A weekly historical column by Ben Miller, author of the best-selling “The First Resort”
Sitting between a private house and the B&B now known as King’s Cottage is 11 Perry Street, a three-story Victorian home that has been divided into four apartments. My family and I vacationed there for about 30 years before the property was sold in the 1990s.
Take a look at the arched windows on the third floor of the building. They open from the master bedroom of an apartment that spans the top floor, and it was through those windows that I spent untold hours admiring the beach and dreaming about one day being a part of the Cape May community. When my book, The First Resort was released last year, Exit Zero threw a big party on the front lawn of Congress Hall and my seat at the signing table faced those windows. Sitting there, remembering all those dreams and watching them be realized was a surreal moment I will never forget.
The cottage was built in 1890, with a much smaller footprint than the renovated building we see today. The land had previously been part of a much larger parcel that held the Ocean House hotel, which fronted on Perry Street and is remembered as the origin of the devastating 1878 fire. Following the fire, the Ocean House property was subdivided and the parcel at 11 Perry Street was included in the footprint for another large hotel, the New Columbia, built by James Mooney to span an entire block from Perry Street to Jackson.
On the morning of September 25, 1889 the New Columbia faced the same fate as the Ocean House and burned to the ground. The town was saved from the same destruction it saw ten years earlier because, “An east wind and a pouring rain aided the firemen in saving surrounding property.” The New York Times remarked that “Congress Hall caught fire three times.”
Aaron William Hand lived in the home with his wife Letitia and his children Albert, Bernard, Rue, Elwood, Jeannette and Anita. A year before the cottage was built, Hand retired as principal for the Cape May schools to become editor and publisher of the local newspaper, the Cape May Daily Star. He held the publisher position for over 20 years and oversaw the merger with the Daily Wave. In 1896, Hand took on the additional role of Superintendent of Schools for Cape May County, a job he held until the 1920s.
The home was originally built with only an outhouse in the back yard. On the right side of the structure, you’ll notice a small room on stilts. That was the home’s first bathroom and in true Victorian fashion, they just cut a hole in the wall and patched it together. The unusual design also provided an extra benefit – it showed everyone in town that the family was wealthy enough to have the luxury of indoor plumbing.