Working for the Weekend
April and early May are usually quiet around Cape May, the less popular of the “shoulder seasons” that bookend the frenzied summer months when the town is swarmed with visitors. If you happen to stroll down Howard Street in April, just as the season is coming into view, you might be surprised to find the Chalfonte Hotel bustling with activity.
Twice a year, at the start and end of the summer seasons, the Chalfonte welcomes a group of volunteers for a Work Weekend to make sure the 146-year-old building and grounds are in good shape for guests. The number of volunteers is around 50, says Dillon Mullock, General Manager of the hotel. Volunteers arrive on Friday night, stay at the hotel, and work for much of the day Saturday and Sunday.
The guests are grouped into crews: carpentry, gardening, awning, painting, sewing, headed by veteran volunteers with expertise. From painting to polishing, fixing broken rocking chairs and stitching up torn awnings, the groups get the hotel in order.
From its inception in the 1970s, the Chalfonte’s Work Weekend has evolved with time, from its saving grace to a tradition of friends. Most Work Weekend volunteers have this in common: they have stayed in Cape May, have an affection for the town’s old-world charm, and a dedication to maintaining it.
“The Chalfonte is my favorite hotel in Cape May,” says Terry Ziegner of Oakland, NJ, who has volunteered with her husband for about eight years. “It’s old Cape May. It’s not Congress Hall, but I love old buildings and I love the Chalfonte.”
The Ziegners split up during Work Weekend duties, her husband joining the carpentry crew and Terry outside with the gardening crew. Last year, she did some ad hoc design work, sprucing up an exterior door with a window planter and paint and remaking a game room into a vintage-style tearoom.
“We know the place well, and we have the freedom to do whatever needs to be done,” she says.
The Chalfonte is the longest continuously operated hotel in town, a landmark with its 19th-century carpenter gothic style eaves, green-thatched cupola and intricate lattice work that stretch the length of its two stories of porches. Since it was built in 1876, the Chalfonte has stayed standing despite a litany of challenges. First, it survived the fire in 1878 that destroyed much of the original buildings in Cape May. Additionally, the very environment of the shore threatens to break it down; the salt air wears down paint and warps wood at twice the speed of a building farther inland, accelerating the aging process on the building’s old bones. In the 1970s, it was saved from demolition from developers who had their eye on turning Cape May into a more modern shore town, an effort led by architect Carolyn Pitts resulting in the entire town being registered as a National Historic Landmark.
It was on the heels of this preservation movement of the 70s that the Work Weekends began, when architecture graduate students from the University of Maryland participated in a three-week work study devoted to preserving the Chalfonte’s historic structure.
When Dave Dittman retired from his job as a social studies teacher at age 60, his plan was to switch gears and practice carpentry. Since joining the Chalfonte’s Work Weekends after hearing about it from friends, he has become a co-lead on the carpentry team, and an on-call worker who makes his way to Cape May about once a month to help with odd jobs.
“We take on things that do not require a permit, but do require skill,” he says of his work at the Chalfonte.
On a typical work weekend morning, after arriving on Friday night for dinner, the group gathers early in front of the hotel, and Mullock introduces each team lead: a carpentry crew, a gardening crew, painters, sewers, and cleaners. Volunteers decide which group they want to join, and they split up to work until lunch time.
Tasks for each group vary from year to year, but for the wood-working team, repairs to rocking chairs and railings are typical, as well as maintenance of the over 300 feet of porch wood.
The particular challenges of a building like the Chalfonte are stimulating, and a welcome history lesson for the former teacher. He explains the ways that years of layers and repairs on the wooden building—floors, railings, steps, and intricately carved lattices—tell the story of how lumber is harvested.
“Some of the lumber that was installed 20 years ago is in worse shape than some from the 70s or 80s,” Dittman says, because the older wood can be traced back to the original wood harvested from old growth forests, which was stronger and harder compared with newer wood grown quickly in plantations. This makes it harder to find lumber appropriate to match the existing wood, says Dittman, who has been tasked with searching for replacement pieces.
The moisture from the sea air is a constant enemy for maintaining all that wood. “We’re just making sure chair legs don’t go through the porch floor,” says Dittman.
He loves the way that the physicality of the building tells the story of its evolution. The original building was a guest house in 1876, then was extended over and over, stretching back on Sewell Street, growing as the operation grew. If you go up on the third floor, you can see where the additions were made. If you get back into the cupola—the dome that adorns the Chalfonte’s roof—you can see how it was cobbled together over time.
