America's Oldest Seaside Resort Celebrates 200th Anniversary
Since its creation in 1816, America's oldest seaside hotel has faced everything from drastic fires to hurricanes to severe financial difficulties.
Despite the challenges, Congress Hall is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and this Monday will be burying a time capsule containing historic artifacts and photographs that will remain sealed until 2066.
Built by politician and businessman Thomas Hughes, the property, which was originally named The Big House By the Sea, was one of the largest hotels in America when it opened.
At the time, locals were sure that Hughes’ conception of such a large hotel, which housed around 100 guests, would fail, so they nicknamed the property “Tommy’s Folly.”
Despite the lack of faith, tourists from Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Delaware, and Maryland, arrived in Cape May, New Jersey, to swim in the ocean and lounge on the hotel’s verandas. As more and more people looked to escape the heat in these cities, Congress Hall became a prime choice thanks to its location, just a few steps from the ocean in the heart of Cape May’s historic district.
The hotel, which was renamed after Hughes ascended to the House of Representatives in 1828, faced two devastating fires, including what became known as Cape May’s worst fire in 1878.
It was rebuilt and re-opened with a new brick exterior, and continued running until Annie Knight, one of the hotel’s owners, closed down the property for more than a decade due to disputes with the city council over poor roads. The hotel was eventually opened again in 1920, after the city council spent $200,000 rebuilding the roads.
Under the ownership of Jonas Miller, Congress Hall became renowned for its cuisine, with an extensive breakfast menu. Miller owned a farm, a tradition which the hotel continues today with its 62-acre Beach Plum Farm.
Memorable events that have taken place at Congress Hall have included everything from womens' suffrage rallies led by Knight to concerts by famed composer, John Philip Sousa, who dedicated “Congress Hall March” to the hotel's proprietors.
The hotel has always had a “patriotic undercut” to it, says current owner, Curtis Bashaw. Congress Hall has hosted five presidents, including Benjamin Harrison, who made the hotel his summer White House in 1891.
Several politicians have owned the hotel,including Charles Sandman, who became known as one of Nixon's strongest supporters during his impeachment trials.
Considering this patriotic history, fourth of July celebrations became a ritual at the hotel’s lawn: “I have sung ‘Yankee Doodle’ on that lawn every fourth of July for virtually my entire life,” Bashaw told Travel + Leisure. “It’s just become a fabric of the place and the town.”
Congress Hall had all of its guest rooms re-designed last year to include new carpet designs inspired by the 1920s and soft hues of blues and grays.
“To see it in a new golden age where families come here to form their own memories is extremely gratifying,” Bashaw told T+L.
Some of the original features that remain from the hotel's past include areas like the main stairwell, the ballroom, and even remnants of tunnels running form the hotel's basement towards the ocean, which were used by bootleggers during the Prohibition.
“People crave a constant in their lives, and this hotel serves as a gathering place where people can be a part of something that has stood the test of time,” Bashaw told T+L.
The hotel is accepting mementos, pictures, and memories for the time capsule from guests who have stayed at the property.
Talia Avakian is a digital reporter at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @TaliaAvak.