The Christian Admiral

Text by Jon Roth / July 2016
Photograph by Vince Marchese
Photograph by Vincent Marchese

Summer visitors might not understand just how cold Cape May can get during the winter. There’s not much snow, but the wind blowing in off the water can chill to the bone, and comes in so fast it will take away your breath. But during those months in 1996, you could still find hundreds of people lined up toward the east end of Beach Avenue, cradling Wawa coffee cups and cameras, or huddled inside their cars, heaters blasting. They came out to see the Christian Admiral, a pillar of the city, just before she fell.

It didn’t go all at once—there was no great explosion. Instead, it faded away over the course of months, in a series of gentle tugs. Metal wires were wrapped around the brick building, threaded through broken windows and around towers, pulled by a fleet of tractors. Each new demolition kicked up clouds of smoke, and left a growing mound of rubble in its wake. On the final day, March 25, at around 10:30am, the last chimney toppled to the ground. What was once the largest hotel in the world was now just a pile of masonry.

But what a pile. Over the months, locals had started approaching the debris, fishing out bricks as souvenirs. Not many buildings inspire that much reverence, but in a city packed with hotels, the Christian Admiral, the Admiral Hotel, the Hotel Cape May, always felt like something special.

That was by design. Back in 1904, when the Cape May Real Estate Company formed, they envisioned the Hotel Cape May as the crown jewel in a 4,000-acre swath of land they would shape to their needs. In the next few years, they dredged and expanded Cape May Harbor, dropping the excavated earth over a span of marshland which would later be paved and gridded out into streets. They laid plans for a yacht club, a golf course, and an airport. Henry Ford was even considering the city for a new factory. All this new development was part of a greater mission, a plan to rival the posh resort towns up along the coast—places like Newport, Rhode Island, and the Hamptons, on Long Island, where lavish mansions and salt air attracted the moneyed elite. Cape May, already a popular destination, was poised to draw visitors of the same caliber.

But not without an anchor property, and here the Hotel Cape May truly excelled. Guests would approach by carriage or motorcar, embraced by the welcoming U-shaped plan, and ascend a series of stately steps before passing under a portico that ran the length of the building. Inside, the lobby was all Beaux Arts opulence—sheathed in marble, with a hand-set mosaic floor underfoot, a soaring, Tiffany-style glass dome overhead, and before them a dramatic split staircase, tailor-made for a grand entrance. It was eight stories tall, with 330 rooms, fresh and saltwater plumbing, a ballroom, a swimming pool, a bowling alley, and endless ocean views.

So what if the workers nearly rioted during construction, and it opened two years behind schedule? Who cared if the final cost—an astronomical $1 million at the time—was double the projection? Or that the architect would finally have to sue for his payment? These were potholes in the road of progress. This would be the showplace that carried Cape May into the 20th century.

Even before she opened, the Hotel Cape May set her sights toward the future. In 1905, spectators gathered on the verandahs of the unfinished building to watch Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet race their automobiles up and down the beachfront. (Neither man won—another racer, A. L. Campbell, took the prize.) The finished structure would house a Marconi station telegraphing weather reports and relaying communications from ships at sea. And on opening day, April 11, 1908, another race was held. Forty cars sped from Philadelphia to Cape May, tracing a summer pilgrimage that was already second nature to many. New Jersey governor John Franklin Fort was there to award a trophy to the winner.

That night an orchestra played in the two-story lobby, during an evening that made its place in local legend. Ninny Merryweather says, “According to family lore, my grandparents danced the night away that opening evening.” Dinner was served in the formal dining room, a cavernous 350-seat gallery supported by Corinthian columns and flanked by wide arched windows. Later, guests drifted off to sleep to the smell of salt air and the crash of waves nearby. At the time, the Cape May Star & Wave wrote: “One of the greatest events which has ever occurred at Cape May is the formal opening of the million dollar Hotel Cape May. It undoubtedly will stand in all future time as an incident marking the beginning of a Greater Cape May, which thus embarks upon a career of upbuilding and importance which will make all past history of the resort pale and insignificant.”

Six months later, the building was closed for repairs.