The first work weekend Dittman came to was in 2017, when the carpentry crew tore apart the frequently photographed “Bridal Porch,” where the two larger dining porches meet at a corner. “We pulled up the floor and realized the support system was gone,” a shock to discover at a high traffic spot in the porch. Underneath, beams and support were broken in pieces and weakened, invisible on the outside.
Uncovering surprises like this one is not discouraging for Dittman and loyal Work Weekenders. Instead, they provide a glimpse into history, and an opportunity to continue the labor of love for an institution they treasure.
The early Work Weekends with the University of Maryland did some heavy lifting: redoing lattice work, removing layers and layers of old paint to reveal the original, cleaning out the fireplaces. From this, the first work crew was born, graduate students who worked for three weeks at a time, helping to restore the Chalfonte’s building and getting valuable field experience in the process.
In the 1980s, new owners Ann LeDuc and Judy Bartella formalized the Work Weekend model and opened it up to volunteers, at one time hosting monthly sessions and charging volunteers $30 to cover the cost of food. The University of Maryland program ran alongside this from 1980 to 2000, and the Chalfonte’s structure and future was deemed more secure. In 2008, the Mullock family bought the hotel, and added some modern conveniences like in-room bathrooms and air conditioning, just enough to add comfort but maintain the traditional atmosphere of the hotel that draws old souls to it.
Work Weekends at the Chalfonte have a different pace these days.
“We don’t rely on volunteers as much as when the Work Weekends started,” he said. “We’re not doing as many large-scale projects.”
Work Weekends may not be tackling huge preservation projects, but there is plenty of work to do, on a list that changes from year to year.
Katie Bliss, who heads the gardening group during Work Weekends, surveys the grounds when she arrives at the Chalfonte on Friday of a Work Weekend, planning out what needs to be done with the seven garden sites around the property. In spring, the garden beds need to be prepared by thinning out crowded spots and making sure annuals are planted where lots of color is needed, like where weddings take place. Bliss owns a gardening business, Blissful Gardening, so she has an eye for functional beauty in her gardening practice.
“I have to be aware of where the sun is, what kind of foot traffic there is,” she says. “The garden bed along the porch needs to be more durable because there is more trash ending up there. Around the back driveways and the cottages can be a little prettier.”
Though there are many repeat volunteers, who shows up in the driveway on the morning of the Work Weekends is a surprise. “The most interesting challenge is when I have 10 people show up for gardening and have to figure out what to do with them all,” says Bliss. “I try to do some teaching, which I think brings people back.”
For Bliss, her love of the Chalfonte is—pardon the pun—roots deep. Her family vacationed there every summer starting in 1958, she worked in the Magnolia Room as a waitress in college, and her own children worked at the front desk and the dining room of the hotel in their college years, which is when Bliss got involved in the Work Weekends.
“I’ve loved the hotel all along. . . but I especially love helping preserve something that I love so much,” says Bliss. “And the sense of camaraderie that you build during a work weekend. We work hard together, and by the end of the weekend there is this sense of accomplishment.”
She and her family also continue visiting the hotel for summer vacations.
Mullock says the number of volunteers at the Work Weekend hovers around 50, almost double what it used to be. “The retention rate is very high,” he says.
To thank the volunteers, the Mullocks make the weekend fun, inviting guests to gather at the King Edward bar at the end of the day, and bringing in musical guests for entertainment at a raucous gathering Saturday night.
If you’re interested in joining the Work Weekend at the Chalfonte, expect to get dirty and do whatever needs to be done. “You have to work fast, because you really only have one full day,” says Ziegner. “It’s not a glamorous week. It’s dirty work, it’s hard work.”
In turn, expect to be welcomed and expect to make the kind of great friendships that can only be forged through hard work and a common passion.
The Work Weekends are more than just a way to get extra jobs done on the hotel property, says Mullock. They are integral to the identity of the place and the spirit of its legacy. He remembers a moment from a past weekend, and a couple who had been married at the Chalfonte the year before. Kneeling on hands and knees as the crew refinished the floor, the couple looked at each other and realized they had a shared sense of deja vu: the smell of the finishing chemicals. They’d smelled the same scent dancing in the hall at their wedding, just a week after an opening Work Weekend.
“I just always think that’s funny to remember,” says Mullock. “We were cutting it close. We always have a lot to do, but we always get it done.” ■