eighteen-room Physick Estate is a must-see for lovers of Victoriana. Emlen Physick, the nineteenth-century descendant of a prominent Philadelphia family known for producing doctors, hired a famous Victorian architect, Frank Furness, to build his year-round home on Washington Street in the so-called Stick Style (as seen in the stick-like grid pattern integrated into the clapboard exterior and the stick-like brackets on the porch).

Victorians loved to ape European design, and the city is a riot of Italianate, French Second Empire, Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne structures. The ugly-duckling exception—the Colonial House, at 653 1/2 Washington St.—is believed to be Cape May’s oldest surviving home, a circa 1775 tavern that serves as headquarters for the Greater Cape May Historical Society (

In the Victorian era, the omnipresent gingerbread dripping from porches was inexpensive, sawn ornamentation shipped from a factory. Nobody knew how to set the rules for being middle class, so the impulse was to overcompensate in appearance and decoration. “They’re showing that they’re educated,” says Zingman-Leith. “‘I’m not a ditch-digger, I know about the Renaissance, I know about Europe, I know about art.’”

The exuberant exterior colors of Cape May homes are the result of relatively recent scholarship. Until the 1970s, says restoration consultant and former Cape May innkeeper Tom Carroll, “just about every building in town was painted white. But as some of us started digging down into the layers of paint, we found very colorful pigments. Since then, a lot of research has shown that the Victorians loved the colors of nature for their houses—browns, grays, dark greens, and maroons.”

Carroll is an organizer of this year’s Designer Show House, a Carpenter Gothic cottage at 511 Franklin Street dating to the mid-nineteenth century (owned, coincidentally, by a family named Carpenter). It has been rehabbed and redecorated by a team of East Coast designers. (Carpenter Gothic is a spin-off of English architecture that took hold in New York’s Hudson River Valley and evokes nature with its peaked shapes and earth tones.) Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for children ages 3-12 (

Visits to the show house can be combined with afternoon luncheon under the striped tent at the Physick Estate’s Carriage House Tearoom and Café (609-884-5111 for reservations), where bistro tables are set with crisp linens and garden-cut flowers and women are addressed as “milady.” (Ask to borrow a bonnet at the entrance.) At the Butterfly Tea Room in nearby West Cape May, guests can design their own table settings from proprietor Peg Wolfe’s fabulous array of antique and collectible china (109 Sunset Blvd., 609-898-4550,

Tea was one of the Victorians’ more genteel activities, according to Zingman-Leith, who hosts a talk on “Victorian Vices” at the Physick Estate on October 14 (11:15 am, 12:15, 1:30, and 2:45 pm; adults, $12; children, $6). These included a fascination with the Middle East, particularly things Turkish. The latter was translated into deeply cushioned sofas, Egyptian wallpaper patterns, and smoking lounges. “They were thinking about the pasha and his harem,” says Zingman-Leith, “and that was so titillating, so shocking, that they just loved it.”

Though thought to be proper in all things, Victorians kept ornate hypodermic needles for recreational drug use. “Middle-class Victorian women took patent medicines all the time,” Zingman-Leith says. “The pick-me-ups had cocaine in them, and the evening ones, to calm you down, had heroin.” Yet alcohol was taboo, especially for women—a weakness the nouveau riche associated with Irish and German immigrants, Zingman-Leith adds.

Moderate indulging in food and drink, however, never goes out of style, and MAC caters to gourmaniacs by packaging dining with tours or presentations like the Murder Mystery at the Inn of Cape May. (October 10-12 and 16, 23 and 24, 7 pm; October 18 and 25, 1 pm. 7 Ocean St. $45 for dinner; $30 for lunch. Reservations required, call 609-884-5404.) Many restaurants offer dinner-and-show incentives linked to Cape May’s two professional theaters: Cape May Stage (31 Perry St., 609-884-1341, and East Lynne Theater Company (121 Fourth Ave., 609-884-5898.

Ditch the diet at 2 pm on October 11 at the Washington Inn’s Chocolate Fantasy Buffet ($35, 801 Washington St., 609-884-5697, New this year is the Cape May Wine Trail, October 16, a trolley ride to three area vineyards, with lunch ($75, noon-5 pm,; and that same day a Sam Adams Beer Dinner to herald Oktoberfest at the Mad Batter restaurant ($65, 7:30 pm, 19 Jackson St., 609-884-5970,

Ladies and gents can sign up for period dance lessons during Vintage Dance Weekend, October 10 and 11. Social dance historian Susan de Guardiola leads the instruction on October 10, 9:30 am to 2 pm. There will be a tea dance (October 11, 2 pm)—a precursor to today’s ballroom dancing, with light versions of the foxtrot and tango—and a stately Vintage Ball (October 10, 8 pm), awash in silken hoop skirts and men’s white ties. Revelers often wear their costumes for a stroll along the Washington Street Mall, dispensing queenly waves to the tourists (some of whom sport their own gowns and hightails).

The approach of Halloween allows Victorian Week organizers to toy with another parlor amusement: talking to dead people. Psychic medium and author Craig McManus has scripted, based on his research and encounters, three different MAC ghost tours; his midnight sessions at the Physick Estate are sold out months in advance. He tells of the Victorians’ deep desire to communicate with the dead, especially with loved ones killed in the Civil War, and of the charlatan psychics who were eager to profit from their grief.
The estate has its share of friendly ghosts, and in that spirit Madame Parmentier’s Psychic Tea at 11:30 am and 2 pm on October 17 and 24 in the Carriage House tea room ($25, 609-884-5111, will feature wandering fortune tellers or even a phrenologist.

Where to stay? There is no shortage of Victorian-style B&Bs to choose from, including the Queen Victoria Bed and Breakfast compound (102 Ocean St., 609-884-8702,, and the Victorian Lace Inn (901 Stockton Ave., 609-884-1772,, which welcomes families with youngsters.

Those who prefer their Victorian lodgings to be a little grander and less communal than the B&Bs can try the elegantly restored Congress Hall (251 Beach Ave., 888-944-1816,

Linda Fowler, former entertainment editor at the Star-Ledger, writes frequently about the arts.

Click on the links below to read our Fall Day Trips stories:

Take A Hike: Aching feet and burning quads are a small price to pay for a trek on New Jersey’s Appalachian Trail.

Shudder And Quake: From fright fests to haunted hayrides, ghostly attraction abound in NJ.

Patriots Chilled: Tour the grounds where Washington’s (shivering) army slept.

Where The Wizard Worked: Editson’s West Orange lab reopens its doors after a five-year restoration.

Paterson Great Falls Historical Park

Rise To The Challenge: Tour New Jersey’s Historic Lighthouses.

Forging Ties: Batsto Village in Burlington County is a many-layerd Jersey pleasure.

Happy Harvests: In October, the Garden State’s food and wine festivals invite you to put your month where your mouth is.

Golden Golf: Don’t even think about putting away your clubs this month, New Jersey courses beckon.

Read more Historic Jersey, Jersey Living articles.

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