Exploring The Porches of Cape May
If you stand on one porch on Columbia Avenue, you can see all the way through to every porch for a block. So says the lore of Cape May, which is, without a doubt, a porch town. On a late morning in April, Joyce Conybear sat on the porch of the historic Mainstay Inn on Columbia Avenue, taking in the lush gardens flanking the porch, waiting for her husband to return from birding. On their annual trip to Cape May for their 56th wedding anniversary, she and her husband return to the same bed and breakfast for about 10 years now.
“It’s relaxing,” says Conybear, of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “You can watch the people and trolleys go by, and people watch, and read. The garden and flowers are welcoming.”
Down the way, a young couple scrolls their phones with to-go mugs of coffee on a B&B porch; in the cottage house next door, the tops of heads poke up from the second-floor balcony porch. A few porches down, a middle-aged pair descend the stairs setting out for the day, fanny packs, visors, and sunscreen in tow.
In late April, it’s early in the typical beach season, and early in the day for porch-sitting, but, as Esther Scalone, owner of the Mainstay put it, “People want to be outside. They want to be on the porch.”
Scalone slides open a 14-foot window that stretches from the floor to the ceiling and steps onto the side porch from the bed and breakfast’s dining room, where furniture is spare in preparation for the evening communal meal. She says the porch is a meeting place for guests, whether during their daily afternoon teatime or after hours, so much so that guests who met at the Mainstay years ago coordinate their annual visits so they can see each other again.
Portrait photographs by MARY PAT MYERS
“I think people that stay at B&Bs are a little more outgoing,” says Conybear. “They don’t mind being friendly with other guests.”
The Mainstay’s is often called the “best porch in town,” probably owing to its prime location, luxurious gardens, and the way it wraps around on three sides of the stately mansion. Its porch is rail-less, a rarity that has a function in its history: Built in 1872, it was originally a private gambling club known as “The Clubhouse,” where men indulged in illicit pleasures like gambling, which was illegal. The story goes that a staff member would be stationed on a rocking chair on the porch during card games and would speed up their rocking if they spotted police coming down the street. If players heard the rocking, they could quickly bolt out of the house, off the porch, and into the yard—as if they were never on the property and were free of guilt.
Porches line the streets of historic downtown Cape May, called the Nation’s Oldest Seashore Resort and home to the second-largest collection of Victorian houses behind San Francisco. A porch is a staple of Victorian architecture, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that porches became standard outside of the South, where they were frequently a necessity to escape the heat. The porch was a characteristic of the rise of picturesque architecture, an aesthetic term coined in the 18th century for architecture that was in harmony with the natural landscape and concerned with the overall ‘picturesque’ effect buildings had on the eye. An increased interest in more naturalistic landscaping, with an abundance of flowers and shrubs, meant spending time outside of the house, with a view of the garden, became more appealing. By the end of the 19th century, the “rocking chair porch” was a classic American image. President Rutherford B Hayes wrote in his diary in 1873 of the Victorian home he lived in in Ohio, that “The best part of the present house is the veranda. But I would enlarge it. I want a veranda with a house attached.”
photographs by MICHELLE GIORLA
Part of the rise of the porch to the Victorian home was a matter of access. With industrialized millwork processes, the intricate pieces that defined the ornate Victorian styles, like carved wooden posts and rails, balusters, moldings, and trim details like spindle work, lacy cut-outs, and fluted columns, could be mass produced, instead of individually and custom created. Homeowners could order their pieces from a catalog and have it shipped by railroad anywhere in the country, allowing more houses to boast an ornate Victorian-style porch. Porches could even be added to older or more plain homes to retrofit them to the trend.
The new architecture of the porch also reflects a change in American lifestyles, as industrialization and an increasing move to the suburbs mant people had more money and more leisure time. A growing middle class had more time to kill, and the porch was an excellent way to relax semi-publicly.
The porch was both an extension of the private home and an invitation to the world outside—with physical limits. “There’s something very Victorian about the railing—it acts as a barrier,” says Harry Bellangy, president of and historian for the Cape May Historic Society. “People weren’t reaching over the rail asking for a cup of sugar.”
But he ticks off a half dozen of his favorite porches owned by friends. “I’ve spent many happy hours on that porch,” he says of one.
