A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
Back by popular demand, I have another Cape May mythbusters column for you. This week we will look at three common stories which are frequently told on tours of the historic district, can be found on the internet and are passed along through word of mouth. Chances are you’ve probably heard one or more of these popular tales.
We’ll start things off by investigating a story I’ve heard about Congress Hall ever since I was a kid. It involves Annie Knight, former owner of the hotel, who lived in a cottage across the street from it. The cottage had been willed to her by her father, Edward C. Knight, who died of pneumonia in the house on July 21, 1892.
This aerial shot from 1933 show the original Convention Hall with the façade visible in the shadow
The tale alleges that Annie Knight had a restriction placed on the Congress Hall deed preventing any future construction on the western side of the property. The reasoning behind this was apparently Knight’s desire to preserve her cottage’s ocean view in perpetuity.
To get to the truth, I spoke with someone who is intimately familiar with the Congress Hall property and its deed. I contacted Sandy Montano, Senior Project Manager for Cape Advisors, and the person who oversaw the hotel’s $22 million renovation in 2002. When I asked her about the tale, her answer was simple and to the point: “It is not true.” The only real question here is who started the rumor and why.
Next up, we’ll take a look at Cape May’s first ‘Victorian’ Convention Hall. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard it described that way recently. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinion about its design, the truth is that building was anything but Victorian.
A mid-1970s postcard shows the ocean view that’s the subject of a story that turns out to be false
Built in 1917, 16 years after the end of the Victorian period, the first Convention Hall was basically three plain rectangle buildings positioned together. There were two on either side of a long hallway in the front and the third positioned centrally behind them. The façade that everyone remembers was in the Mission Revival style of architecture.
You may recognize another building in town that matches the style, the former Nelson Z. Graves cottage, now known as the Mission Inn. By the way, for anyone as curious as I was when I wrote this column, his full name was Nelson Zwinglius Graves.
I’ll end things this week by addressing the myth that the Washington Street Mall was the first pedestrian mall in America. One gentleman vehemently tried convincing me that this was the case last summer, which was odd because I didn’t disagree with him. I wasn’t 100% sure at the time and I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth. Maybe he could see the disbelief in my eyes.
I wish I could say this one was true, but it’s not. The first successful street-turned mall was built in 1959 on Burdick Street in Kalamazoo, MI. There were earlier attempts that failed, but regardless, Cape May’s signature mall wasn’t built until 1972.
Even though it wasn’t the first, Cape May lovers can still take comfort in knowing it was one of the first and a model for other cities like the Downtown Mall in Charlottsville, VA.
If you have any questions about these or other stories you have hear about Cape May, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.