Within the year, a litany of setbacks would plague the hotel. Months after the opening, Peter Shields, president of the Cape May Real Estate Company, resigned his position. His successor, Frederick Feldner, was killed in Cape May along with three other passengers and his chauffeur when a speeding train collided with his car. Soon after, the company went bankrupt: out of 700 lots built to host those grand, Newport-style mansions, fewer than 100 had sold, and most other development plans went unfinished. In 1910, Nelson Graves tried to revive the area, buying the Hotel Cape May, and the Cape May Power and Light Company, and erecting an amusement park nearby. By 1914, he too was bankrupt.

This was no case of bad luck. As cars became more common and widened the scope of travel, and Atlantic City ascended in popularity, the nation’s first resort suddenly grew a little quieter. Between 1910 and 1920, the population here actually dropped for the first time in its history. Suddenly “the largest hotel in the world” seemed like a foolhardy proposition for a quaint seaside town, and for the next half-decade, that brick elephant would struggle to stay afloat.

Photograph by Vincent Marchese

To look at the receipts, you might think the hotel was haunted, or even cursed. “I think it’s well documented that it never made money for anybody,” says local historian Harry Bellangy. “I have no idea why, because for the era that was a first-class hotel.” Between 1913 and 1990, it would weather five bankruptcies, and endless sales, resales and auctions. Besides two stints during the world wars, when the building was commandeered as a navy hospital and administrative headquarters, it changed hands at a dizzying pace. Between wars the Hotel Cape May was purchased by the Admiral Hotel Company and renamed The Admiral Hotel, but by 1940 that venture had also failed (the city bought back the million-dollar building for $900).

One real estate company planned to turn it into a retirement home, and couldn’t. The Pennsylvania Company tried to revive it as a hotel after the war, and gave up after a few years. The Masefield Company bought it in 1957, and promptly went bankrupt. Soon after, the Pennsylvania Bank and Trust Company bought it up on back taxes to the tune of $66,000 and left the building vacant.

But between all those shifts, the hotel remained a fixture of the local social scene. Jack Hudder remembers proposing under the marquee there back in 1956. For decades, the Admiral served as a second lighthouse for fisherman and vacationers, who either saw the lights of the building offshore, or peeking over the bridge onto the island. “You always knew you were back in Cape May when you crossed the parkway bridge,” says James Moffat. “The air became just a little saltier, and the Admiral was standing lookout to the east.”

The swimming pool was another local watering hole. Judy Hickman O’Connor recalls “learning to swim at the pool there. Also, I think I had my first kiss there—can’t remember who I kissed though…” Jeffrey Nace remembers his father and a friend slipping “a big shark in the saltwater pool” around that time, while another visitor, Edward Vincent Sherretta Sr., recalls a more elevated moment: “I snuck up to the roof with my brother Albert around ’53 or ’54, when I was about eight. I got tar on my feet and had to go back down. A worker saw us and took me to the garage to clean the tar off with kerosene. I was scared to death that I was going to be in big trouble, but we did somehow get to the top.”

In March of 1962, a brutal nor’easter tore through the town, bringing with it 25-foot waves and hurricane-force winds. Locals had to retreat from rising floodwaters, while the buildings lining Beach Avenue succumbed to the gales one by one. Garbage cans and lawn furniture floated in the streets, and the city’s Convention Hall was destroyed. Farther up the beach, the abandoned Admiral slowly took on water through her broken windows. When the storm abated, it became known as the most brutal in Cape May history, causing over $3 million in damage (more than $23 million in today’s money). The once-stately Admiral was battered and broken. Sand and debris filled the marble lobby, and colonies of sea gulls roosted in the attic. It seemed like they would be the hotel’s final tenants.

Then salvation came from a corner no one had considered: the church. Or, one specific church, run by the Reverend Dr. Carl McIntire. Born in Michigan, raised in Oklahoma, and schooled at Princeton and Westminster theological seminaries, McIntire had already established himself as a powerful force of Christian Evangelism by the time he saved the Admiral from demolition in 1963. An outspoken Calvinist and dynamic speaker, he accrued a following in the thousands with his publication, the Christian Beacon Press, and with his 30-minute radio show, the “Twentieth-Century Reformation Hour,” broadcast first in the Philadelphia area, but eventually syndicated on 600 stations. For a certain kind of Christian, and especially the members of his American Bible Church, he was a larger-than-life force.

