The Ghosts of Congress Hall

Text by Bob Dreyfuss • Opening photograph courtesy of Congress Hall / June 2016


Annie Knight, the owner and proprietor of Congress Hall strolls slowly down the building’s central, dark-paneled hallway, guiding guests and tourists through the two centuries since the building was first erected in 1816.
The walls on both sides of the hallway are lined with scores of photographs, documents, letters and mementos of the historic seaside establishment’s place at the heart of Cape May’s hospitality industry. The twenty-something Knight, resplendent in a Victorian-era dress, points to one of the photographs. It’s a three-foot-wide image of eighty-four members of Congress Hall’s staff—including a laughably distracted tennis pro on the right—assembled on the great lawn. In the background is the hotel’s famous soaring colonnade, and at the center is Knight, looking decidedly dour.

And she’s definitely not in her twenties.

That’s because Annie Knight, the proprietor, who owned the place in the early twentieth century, died in 1931. She’s come back to life in the form of Iraisa Ann Reilly, a local actress and playwright, who several times each week takes visitors on a 40-minute tour of Congress Hall. It’s a tour that Reilly scripted, with the help of a few others, and reenacts regularly.

“She took it over in 1904, when she was in her forties,” says Reilly, who compiled a fair amount of research before using her theatrical skills to create a character about whose personality and bearing very little is known. “It was hard to prepare,” she says. “I imagined that if she had a sense of humor, it would have been pretty dry. She was feisty. She stuck to her guns. She was stubborn, and she wasn’t the kind of person to back down.”

On her tour, Reilly describes the tangled and tumultuous history of a building that truly has seen it all. In 2016, celebrating its 200th anniversary, Congress Hall has just undergone a complete makeover, the third in its history. The structure, rebuilt in 1879 after a fire destroyed the earlier edifice, was first renovated a century ago and then again in 2002. But, for all the work, it retains its magnificent, historic personality and its grand dame  charm. Many of the changes are subtle, designed to blend in with the original framework and fixtures, so that even long-time patrons may be pressed to notice what’s different. And, sporting its characteristic brilliant yellow brick façade, it still commands its premiere position overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the heart of Cape May city.

Thomas Hughes. Waters Burrows Miller. Jacob F. Cake. Edward C. Knight and Annie Knight. Joe Uhler. Gilbert Ramagosa and Charlie Sandman. Carl McIntire.

They’re ghosts now, and they haunt Curtis Bashaw.

“The hauntedness of the place!” he exclaims, when asked what the storied history of Congress Hall means to him. In 2002, after a decade-long struggle, Bashaw presided over the hotel’s grand reopening, which he and his company, Cape Resorts, Inc., now own.

“Imagine being Thomas Hughes, having built this building you were so proud of, and to have everyone call it Tommy’s Folly, because no one thought it would work,” he says, chatting in a conference room in his office suite just across Perry Street from Congress Hall.  “Or imagine being poor Jacob Cake, who built the Perry Street wing, expanding it to accommodate 800 guests. And it didn’t work! Imagine being poor E.C. Knight, who didn’t really want to be in the hotel business, and the year after he takes it over it burns to the ground!”

For Bashaw, who grew up in Cape May and for whom Congress Hall was part of the furniture of his childhood, the people who came before him have created a unique sort of collective legacy, and he sees himself as the heir to all of it. “All these ghosts, these hauntings, were inspiration to me in trying to bring the place back.”

Bashaw, whose grandfather, the fiery preacher Carl McIntire, owned the hotel for a couple of decades, is proud of the fact that of all the grand hotels that graced Cape May’s avenues since it emerged as a Victorian resort, Congress Hall is one of the last ones standing. “It outlived all of its peers,” he says. “Look at the street names around town. Stockton? The hotel’s gone. Columbia? The hotel’s gone. Windsor? Hotel’s gone. Mount Vernon? Hotel’s gone. Our street names are ghosts of hotels that are no longer here. Except Congress Hall. We’re still here.”

The spirits of the former owners continue to inspire Bashaw, who sees himself as a caretaker. “My relationship to the history has become very personal, because those are the few people that have shared this place with me,” he says. “I’ve never met any of them. But they’ve shared the same journey that I have.”

What everyone asks, especially newcomers to Cape May, is: Why is it called Congress Hall? Does the government own it? Does it have anything to do with Congress?

