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Suites by the Sweets
May 2, 2017
At 5:30pm every day in the summertime, the lifeguards on Cape May Beach pull their rescue boats up on the sand, far away from the incoming tide. The final whistle let’s swimmers know that it’s time to get out of the water. Beach-goers shake sandy towels and blankets, packing up toys and checking new tan lines. The sounds of whistles, laughter of children, warnings of parents and lifeguards are replaced by the cawing of the sea gulls and lapping of waves along the shore. The excitement migrates from the sand to the pavement, as a murmur rises over Washington Street Mall. Restaurants fill up with the sun-kissed crowd, walking up and down the brick pathway, flanked by candy shops, restaurants and boutiques on either side. Kids pass by the Fudge Kitchen two or three times hoping for another free sample to get them through to the post-dinner ice cream cone. While it’s hard to imagine, the Victorian façade of Washington Street Mall is in its infancy compared to the history of Cape May as a whole. Washington Street Mall as it exists today, much like a lot of Cape May, exists because of fateful decisions made four decades ago.
Before the shops, the fudge and the ice cream, Washington Street was an uninterrupted road, Cape May’s Main Street. It was first created in 1832, and was home to businesses that provided the everyday essentials. Freihofer’s Market around the turn of the century, mechanics, dive bars, movie theatres, and ten-cent stores defined the main drag. The late 1960s were not kind to Cape May. Many of the hundred year-old houses were becoming uninhabitable. Other shore towns were tearing away at termite-infested wooden frames to build modern, profitable condos. Some buildings didn’t even have indoor plumbing, and the unemployment rate in Cape May was well above the national average. Besides the seasonal economy, in season the city was losing customers to the exciting amusements of Wildwood, Atlantic City, and Asbury Park. The town was chock-full of nostalgia for a by-gone era, and in 1966 city leaders went to Washington DC to discuss their options for Washington Street.
The result was federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to build a “Victorian Village Shopping Mall” that would help to preserve a portion of the houses along Washington Street so that they may be used as store fronts. The idea was to lower taxes, boost tourism, and increase jobs. Some were opposed to the deal, as certain homes were eliminated and the town was required to build public housing. They were also required to build the market that is currently Acme Markets, and the surrounding shops that today are known as Washington Commons. Other buildings brokered as a part of the deal were the old Convention Center and Victorian Towers.
In 1970 construction began on the mall and it was officially dedicated on June 24th, 1971. Five years later, Cape May earned the distinction of National Historic Landmark. Some say that the road to preservation was forged by the grant with HUD that changed Washington Street from a roadway to a walkway. The same year that Cape May was given this distinction, a fire that took place during holiday celebrations claimed a portion of the mall. Nevertheless, the blocks affected rose from the ashes. In 2008 the mall received a facelift, and today it continues to be traversed by thousands of visitors every year.
Pedestrians that spill out onto the southern end of the mall onto Perry Street find themselves in a sunny yellow shadow cast by Congress Hall. This year, the yellow hue has migrated up onto the mall itself with the Congress Place Suites. Previously home to Cape May Popcorn, The Congress Place Suites are perched above the famed pedestrian walk, Perry Street, and Carpenter’s lane. The second story apartment-style rooms feature a full kitchen, bedroom, and sleeping area for up to four guests. The first floor is occupied by young entrepreneurs and women’s clothing boutiques, “The Pink House” and “Cash and Clive”. The suites are the only accommodations located on Washington Street Mall.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Washington Street Mall was not always what it is today. Over the centuries, it’s become the heart of the town, and a sort of metaphor for Cape May itself. It’s a testament to preservation, yet ever-evolving and improving to continue to be a reflection of the heart of a historic town.
(Special thanks to Ben Miller for historical information)