A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
The Congress Hall that we all know was built following the fire of 1878 and opened for business in the summer season of 1879. The building looked almost identical to what we see today, save for the green exterior walls, just a few shades lighter than today’s Queen Victoria B&B.
Edward Collins Knight, known locally as E. C. Knight, led the rebuilding efforts under the umbrella of his Congress Hall Hotel Company. Knight’s two partners, Alexander Moore and Murrell Dobbins, allowed Knight to oversee the subdivision of the original property, selling off of lots across the newly-created Congress Place, and construction of the new ‘fireproof’ hotel of brick.
In 1879, Cape May’s Congress Hall looked much the same as it does today, save for the iron-crested roof. Don Pocher
As originally configured by architect J. F. Meyer, the rebuilt Congress Hall had 200 rooms with accommodations for up to 500 people. Interior renovations were completed in 1895, enlarging it to 300 rooms, while adding elevators and electric lighting throughout the building. The hotel was later purchased by Knight’s daughter, Annie, in 1904, who subsequently closed it due to a lack of funds.
In 1920, Knight found the resources to completely renovate the hotel. With enlarged rooms and new private bathrooms, the room number dropped to 100. Even so, the hotel became busier than ever.
Just as Presidents Pierce, Buchanan and Grant did with the previous hotel, Presidents Arthur and Harrison chose to spend time at the new Congress Hall. President Arthur visited in 1883 and Harrison named the hotel his Summer White House in 1890 and 1891.
Another famous visitor to Congress Hall was noted conductor John Phillips Sousa, who performed numerous concerts on the front lawn, including a seven-night series in 1882, where he dedicated “The Congress Hall March” to the hotel.
Following the death of Annie Knight in 1931 and the subsequent death of her brother in 1936, the Knight family’s life insurance company owned and operated the hotel until it was sold to the new Congress Hall corporation. It was during the last year of the insurance company’s control in 1941 that my grandmother worked as a server in the hotel’s ballroom.
The Congress Hall ballroom is shown in the early 1940s with attendants standing ready along the wall. Don Pocher
Congress Hall has changed hands a number of times since then. In the early 2000s, the hotel underwent an extensive $25 million renovation by its current owners.
Once again, famous visitors are flocking to the old hotel. Many modern celebrities have spent time at Congress Hall, including Oprah Winfrey, Rudolph Giuliani, Anne Hathaway and many more who have chosen to maintain a low profile. Just as in the 1890s, Congress Hall attracts guests, famous and otherwise, looking for a beautiful beachfront retreat.