Well, almost, since it does refer to or include two congress members. It acquired its moniker back in 1829, when the then-current owner decided to honor the fact that its builder, Tom Hughes, got himself elected to the House of Representatives that year, serving two terms. Other owners dabbled in politics too, including Charles W. Sandman, Jr., a New Jersey state senator who bought a stake in Congress Hall in 1958 and who served as a member of Congress from 1967 to 1975, including a run for governor of New Jersey in 1973. Other than that, there’s nothing that ties Congress Hall to Washington, D.C.—and no, the building doesn’t have a dome like the U.S. Capitol.

But at least four U.S. presidents have ensconced themselves in one of Congress Hall’s ocean-view suites, though you won’t find Lincoln, Wilson, or the Roosevelts in the mix: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ulysses Grant, and most notably Benjamin Harrison—who, partisans of Congress Hall are fond of pointing out, settled into a kind of summer White House on the ground floor in 1890 and 1891 while the real White House was being renovated.
By the middle of the 19th century, Congress Hall had earned a reputation as a glittering refuge for the wealthy. Describing a carnival held in August, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “The appearance of the ballroom beggars description. The spacious hall was crammed with the elite of Philadelphia, [with] hundreds of ladies dressed in queenly splendor.”

And a youthful John Philip Sousa, age 28, came to Congress Hall in 1882, where he led the U.S. Marine Corps Band in a week-long concert series. Sousa, who would live to be 77, would later rise to worldwide fame, including playing for President Harrison’s inaugural in 1889.

The structure being celebrated for its bicentennial isn’t, of course, the one first constructed by old Tom Hughes. If there were Three Little Pigs involved, and if the Big Bad Wolf used fire instead of huffing and puffing, the pigs could tell you a similar story. Built in 1816, Congress Hall burned down two years later. Its replacement—larger and more magnificent—underwent a series of expansions, including the addition of one entire wing, and it lasted exactly 60 years, until the Great Fire of 1878 reduced much of central Cape May to a charred pile of rubble. The third version—whose builders, the Knights, conspicuously advertised to apprehensive vacationers as having been rebuilt out of fireproof brick, not wood!—went up in 1879. Indeed, according to Tommy’s Folly, a book by Jack Wright that recounts the history of Congress Hall, Knight left the brick unpainted to reassure visitors that, like the last of the Three Little Pigs’ houses, it was rock solid.

And it’s that building, closer to the ocean and much smaller than its predecessor, which proudly occupies its space at the western end of Cape May’s pedestrian mall today.

In a town where history is everywhere, whose sprawling Historic District itself earned the distinction of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Congress Hall stands out as a singular landmark. It is, according to Bashaw, maybe America’s very oldest hotel. “I think it could well be that we’re the oldest functioning hotel in the country,” he says. “We can’t find any other.” And while it’s possible to quibble with that—it depends, in part, on how many rooms you use to define a hotel as opposed to, say, an inn or guest house—it’s not easy to prove him wrong. Certainly, it predates some of the grandest old ladies still standing: Boston’s Parker House, built in 1855, and rebuilt in 1927; Chicago’s Palmer House, erected in 1871; and San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, 1888. “When you go back to 1816, it’s almost the entire history of the country,” says Bashaw. “A quarter century after the country was founded, this hotel was a watering hole, a gathering spot. There were slaves here in Cape May County, and the idea that there was slave labor in building the hotel is likely. It lived through emancipation, through women’s suffrage.” Not to mention two world wars, a depression, and its fair share of hurricanes and nor’easters.

In the 1950s, under the bulky Joe Uhler, who’d taken over Congress Hall from the Knights during World War II—when it profited handsomely by hosting military personnel from nearby bases—the stately old edifice saw itself turn tacky, with the color scheme and décor turning to deep red paint and burgundy velour in keeping with the look of, say, a bordello in New Orleans. Perhaps Uhler’s main contribution was the addition of a round-faced cocktail joint on Beach Avenue. In later years, that building became a Howard Johnson’s, and it is now the home of Uncle Bill’s Pancake House.