He was also an empire-builder. In addition to his work preaching, publishing, and broadcasting, he set up a chain of liberal arts colleges, including Shelton College, with locations in both Cape May and Cape Canaveral, and began a series of summer bible retreats. This was his plan for the old Admiral, which he renamed the Christian Admiral after he bought it for just $360,000. He and his followers quickly set to work buffing the old building back into shape, carting out wheelbarrows of sand and seagull feathers, sweeping, mopping, and polishing the space until it regained a measure of its former grandeur.

Some things changed, of course. A new moral code took hold under the Reverend McIntire’s watch. An auditorium was added to the east wing to hold religious classes, and services were held at 10am every morning, and 8pm every night. Every bar in the building was closed—one was transformed into the library for Shelton College, and became the site of the Reverend’s daily radio programs—and the former ballroom was given over to conferences and lectures. Drinking and smoking weren’t permitted on the premises, and men and women checking in together were asked whether they were married. But that didn’t prevent certain secular guests from bending the rules. Patti Connolly remembers staying overnight with her husband before moving into their new home in the ’80s. “It was hot as hell and furnished with pieces of  ’50s motel furniture,” she says. “But the saving grace was the sign we found in the desk drawer: ‘No Alcohol, No Drugs, No Rock & Roll Music!’ So of course, we smuggled in wine and vodka and stole the sign. I still have it.”

Minor infractions aside, the Christian Admiral became the centerpiece of a new development plan for Cape May, this one centered around the Reverend’s ideal of a Christian summer community. In short order, he acquired the Star Villa, the Windsor Hotel (later lost to a fire) and Congress Hall further down the beachfront. Soon, a red double-decker bus would ferry passengers between Congress Hall and the Admiral, and the buildings became a network—some housing staff, some hotel guests, some visiting congregants from around the world. In the process, McIntire became something of an unwitting preservationist, buying up cheap, aging buildings and keeping them vital during years when many local landmarks fell prey to redevelopment plans.

Reverend McIntire kept the lights on at the Christian Admiral longer than any of his predecessors. He achieved this through a savvy mix of self-promotion (when his radio show was censored, he famously took to the sea, broadcasting from a WWII minesweeper) and an eager donor base. In one infamous drive, he encouraged followers to make out their wills to the Christian Beacon Press, and mail them in for confirmation. Less controversially, he invited frequent guests at the Christian Admiral to “purchase” a room for the one-time donation of $1,000. That fee gave them a permanent room in the hotel, dedicated with a plaque and decorated to their specifications. After that, they could stay there any time, free of charge.

Locals often chafed at McIntire’s seaside community—he could be a stubborn man, outspoken to a fault, and he railed against the city for issues as diverse as updated fire codes, property taxes, and beach tags (one thing, at least, that many of us can still agree on). Still, those who spent their summers at the Christian Admiral are filled with fond memories. Amy Grim Taylor remembers, “It was such a beautiful hotel. I was a housekeeper my first summer when I was sixteen, then I was a waitress in the dining room.” The girls stayed in the “Liberty Lodge” (now the Angel of the Sea), while the boys bunked at the Christian Admiral. “I’m still friends with some of the people I met working there,” she says. “I would cry when I got on the ferry at the end of the summer, going back to Virginia.”

By the 1980s, the Christian Admiral was showing her age. The hotel had no air conditioning, telephones, or televisions. The plumbing and steel supports were badly corroded, the bricks had weathered, and asbestos and lead paint required extensive—and expensive—removal. The terra cotta roof was so riddled with leaks the top floor had to be closed off. Most hotel funds went toward slowly taking the building up to code, a long and arduous process that masked most of the structure’s original beauty. A new sprinkler system ran throughout the building, marring the carefully carved plaster ceilings. The wide, open hallways, designed to circulate the sea air, were sectioned off with fire doors, and the grand staircase was closed in. The staff did their best to maintain the building, but years of prior neglect had taken their toll. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, then-manager Sandy Montano said, “We’re so elated with all the little things we’ve done, then somebody comes here, walks through, and says ‘If only someone could fix this place up.’”

