Aerial photos by CHRISTOPHER CHIN | Additional photos by BERNIE HAAS
The plan to transition from retreat to museum
Todo es comenzar. “Everything is just beginning.” So commented Bob Mullock to one of many interested environmental partners in the new Cape May Point Science Center. Mullock and his son Dillon are the driving forces behind preserving and transforming St. Mary by-the-Sea into what they envision as a regional and ultimately national destination museum dedicated to education, research, preservation, and advocacy for Cape May’s migratory species—those seen, in the case of birds and butterflies, and those less seen in the case of dolphins, whales, and sharks.
Much has been written to date about the iconic, red-roofed St. Mary by-the-Sea, built as the Shoreham Hotel in 1889. The nearby beach was the site where escaping slaves used the lighthouse as a beacon to guide their landing from their Delaware Bay crossing before making their way north.
The Shoreham Hotel fell on hard times in the early 1900s. Abolitionist William Still purchased the property, then transitioned it into a refuge for aged and infirm Black people. Eventually, the upkeep became too much. Enter the Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania-based Sisters of St. Joseph, who purchased the property in 1909 for the purpose of retreats. It remained in their stewardship until now.
As they began aging, and in keeping with their congregational commitment to the earth—specifically, ocean, climate, and marine life—the Sisters had plans to raze the structure and turn it back to nature. In stepped the Mullock family. Said patriarch Bob, “Why tear down a perfectly good building with so much history when it can be repurposed into a first-class museum and research center for more generations to enjoy?”
So begins another chapter for St. Mary and another chapter in the Mullock family’s own history of philanthropy and preservation projects on Cape Island. Mullock owns Cape May National Golf Club and the Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May. He also helped establish The Harriet Tubman Museum of Cape May. Son Zach is currently serving as Mayor of Cape May City.
After closing and transferring the title of the sprawling 138-bedroom retreat house, the Mullocks joked, “but first we have to turn the electricity and water back on.”
For the last three and a half years, Bob Mullock has been working quietly behind the scenes to purchase the property. A key component in the decision for all involved was an engineering study that revealed the three-story, 38,000-square-foot structure was not in imminent danger as originally thought. Thanks to Army Corps of Engineers beach restoration efforts, a healthy dune system built itself up over the years. Barring a catastrophic storm like that of 1962, the structure and property are positioned to last well into the next century.
Sister Karen Dietrich said, “It’s all about timing.” Dietrich further commented “The Mullocks are clearly preservationists and have a shared vision aligned with our mission’s ethic to respect our earth and nature.” Said Bob Mullock, “This building was set to be demolished. It’s such a historical and iconic building and in some ways the heart of Cape May and a reflection of our town, so if we let it be demolished, it would likely be a decision we would regret and be ashamed of. The Sisters’ vision was so pure, they planned on returning it to nature after tearing it down. That was one way of doing it, but after educating ourselves about their feelings, we were able to present an alternative.” Both sides came to an agreement and settled in late March of this year. Hence, The Cape May Point Science and Research Center was born.
“The thing about these situations is that someone has to act,” said Mullock. “Truthfully, I would have preferred it to have been the municipality or the county or the state. Unfortunately, that’s not the way a lot of things work in the environmental world of land preservation. Often, it requires a private citizen taking the initiative to actively preserve the land and then partner with different environmental groups already active in the area.”
As a family living in Cape May Point for 47 years, the Mullocks have long been involved as community volunteers. For example, the Chalfonte Hotel continues to this day sponsoring interns every summer for a monarch butterfly camp. As a former Cape May Point Commissioner, Mullock also helped rehab Lake Lily, so their family is very much knitted into the community.
The question on so many local minds is “Now what?” As the transaction was shrouded in a confidentiality agreement until the closing, the group is finally able to have conversations with potential partners.
Cape May Point Science Center has agreed to preserve the structure. It has also agreed the land would never be built on if the building is ever destroyed by nature. A deed restriction bars any new development.
On a chilly and drizzly early morning April tour, I was happy to discover, as were the current owners, that the building is remarkably clean and well preserved thanks to the previous stewards. The first level, which still has its original hardwood floors, will be transformed into a museum dedicated to migratory species that pass along Cape May Point’s confluence of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean. The second story, once enjoyed as small individual bedroom retreats by the Sisters, will be transformed into offices for researchers, housing for interns, and meeting spaces for a board of directors that Bob Mullock plans to eventually turn the keys over to.
It’s no secret that Cape Island has a big problem with rental housing affordability, especially for seasonal employees. The same dynamic affects non-profit researchers and interns. The center will initially be able to house up to 30 people for next summer’s season. Eventually they hope to winterize the building and extend capacity year-round to house another crop of new or returning researchers and interns. Still, the agreed-upon deed restrictions of use ensure the science center will never be regarded as a hotel or an Airbnb.