But in the long history of Congress Hall, it’s fair to say that none of the owners who preceded Bashaw were as flamboyant or controversial as Carl McIntire, Bashaw’s grandfather, who took over Congress Hall in 1967.
Carl Curtis McIntire, born in 1902, was a Biblical literalist who in 1936 founded the Christian Beacon newspaper and, the following year, established the Bible Presbyterian Church. According to a new biography, Fighting Fundamentalist: Carl McIntire and the Politicization of American Fundamentalism, McIntire was the pioneer of mixing Christianity and politics. “McIntire played [an] underappreciated but utterly crucial role in the politicization of conservative people of faith in the latter half of the twentieth century,” writes author Markku Ruotsila, who inscribed a copy of the book for Bashaw. “McIntire built the networks and alliances with the GOP Right that the Jerry Falwells and [others] cemented in the late 1970s.” In a sense, McIntire was the creative genesis behind the Falwell’s Moral Majority and, later, Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition. His Christian Beacon had a circulation of 650,000 at its peak, and McIntire’s radio broadcasts had 20 million listeners over 600 radio stations around the country.

And he did it all from his headquarters in Cape May.

Arriving in Cape May soon after the devastating nor’easter of 1962, McIntire built a mini-empire that included the enormous Christian Admiral Hotel, Shelton College, the Lafayette Cottages, the Colonial Star Villa, the building that’s now the Peter Shields Inn, and Congress Hall. Not only did his radical-right politics rub some people the wrong way, but he was seen as a threat by the powers-that-be in Cape May’s establishment.

“They wanted to keep their power base,” says Bashaw. “The town was asleep, and he’s on a thousand radio stations, the main fundamentalist guy in America, this God-and-country preacher. They thought that their town was becoming known as Carl McIntire’s town. The town was like, ‘We’re losing our identity to this guy.’” McIntire clashed with the city over a number of issues, including beach fees and back taxes, and he frowned on drinking and other vices.
Eventually, however, the Christian Beacon Press, the company that owned Congress Hall and other properties, began to run into rough financial straits. New regulations—including fire codes, disability access, asbestos and lead paint rules—added onerous costs to McIntire’s holdings. The tax bills piled up. Bashaw, along with his cousin Norris Clark, disentangled the mess, and set his sights on integrating the Admiral and Congress Hall with Cape May’s burgeoning Victorian renaissance.

Bashaw, who’d just finished at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, returned to Cape May. “I came back just in the nick of time,” he says. Using his newfound business acumen, Bashaw started to decide what he could save from his grandfather’s bankrupt empire. It was, in many ways, a labor of love, because he’d grown up there as a kid, swimming in the surf in front of Congress Hall or playing Ski-Ball at the arcade. He remembers McIntire, in his trademark white suit and white shoes, coming down to the beach one day, back in 1967, saying, “We just agreed to buy Congress Hall. Come see it!” Bashaw began working at Congress Hall in 1968, ringing up sales on an old NCR cash register in the gift shop or hanging around to help out at the front desk. One day, while still at college—Bashaw spent two years at Shelton College and then went to Wheaton College in Illinois—his grandfather called him up. “I was in my junior year. And he said, ‘I want you to manage Congress Hall for me next season.’”

Bashaw, today, expresses unbridled admiration for his grandfather. He imparted a lasting set of values to his family, and he remains an inspiration to Bashaw despite his legacy of confrontational politics and radicalism. “He was definitely extreme by most people’s standards, philosophically,” admits Bashaw. Among other things, Bashaw credits McIntire for keeping Congress Hall intact in an era when it could easily have been a victim of a wrecking ball. “He was an accidental preservationist,” says Bashaw. And, despite his reputation as a tut-tutting moralist, when Bashaw came out as gay, McIntire didn’t reject him. “He was not happy, but he never banned me from his house. He just said, ‘It’s between you and the Lord. I don’t think it’s the right choice.’ There was no shunning.”

The Congress Hall of the early 1990s was a vastly different place from the way it is today. For one thing, it didn’t operate on a year-round basis, just in the summer season. Over the years, it had become dilapidated, and it was desperately in need of a roof-to-foundation renovation. At a minimum, it would require tens of millions of dollars.
Thus began the saga, under Bashaw’s direction, of the decade-long campaign to restore Congress Hall. By 1995, Bashaw and a handful of partners secured financing to buy the Admiral and Congress Hall, then closed and shuttered, from the federal government, which had taken possession of the two buildings, and to pay back taxes to the city of Cape May. The catch was that they’d decided that they had no choice but to tear down the Admiral, and use the cash that would result from the sale of its oceanfront parcel to kick start financing for Congress Hall’s restoration. There was trenchant opposition from several quarters in town, and a series of lawsuits and political challenges that turned what should have been a two- or three-year effort into something that dragged on from 1995 until 2002.

After a $25 million renovation, Congress Hall finally opened for business again on June 7, 2002.

