Strolling down Jackson Street in Historic Cape May, the warm summer breeze comes off the ocean passing through the green trees. As you go by Number 25 Jackson Street, you may notice there’s a silver glow coming from the bright red door that is framed by a quaint front porch. There’s something about 25 Jackson Street that has breathed a sort of new life into Cape May over the last 25 years. That’s how long The Virginia Hotel has been operating after its latest renovation. Prior to that it was a boarding house and a historic building that was part of the reinvention of Cape May in the aftermath of the great fire of 1878. Over a century later, a young entrepreneur who hadn’t been alive for much more than twenty-five years would see the silver glow others see today in a building that at that time was condemned and in danger of being torn down. It was going to take hard work, vision, and determination to turn a pile of wood and brick into a world-renowned restaurant and hotel.
The Virginia Hotel was one of the first hotels to be rebuilt on Jackson Street after the Great Fire of 1878 destroyed 35 acres of Cape May. Originally built by a team of shipbuilding carpenters for Alfred and Ellen Ebbitt of Baltimore, it was named the Ebbitt House in honor of the first owners. The architect, Enos Williams, gave it a post-Civil War conservative style that was altered in 1894 with a rear addition and a raised foundation. At this time The Ebbitts renamed it “The Virginia Hotel” in honor of their southern roots. In the 1960s The Virginia fell out of popularity and closed its restaurant, operating as a boarding house for young men working in Cape May in the summer time. In the 1980s the building was condemned. The glory days of The Virginia seemed to have vanished, but one of its former boarders was going to see the potential for another opportunity to raise a piece of Cape May from the ashes.
In 1986, 26 year-old Curtis Bashaw approached his father Keith, a real estate developer in Princeton, NJ about the dilapidated house that he lived in during the summer of 1975. Bashaw was the grandson of Rev. Carl McIntire who owned Congress Hall and the Christian Admiral in Cape May, and he’d spent summers growing up working in the hospitality industry. He’d come to fall in love with the business and with Cape May, the little town by the sea. After learning of his son’s vision for The Virginia, Keith Bashaw and Brandon Hull (Curtis’ brother-in-law) agreed to assist in obtaining the financing to renovate The Virginia into a historical hotel and restaurant with modern amenities. No one had ever considered melding these two ideas. You either came to Cape May to shut off the T.V. and go to a B & B or you went for the modern motels four miles up the Garden State Parkway. Curtis wanted to create a place where you could find both. “We wanted to do a hotel that set a new standard for hospitality in Cape May, but I realized as a young developer if I wanted to realize my dream I had to make a deal,” said Bashaw in an interview with Exit Zero.
Before even getting the chance to start making compromises and deals, he was going to face a lot of adversity to see the dream come to fruition.
Six banks rejected Bashaw before he received a loan from the seventh. Construction began in the summer of 1988 and with a $3 million dollar budget it was the largest renovation in Cape May since the preservation effort began in the 1970s. He was attending Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania while The Virginia was under construction, relying on his brother-in –law to help with overseeing the project. He faced opposition in town when trying to secure a liquor license; up until recently drinks were not served on the porch to keep anyone happy who may be nervous about the new kid on the block. On June 2nd, 1989 The newly revived Virginia Hotel opened, and the nerves soon melted as Cape May saw the beauty in The Virginia that Curtis saw fifteen years before living there as a kid working a summer job.
It has not all been smooth sailing since 1989. In March of 1997 The Virginia experienced a significant fire that caused it to close for 60 days. Bashaw reflects on how the town rallied to help fix the damage noting “It’s amazing how sometimes the sweetest moments in Cape May happen in a time of crisis.” Today The Virginia Hotel boasts that it was named in Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s list of the world’s best hotels, the only hotel in New Jersey to make the list. It’s restaurant, The Ebbitt Room, has received accolades from The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Press of Atlantic City and ZAGAT, and offers premier dining in Cape May with a menu that celebrates a farm-to-table philosophy. At the 25th anniversary celebration of the reopening of The Virginia Hotel, Curtis Bashaw honored local young entrepreneurs that are being featured in publications by Exit Zero this summer. Some of these young business owners were learning how to walk and talk when the Virginia reopened in 1989, but they have become part of a legacy in Cape May that will last beyond the next twenty-five years. Its something that came out of a devastating fire in 1878, survived through storms both literal and figurative, and has come to characterize a sort of reconstructive legacy in Cape May. Walking past 25 Jackson Street it’s that feeling you get coming from the bright red door that welcomes you in. A legacy that visitors appreciate and young entrepreneurs can learn from: the idea that all good things are worth working for.