Hotel Cape May lobby. Photograph courtesy Don Pocher
Hotel Cape May lobby. Photograph courtesy Don Pocher

It was around this time the Christian Admiral gained a second reputation, as a favorite site for teenage exploration. With eight, mostly-empty floors to explore, who could blame an extra guest or two? Here the defunct bowling alley enjoyed a second renaissance: J’me Cherry remembers, “As a teenager in the late ’80s we would use the bowling lanes. Someone would stack the pins, and someone would use a body to knock them down. It was the coolest place.” Shannon Laurenzi echoes the memory: “My first date with a local surfer dude, we went into the abandoned building and set up the bowling pins and bowled. I remember roaming through the empty halls and exploring.”
The gymnasium got equal attention in those days. “In the late ’80s, Cy Cummings and Tony White painted the floor of the gym for indoor tennis,” Heidi Cummings says. “They ran it for maybe four years until the roof started leaking so bad, you could only play indoors ‘weather permitting.’” Miriam Kamanitz Hirsch followed up: “And when we went to play tennis there, we yelled for the mice to hide. But it was fun!”

The hotel was clearly in dire straits. In 1990, McIntire’s organization filed for bankruptcy. The Christian Beacon Press was $3.5 million in debt, a combination of steep municipal charges and a $2.4 million mortgage. Over the next several years, McIntire’s grandsons, Norris Clark and Curtis Bashaw, did what they could to sell off the building. Bob Elwell, Cape May’s mayor at the time, showed impressive equanimity during an interview with The New York Times:“This is a very valuable piece of property,” he said. “I am enough of realist to know that if someone doesn’t come forward soon, the building to going to fall down anyway. But we have to give it every last breath we can.”

Bashaw showed the property to more than 80 potential buyers, lobbied the city for reduced back taxes, and approached the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts for help. No one was buying, the city wouldn’t budge, and MAC, while sympathetic, couldn’t come close to offering the funds needed to save the building. And they would have needed a lot of funds: some put the number at $20 million, but another quote, from a New Jersey Historic Trust engineer, estimated it would take upwards of $70 million to replace the roof alone.

Bashaw, who inherited his grandfather’s talent for hospitality, had already successfully renovated the Virginia Hotel. When he took ownership of the Christian Admiral and Congress Hall, both buildings were close to his heart—especially the Admiral, where he’d spent almost every summer growing up. But with no prospective buyer, and all his grandfather’s holdings headed toward the auction block, he had to make an unpopular decision: he would demolish one building to save the other. The Christian Admiral, huge, hulking, and sinking under the weight of endless repair costs, would have to be sacrificed to renovate Congress Hall, a smaller hotel with a richer history, located right in the heart of town.

In a city that owes its renaissance to historic preservation, the decision was tantamount to treason. Bashaw bore the brunt of it. “You had a lot of people that kept saying ‘Oh, we want to see it saved,’ but no one was really taking the specific steps to actually try to save it,” Bashaw says. “I started asking myself, ‘Who are all these critics that won’t step up to the plate?’” In a Star & Wave editorial at the time, the hotelier likened the Christian Admiral to a relative with a terminal illness. “After accepting the inevitable, everything became easier,” he wrote. “Instead of trying to make that dear, tired edifice something it wasn’t, we just embraced each other. And with that there was peace.”

But before she went, the Christian Admiral hosted one last party. On November 9, 1995, the doors were flung open again, and thousands of past guests and local admirers filed in for a salvage sale 87 years in the making. Chippendale-style chairs from Wanamaker’s, painted wardrobes, brass beds, desks, and dozens of chairs were scattered through the public rooms, while stacks of silver serveware and china stamped with the Admiral’s crest towered nearby. Some made beelines for the goods with a buyer’s determination, while others wandered aimlessly, like dreamers trying to recapture a vanishing memory.

Many pieces of the hotel would enjoy second lives. The bathroom tile was salvaged and reused in New York’s French bistro, Pastis. The exterior balustrades were repurposed and sold in Manhattan, while the front porch light posts eventually made their way to Congress Hall, as did the cast iron railings, which now lead guests from the Blue Pig to the Boiler Room. And, in a storage building somewhere on the island, that monumental stained glass dome sits gathering dust, disassembled piece by piece and stowed for safekeeping until the next great undertaking comes along.

And then there are those bricks: weathered and chipped, softened by years of rough weather and salt air. As the Admiral fell, the people who loved her ran back to the rubble, grabbing keepsakes from a grand experiment that never quite found its footing. Today they’re scattered throughout Cape May—used as paperweights and doorstops, laid into patios and stacked against garden sheds. Everyone thought there was something special about that hotel. We couldn’t save her in the end, but we all got a piece of her.

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