Cooper’s Guest House
Life in Portsmouth, England, for Sylvia Cooper and her family during the 1950s and early 60s was not unlike that of many working-class families in the post-war era. Sylvia recalls living in a modest row house, leading the happy home life her father provided for them on a bookkeeper’s salary. Sylvia and her younger sister Elizabeth shared a bedroom and enjoyed many of the simple comforts their parents lovingly provided. Letters by post and outgoing calls at a public telephone several blocks away were the only means of correspondence with anyone outside their immediate neighborhood.
The girls looked forward to Easter, Christmas and summertime when they would visit their Auntie Miriam’s farm in Portadown, Armagh in Northern Ireland. There they would spend their time caring for the farm animals. a real change of pace from Portsmouth.
“The dockyard was the main industry,” Sylvia remembers of the bustling ship-building and naval base city in the south of England. “At noon we’d come home from school to eat, and the dockworkers would come barreling down Powerscourt Road on their bicycles. You’d better not be in their way because they’d have to eat too. My sister and I would make sure we crossed the street in time to not get run over.”
In March of 1962, the lives of 15-year-old Sylvia and her family were set on a new course with the arrival of an unexpected letter. “My mother’s brother John sent her a letter, telling her of the death of her aunt,” Sylvia said of this pivotal moment. “My mum was informed that her Aunt Emily had left her a guest house in Cape May. Just about three months later, my grandfather was driving us to Southampton, and I am boarding the SS United States to go to America. It was so exciting to come to a new country.”
They arrived in New York Harbor on June 12, 1962, where Sylvia’s uncle John met her, her mother, and 12-year-old sister and drove them directly to Cape May in his Cadillac. Sylvia’s father Roy remained in Portsmouth to work, and he visited with his family over the years.
The nearly three-hour car ride to Cape May was one of mounting anticipation and nervousness for the Coopers. Never having seen nor even heard of Cape May prior to the death of their Aunt Emily, their first introduction was learning the news of the devastating storm that happened the day after their aunt’s death. “During the ride to Cape May, our uncle was telling us about the March storm that happened and the excessive flooding,” Sylvia said of the infamous storm that the U.S. Geological Survey would later determine to be the most destructive storm to ever affect the mid-Atlantic states. “He told us about how much damage had been done in Cape May and about how many buildings were washed away.”
Despite the storm’s devastation that was still evident throughout town, it was love at first sight for the Coopers when they crossed the bridge into Cape May. “I loved it!” Sylvia said of her first moments in Cape May. “It was so beautiful and quaint. I had never imagined it would be so pretty with all the Victorian houses.”
Uncle John’s Cadillac came to a stop at 109 Howard Street, a block from the beach and nestled among a gingerbread streetscape. Sylvia and Elizabeth looked up from the car’s side window in complete amazement at the three-story home with its two tiers of sun-drenched, wrap-around porches. “I was in shock!” Sylvia said. “We never expected anything so magnificent. There it was—this beautiful white house with the turquoise shutters. I had never seen anything so big.”
ORIGINALLY BUILT IN 1875 as a summer cottage for a Philadelphia doctor and his family, Sylvia’s great aunts Emily and Elizabeth Browne purchased the house in 1943 and operated it as a summer guest house known as Browne Cottage. The two sisters, along with their cousin, Ann (Sylvia’s grandmother) had once visited the United States in their childhood. When the Browne sisters had grown, they decided to return to America and worked as nurses in Philadelphia.
During the Browne sisters’ first year operating their guesthouse, Elizabeth died, leaving her sister Emily the sole owner in 1944. Emily Browne continued renting rooms to summer visitors for nearly 20 years, establishing Browne Cottage as one of the first three guest houses on the Island. Emily’s pioneering efforts and vision would later be realized and developed to its fullest during Cape May’s Victorian renaissance and bed and breakfast boom in the 1970s—and beyond.
“After great Aunt Emily died, Uncle John searched for the will and found it tucked away in a bureau,” Sylvia said. “Aunt Emily left all her stocks to Uncle John, left about $500.00 to great nieces and nephews, and left the house and all its contents to my mother. My mother always believed she was left the house because she was named after Aunt Emily.”
While Sylvia’s mother and uncle carried luggage from the car, she and Elizabeth began exploring their new home. “It was so overwhelming,” Sylvia said when recalling her first day in the house. “The rooms were enormous on the first and second floors. We didn’t even realize there was a third floor until our second day there.”
The summer of 1962 proved to be a challenging but successful summer for the new keepers of the inn, now called Cooper’s Guest House. Sylvia’s mother rented each of the house’s eight guest rooms for $3.00 per night, $5.00 per night for the room with the king-size bed and the private second-floor porch.
Assimilating into the community was yet another challenge. “Americans talked funny,” Sylvia said of her first summer here. “We didn’t understand your money and you didn’t have the food we ate. We would go to the grocery store, hold out all our money to the cashier and say, ‘take what you need’ because we didn’t understand the currency.”
The seasonal rhythm of a Jersey shore resort town was both an unexpected and pleasant surprise. “I remember going to bed on Labor Day night,” Sylvia recalls, “and the next morning the town was completely empty! It was the biggest shock in the world. Not a soul was around until Memorial Day. I loved those days; it was so quiet and peaceful.”
