Our Stories : History & Heritage
To those who weathered the cold winter months this past year, summertime means one thing: vacation. From little tykes finishing their first year of school, to the President of the United States, everyone is looking forward to a well-deserved break from the daily grind. It’s no secret that Congress Hall has served as a favorite getaway for visitors of all ages, but did you know that once upon a time the historical hotel played host to our nation’s Commander in Chief? Congress Hall has served as a summertime vacation destination for Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses S. Grant, and Benjamin Harrison. There is even evidence that Chester Arthur stopped by Congress Hall’s Pier when he was in town. For 199 summers, visitors have discovered the rejuvenating effect of a few days in Cape May.
Several of these esteemed guests chose Congress Hall as their place to relax by the beautiful sea. In 1855, President Franklin Pierce spent a few days vacating Washington by paying a visit to Congress Hall. President Pierce’s stay lasted from July 4th through July 7th of that year, His predecessors, James Buchanan would follow him to the all-American resort. Buchanan was one of the oldest Presidents to hold office at the time, and he especially enjoyed his escape to Cape Island. Buchanan said that he found comfort in the “therapeutic waters of the Atlantic Ocean” and come summer he needed to get away from the “bad vapors of Washington.” After the Civil War, as the nation was repairing the wounds left by southern secession, war hero Ulysses S. Grant paid a visit to the patriotic Congress Hall. Grant visited once again in 1875 as president, for the opening of a new yacht club in town.
Many have heard of Congress Hall’s distinction as the “Summer White House”. This nickname is not the result of its use for the President’s R & R but rather one president who quite literally spent countless hours making important decisions within its yellow brick walls. President Benjamin Harrison spent the summer of 1891 in a cottage at Cape May Point, a gift to Harrison’s wife Caroline from the mercantilist John Wanamaker of Philadelphia. The president was staying in the cottage that summer because various renovations were taking place at the Whitehouse regarding the installation of electricity. Harrison presided over his presidential duties in his office that was located at Congress Hall- in the very spot that is currently home to Congress Hall’s Sea Spa.
It is said that Chester Arthur came to Congress Hall in July of 1883, stopping by the pier to greet bathers along the beach. Arthur had his own “Summer White House” of sorts, located a couple of hundred miles north of Cape May. Chester Arthur often times would vacation in Sag Harbor, NY, in an Italianate Victorian home. Ironically, Sag Harbor is now home to Cape Resorts’ latest renovation, a hotel known as Baron’s Cove that opened this spring.
Sometimes, everyone needs a vacation. Many have found an ideal place to getaway in this little town at the southern tip of New Jersey. There is no denying the patriotic spirit that permeates throughout the salty air. Cape May is the epitome of small-town America, full of history, pride, and an appreciation for those that have come before. It is no wonder that so many esteemed leaders found a welcome place to relax for a brief time, before going on to live the history that we preserve today.