Know your terms: a porch glossary
Porch – from Medieval English and the French word porche stems from the Latin, porticus. A covered shelter projecting in front of the entrance of a building.
Veranda – A roofed platform along the outside of a house, level with the ground floor. (i.e., outside of Congress Hall). Another name for a long open porch. British colonies might have picked up some design influence from India, where similar outdoor spaces are common. (From: Oxford Dictionary, Practical Preservation Services, “Historic Porches: Their Evolution, History and Significance”)
Balcony – a platform enclosed by a wall or balustrade on the outside of a building, with access from an upper-floor window or door. (From: Lexico.com)
Balustrade – A row of small columns topped by a rail. (From: Architectural Digest)
Widow’s Walk – A railed platform on the roof of a house usually protruding from a window. Originated in New England for a view of the ocean.
Deck – Usually at the rear of the house, but any flat surface that can be walked on, including a flat rooftop. World War II popularized back patios and decks, adding to the decline in porch culture.
Patio – a paved outdoor area adjoining a house.
Stoop – An exterior staircase originally from the Netherlands (“stoep” is Dutch for step). A platform to perch, in lieu of a porch. (source: Home Questions Answered: What is a Stoop?)
Behind the railing, the Victorian-era porch served as a liminal space between inside and outside, and private and public. Combined with manicured gardens and shrubs, the porch was an extension of the house that could be discreet as well, a place to socialize in a time when manners were important.
Victorian communities like Cape May were dense and compact since walking was the mode of transport. Marc Shenfield, who owns a 150-year-old house in downtown Cape May where he lives for three seasons out of the year (his other home is also a Victorian in the Hudson Valley), says the proximity to the street for many homes in Cape May fosters a compulsion to socialize.
“If you’re too far back from the street, you can wave; you’re not expected to stop and start talking,” he explains. “The closer you are to the street, the more it fosters social interaction. There’s an old saying that if you don’t want anyone to know something you’ve done, don’t do it. You have to behave yourself, because you’re constantly being seen.”
He says he and his wife, Lauren, who bought their house 18 years ago, build in an extra 5 to 10 minutes if they’re walking to a dinner reservation in town, to stop and chat with porch-sitters.
Especially for visitors, porch-sitting is a part of the Cape May experience, a place to relax, and for some, to escape. “A full house of renters is so full that people are spilling out,” Marc says. “Going out onto the porch is a necessity.”
photographs by MICHELLE GIORLA
For those renting a space, the porch provides a meeting place where people can come together from their vacation activities. On a porch just off Washington Street on Decatur, a group of women from Wayne, Pennsylvania gathered on wicker furniture, Saturday afternoon Solo cups in hand. For this group, a trip sans partners or children was a change from their origins, when they got to know each other over many hours in the bleachers at their sons’ high school baseball games. (“We once spent an entire week together in Bristol, Connecticut,” says one mom dryly.) During their reunion, they met for coffee on the porch in the morning and wound down their days with wine.
“We’ve had some people walking by with porch envy,” says Colleen Richter. “This is a good one, because it’s round. It’s not like a game of Whisper Down the Lane to have
For some, a porch is an open invitation.
“We’ve crashed many porches,” says Terry Ciegner of Oakland, New Jersey, who is a longtime visitor and Cape May enthusiast. “We’ll be out on someone’s porch on a night out, just hanging out, and they’ll come out of their house. People don’t really care.”
Ciegner and her husband, Richard, are in town for the weekend working at the Chalfonte for a “Work Weekend,” where attendees roll up their sleeves and get the hotel ready for the season, and in exchange stay at the nearly 150-year-old inn. Groups of name-tagged folks are enjoying lunch al fresco on the lower level of Chalfonte’s vast, wrap-around, two-story bright white veranda. The lawn is scattered with sawhorses and freshly painted wooden beams drying in the sun. Richard, a carpenter, has been helping with wood-related repairs, while Kathy Marrazzo, Terry’s mother, has been on seamstress duty, patching up pillows and sprucing up curtains.
Their favorite porch in town is the Inn of Cape May.
“As soon as we drop our bags, we go right there and get our drinks. That’s where it all starts for us,” Terry says. Once, when the Inn was closed for renovations, they crashed that one: “We found rocking chairs, got a cooler, and sat out there. People kept coming up. We could have sold beer!”