There are unparalleled views on the second floor of the dunes and ocean from every window of this U-shaped building. As a small child, I would have been blissfully lost for hours in the corridors, nooks, and crannies of this magnificent structure. As Bob led me on the tour, we commented to each other, “Can’t you just imagine epic games of hide-and-seek?”
In terms of the first floor, he said, “This room by itself will be converted into the largest exhibit hall that we know of in Cape May County. The thing about this building is it has the space to tell stories.”
Imagine museum quality habitat and species displays fitted to include research cellular technology’s ability to show the whereabouts of the monarchs or sharks you are learning about but can’t necessarily see. And when it’s winter in Cape May Point, the tracking technology can map in real time where they are in South America. Conversely, while we can’t see the shark we are learning about in the summer, tracking technology might ping that great white right outside the door. For example, researchers have been tracking a great white shark named Breton swimming off the coast of Cape May. They first tagged Breton off the coast of Nova Scotia in September of 2020. He’s 13 feet long, weighs 1,400 pounds, and “pinged” in Cape May waters last in July 2021 on his migratory path northward.
Dillon Mullock shared that their goal is to support existing Cape May County environmental groups through collaboration. “One of the things becoming more and more apparent is that grant givers are looking for more collaborative projects versus ten different organizations vying for the same funds and then who do they pick? Some of these organizations are not really geared up for grant writing and that is where we envision stepping in. This is something we can do at this level and expect to develop a grant writing group.” They already have three letters of intent from folks with a successful history of securing grants.
Other initial plans are to form a committee made up of current local environmental organizations like New Jersey Audubon and The Nature Conservancy. “These folks are already geared towards projects and research areas we would like to achieve and from these, we hope to form a scientific board of directors,” said Dillon. The Mullocks envision the Cape May Point Science Center to be primarily focused as an on-site operation that encourages and facilitates projects so that scientists and non-profits can determine their own projects and trajectory. To date, they have already nominated CEO Michael Lanzone from Cellular Tracking Technology (CTT) in Rio Grande to co-chair the scientific advisory board. According to their website, the founders of CCT have over 40 years of wildlife telemetry research experience between them and are currently celebrating their 15th year.
Tricia Miller, Executive Director of Conservation Science Global located in Cape May, echoed the excitement of the local community. In a letter of support, Miller wrote, “Our mission to benefit local, regional, and global communities and advance conservation and management of natural resources through scientific research and education closely aligns with the mission of the Science Center. Thus, we were honored to be asked to join the consortium of independent scientific and research organizations that will support your mission.” Conservation Science Global focuses on human-wildlife interactions, and their education efforts focus on reducing human-caused mortality to wildlife.
Based in Highlands, New Jersey, the American Littoral Society has also aligned their support for the science center. Recognizing the center’s strategic migratory location for shore birds, monarchs, and horseshoe crabs, Executive Director Tim Dillingham expressed, “We are prepared to support this project by providing museum content and technical expertise surrounding marine life and its habitats, coastal conservation, habitat restoration, flood mitigation and coastal policy issues.” Dillingham further echoed the vision by stating, “The Cape May Point Science Center will provide a collaborative opportunity for us and other like-minded organizations to further our research and share our knowledge with the public.”
Phase two of the visionary partnership will be exclusive versus collaborative and chosen from an academic field of local and/or regional colleges and universities. “Over the next six months we would like to solidify our educational partnership,” said Bob Mullock. “This is a big building and at some point, this organization is going to grow. Five years from now, we will be significantly different than where we are today, of that I have no doubt. We’re going to have to grow with our partner organizations and then hopefully back off as time goes on. Perhaps we withdraw to a significant level because let’s say we have this great university partnership in line with our vision that can pick up the reins and continue what we started. Our goal is to allow our partnerships to have intellectual freedom of balancing environmental and commercial interests. We always want to be on the side of protecting the environmental interest that sometimes becomes the commercial interest.”
Sister Dietrich told me, “This is holy space and spirit filled. The new owners share our appreciation and respect for nature and the environment. No matter your faith tradition, there is a yearning for nature instilled inside all of us. For example, the vastness of the ocean taps into everyone. For over 100 years, this has been a house of prayer, and its new ownership and mission beautifully continues our story.”
Bob Mullock wanted to make it known how supportive his family has been with this project. As in, “Oops, there goes the inheritance” kind of supportive. “Hopefully we’ll be able to apply everything we’ve learned with The Harriet Tubman Museum. Turn the key over, get out of the way and then that’s it, we’re done.” Spoken like every entrepreneur who has it in their blood to find a new project. When asked about what his family’s next mission might be, Mullock paused ever so slightly with his signature grin. “Our mission on Wednesdays is usually just to go to Wing Night [at the C-View].” Son Dillon echoed, “And make sure the Guinness still works.” ■