The island’s coastal storms and unexpected weather changes were common occurrences which the Coopers quickly navigated with the ease and coolness of any true Cape May native. They learned to know not only when the town was in danger of flooding but from which end of the island the water would come. Moving vehicles safely to the Acme parking lot prior to a storm or extreme high tide became routine for Sylvia and Elizabeth. “We soon got used to that!” Sylvia said when remembering Cape May’s frequent flooding. “One New Year’s Day, my mum was going to New York with a friend. Elizabeth and I sat inside, opened the curtains, and watched the water come up to the house. We saw Nick Gallaccio (who later became Sylvia’s significant other) going by our house in a rowboat to make sure everyone was safe.”
With each summer’s passing, Cooper’s Guest House gained a loyal following of guests, most of whom were families, since the guest house was one of the few in Cape May to accept children. The Cooper family itself even grew in 1983 with the birth of Sylvia’s daughter Melissa. Elizabeth had moved to Florida but returned for Melissa’s birth to assist with babysitting and housekeeping chores. Sylvia also worked as a legal secretary, a teacher’s aide, and a hostess at the Marquis De Lafayette hotel at various periods over the years.
“My mum would sit and knit,” Sylvia recalls of her mother’s later years. “She loved to see guests dressed and going out to enjoy the town.” One summer, Sylvia hosted a wedding party complete with banquet table, and festooned the house with ribbons and flowers. “Everyone was dressed so beautifully,” Sylvia said. “And everyone was happy to put on a fashion show for Mum. It was such a happy event!”
No well-established Cape May inn or lodging venue is without their exciting tales of notable guests. Cooper Guest House was no exception. One summer in the early 1990s, a young couple had checked in, having reserved their room under assumed names.
“I saw them walking down the stairs one evening and thought they were the most gorgeous couple in the world,” Sylvia said of not recognizing John F. Kennedy Jr. and Daryl Hannah. “They were staying on our third floor with a shared bathroom. They walked out to the porch, sat down and were talking to the guests who had been staying in the room next to them.” Later that night after dinner Sylvia was confronted by the other guests. “The guests were mad at me for not having told them who was staying in the house.” Sylvia said. “But I had no idea who they were when they reserved the room.”
To Sylvia and her mother, hosting the most well-known and glamorous couple in the world was no different than the courtesy extended to all guests in their home. “John Kennedy and Daryl Hannah said they loved it at our place and in Cape May because nobody knew who they were. I respected that,” Sylvia said. “A few years later when he died in that plane crash, I was receiving calls constantly from reporters who wanted me to talk about them. I simply told them no.”
Sylvia’s sister Elizabeth died in 1994, and with their mother growing older, the daily innkeeping chores of each summer season were handled primarily by Sylvia and her significant other, Nick Gallaccio.
By the 1990s, Cooper’s Guest House was transforming significantly from the sparse accommodations once offered by her great Aunt Emily. Private bathrooms had been added for many of the rooms, refrigerators and air conditioners were included in each room as well. Despite the remodeling and additions Sylvia and her mother undertook, the 90s and early 2000s brought with it a newer generation of vacationers who expected even more from their visit.
“They wanted more and more amenities,” Sylvia said of the younger guests who were discovering Cape May. “They all started wanting TVs in their rooms and I didn’t want that. What if their television disturbed someone in the next room who was trying to sleep or enjoy the quiet? They were asking us for Wi-Fi, which I eventually got but I told them that there was so much to do in Cape May and they needed to be out enjoying themselves. I told them they weren’t expected to stay in their rooms.”
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Sylvia’s mother donated the entire house for a weekend getaway to first responders in need of a respite. Sylvia had rallied the support of several local businesses and restaurants who had generously donated free meals and services to those first responders staying at Cooper’s Guest House.
Sylvia’s mother, Emily Cooper, died in 2011. Five years later Nick died. With her daughter Melissa working as a successful architect in Philadelphia, Sylvia was now alone in the house. “I had never intended to sell the house after I inherited it from my mum,” Sylvia said. “Especially after I had recently put so much into remodeling it. But I was getting older, and it was becoming too much to manage on my own. So, in 2018, I sold it.”
No longer a guest house, the property is now operated as a whole house rental, a recent investment trend that has seen the demise of many a beloved Cape May inn. Emily Cooper’s flower gardens lie bare and the countless summer nights of guests rocking on the porch are all but a distant memory. “I know the house isn’t loved anymore,” Sylvia said. “My daughter won’t even go by it when she’s in town and I’ve gone by just to see how neglected it is. It’s depressing. There’s an old, tattered flag on one side of the porch and another on the other side. I can’t believe someone can’t even take those down. I put 56 years of my life into that house and seeing it like it is now really hurts.”
As with most historic homes in Cape May, the story of the former Cooper’s Guest House is never done. A story that one day will continue with more memorable summers of family togetherness and lasting friendships as it did when Emily Cooper and her daughters arrived from Portsmouth in 1962.
Now at 75 years old, Sylvia lives in North Cape May with “the best neighbors anyone could have,” as she happily says. The friendships she established at the guest house are ones that have lasted a lifetime. Many former guests, whom she considers family, still visit her, treat her to dinner and reminisce about their perfect seaside summers at Cooper’s Guest House.