What would the Victorians think?
The group reminisces about their favorite porches: The Abbey because it’s luxurious. The good one on the corner of Hughes and Franklin, the one with Wisteria vines. “The best kind of porch is one with people on it,” says Marrazzo. “Rocking chairs and a good glass of chardonnay.”
Richard, the carpenter, thinks for a minute: “Exposed beams in the ceiling,” he says, pointing to The Chalfonte’s sky blue ceiling. “It’s cool to see the structure of the building.”
The Sea Air
Victorians were among the first to popularize the beach vacation, hailing the seaside air as a healing retreat for relaxation and restoration. But the early 20th century Hygiene Movement, with its belief that fresh air could stop or cure things like tuberculosis, brought about the sleeping porch, a way to keep cool in the summer and avoid supposedly fatal stagnant air.
The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic also saw an increased anxiety over indoor spaces. Porches became a safe place to meet when the weather allowed, and outdoor dining offered something even in cold weather.
Mary Pat Meyers, a Cape May photographer, even launched a series of family portrait sessions called the Porch Sessions, documenting quarantined families from a safe distance on their stoops or porches in Cape May, an archive of a disorienting time in exchange for donation to local food pantries.
Meyers’s business is locally oriented, specializing in family beach photography and often featuring Cape May landmarks. She had seen a similar project by a Boston-based photographer but tailored it to the spirit of her community.
“I was thinking, in Cape May, there are so many porches,” she says. “Plus, it sounds better than the stoop project.”
Every day around late afternoon—the golden hour for photography—her husband would drive her to a neighborhood where families had signed up to be photographed and snapped their pictures with a 200-millimeter lens. The results are varied: a few classic Victorian porches, new-build houses with a small outdoor space, a massive wooden backyard patio, the base of a wooden staircase heading toward a walk-up apartment. It’s a testament to the diversity of old, tourist-driven Cape May and its residents.
A Stoop Decline
The truth is, you’ll see far fewer porch-dwellers on a typical evening these days. In the latter half of the 20th century, porch sitting became less of a pastime, as the automobile made leaving home easier, and the telephone meant you didn’t have to leave your house to socialize. When air conditioning and television became mainstream in the 1950s, the indoor living room became more appealing than the porch to pass hot nights. Even “cool Cape May,” as it was billed to attract tourists for its temperate weather, summers are hotter, and air conditioning is much more standard.
“While the exterior of the old Victorian is the same, the interior has modern upgrades,” says Bellangy. “I don’t think anyone would rent a house with no AC, TV, or internet today.”
As the grand hotels of the 19th century and even bed and breakfasts saw a huge downturn since the 1970s, the old standard of the family beach house has declined. In early May, it was announced that Avalon-based Icona Resorts is planning to open a luxury resort in the former Beach Theatre building, oceanside along Beach Avenue between Stockton Place and Gurney Streets. With a proposed opening in fall 2022, it would be Cape May’s first new hotel in more than 50 years, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
But the new business shouldn’t discourage porch purists.
“People who come to Cape May are interested in more than just the beach,” says Shenfield, “They’re looking for an experience, and the old houses are a part of that.” ■
The Cape May Stripes
On the drive into downtown Cape May, you’ll see stripes—on the awning and roof of the popular Elaine’s restaurant and boutique and the nearby bandstand of Rotary Park, and several other homes throughout town.
The stripes are representative of a Victorian style trend, meant to imitate striped canvas and striped awnings. If you look closely, you will see that the stripes are painted on canvas or the rarer standing seam metal roof, a common 19th century architecture feature in which strips of tin joints are folded over each other twice, like a paper bag. If that’s the case, it’s rare and a labor of love, since the stripes must be repainted every couple of years.
Marc and Lauren Shenfield, whose home on the corner of Corgie and Jefferson is a labor of love for Victorian architecture, painted their original tin roof with the signature stripes in green and white — overhanging their luxurious porch.
Other places to spot the Cape May stripes: the Abbey, a house on Broadway and Congress Street, Willow and Stone on Carpenter Lane, and the Skinner house at 28-30 Congress Street. ■