Colleen Bashaw, Curtis’ sister, is an interior design specialist, and she has had her own firm, Colleen Bashaw Designs, for two decades. Back in the 1990s, she and Curtis collaborated on the renovation of the Virginia Hotel on Jackson Street. She got her love of art, architecture and old buildings from her mother, who bought a 200-year-old house in Salem, New Jersey, where Colleen “spent some of my growing-up years,” she says. In 2001, Colleen joined Curtis in the massive effort to restore Congress Hall to its original glory. Looking back, however, she says that in many ways they didn’t get it right the first time.

So this year, they did it again.

“We really didn’t have enough money to finish the building the way we wanted to, in 2001-2002,” she says. “So we always knew that the time was coming for us to get at it the right way.” Starting last summer, she began overseeing plans for another top-to-bottom redo of Congress Hall. Colleen and Curtis went through all of the voluminous archives, checked out the furniture gathering dust in the warehouse, and pored over hundreds of photographs of Congress Hall during its multifaceted eras. “It was going through all of this and figuring out what tells the story best,” she says.

Beginning in January, when traffic is lightest, workers began ripping out everything, in the hallways and room by room: all the furniture, all the fixtures, carpets. Citing just one example of the painstaking work that went into the project, after much research Colleen worked up a design for new carpets in the halls, with a newly designed crest, including an image of Annie Knight’s key, and a new, subtly striped pattern for the guest rooms. Working with a prominent carpet design firm, Colleen experimented time and time again until she felt it was right. “We did forty-six strike-offs before we got the result we wanted!” she says. “That was an insane process! But we wanted it to have a relaxed, seaside feeling.”

As she shows a visitor around Room 200, a completely renovated, L-shaped corner suite with a glorious ocean view, she explains how a light blue, gray and white color scheme, accented by a red upholstered chair and a lacquered, black four-poster bed, is designed to take advantage of the natural light reflected from the Atlantic. “It’s evocative of an old, classic beach house,” she says. “People used to come here for health reasons, and to breathe the ocean air in, and I wanted that to be part of the feel of the room. I wanted that to shine through.”

In 2016, the once-again new Congress Hall is the jewel in the crown of Bashaw’s Cape Resorts empire, including the flagship hotel and its restaurants, the Blue Pig, the Brown Room and the Boiler Room; the Virginia Hotel and Cottages, including the Ebbitt Room; the seaside Beach Shack and the Rusty Nail; the Star Inn; and Beach Plum Farm. And his holdings include the Acme shopping plaza and the retail arcade along Ocean Street. “We’re probably the biggest private employer in Cape May county,” says Bashaw, whose Cape Resorts, Inc., last year employed 761 people at the height of the summer season. In 2003, according to the Press of Atlantic City, Congress Hall was assessed for tax purposes, when it reopened, “at a whopping $11 million;” today, Bashaw says, the assessment for Congress Hall by itself has risen to $28 million. Last year, Cape Resorts’ payroll was close to $14 million.

In speeches around town, Bashaw has outlined a series of ideas for the future of Cape May, including expanded low-cost and affordable housing, ideas for improving the island’s schools, changes in zoning rules, creation of an expanded, car-free pedestrian town in the city center during peak season, and more attention to the city’s public spaces. Toward that end, he played an instrumental role in organizing a group called the Fund for Cape May to raise money for a public-private partnership whose first project was a face-lift for Rotary Park, now nearing completion.
Asked where he would like to take things now, going forward, Bashaw grows reflective. “Nothing stays the same,” he says. “Change is gonna happen. So the question is, Are we going to be a change agent or not? If you get too nostalgic about everything staying the same, you lose it all. And so I feel like my job as the current custodian is to lay the groundwork and to make sure that we stay relevant. You’re always stepping into new territory.”

He’s thinking, he says, about adding another two hundred rooms or so to Cape Resorts current properties. He’s looking at opportunities in retail, to help build what he describes as a “vibrant” downtown. He’s giving a lot of thought to changes at the Acme center. And, he says, “There are properties that I would be interested in helping to renovate.”

But in the long run, the ghosts of the former owners will continue to haunt him. He has no children or obvious heirs, and he admits that he can worry about who’s going to succeed him. “I’ve got to figure out who’s going to deal with this next,” he says, before adding, with a laugh, “Because, you know, I’d hate to see it become a Marriott! That’d be a drag. So I think about finding the right protégé who would take it for the next 60 years.” He pauses, and laughs again. “I mean, I’m still good for another twenty years or so! But you have to think about these things.”

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