Cape May was declared a National Historic Landmark back in 1976 but for more than a century before that, it was a Victorian wonderland. The Jersey Shore is not usually something that's synonymous with Victorian Architecture and history, especially not as of late with TV shows that claim otherwise. However, away from the beachy, tourist-filled shores sits this town in all of its original charm, and it's worth seeing.

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While Cape May was discovered and named in 1621 - which obviously was two centuries short of the Victorian era - it came to adopt the style in time. The cape was named for Cornelius Jacobson Mey, a Dutch captain who explored the area quite early on. With this early discovery, it seems strange to connect the dots between other colonial towns - such as Salem and Jamestown - with the seaside Victorian town that exists today. While Cape Cod-style and colonial houses should line the streets, Cape May experienced something altogether different during the early 19th century.

Why Cape May Is So Different

These stunning buildings with their ornate decor and classic Victorian details seem somewhat out of place, considering their proximity to neighboring Wildwood. Surrounded by highly popular tourist areas and a boardwalk not far away, most who visit don't expect to be greeted with a city as elegant timeless as this. Cape May holds the title of being the oldest seaside resort town in America which is also where its appearance came into play. Prior to the War of 1812, this seaside town was not known for much other than its discovery and namesake. After the war, however, steamboat travel became a popular means of vacationing, with those who could afford it traveling frequently and often. The steamboat that took vacationers to Cape May left out of New Castle, Delaware, and it was with this transportation that Cape May absolutely took off.

Thus, the city grew in popularity at the start of the Victorian era although this still is not what gave it its classic appearance. As more people visited the Jersey Shore - up to 3,000 in one day, sometimes - Cape May also saw a need for expansion. So, hotels and resorts were built, and it attracted, once again, those who could afford it. Politician and celebrities made their way to the Jersey Shore, among them being Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and James Buchanan from 1849 to 1873.

The Fires That Inspired Cape May's Classic Architecture

Anyone who knows the history of Coney Island is also likely to know how quickly fires could spread during the mid-1800s. With no specific fire safety laws in place and certainly no building codes, a grand hotel could quickly turn into a tragic story, and this did happen. According to Penn Live, fires took out roughly 40 acres in the city of Cape May. In a twisted way, though, these fires were also the catalyst for what the city would soon turn into. In a stunning transformation, many of the buildings that were originally in place during the early 19th century were rebuilt in the style of the time, which was that lovely, ornate victorian style that so many are still in awe of to this day. Homes were outfitted with intricate wood detailing before getting bold, deep colors as the finishing touch. Public buildings maintained a classic yet regal appearance, adding a level of decadence to the entire city.

Gable roofs, angled rooflines, and round towers account for many of the architectural details on the houses that exist there today. The homes, with their bright colors, are referred to as the 'Painted Ladies' due to their elaborate and colorful nature. These houses, some of which are still maintained as summer homes, make up hundreds that exist in the city today. Even the hotels that were built in the city during the late 1800s still stand with all of their elegance, meticulously taken care of in order to maintain their old charm.

Keeping Up Victorian Buildings Today

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, also known as MAC, for short, is wholly responsible for overseeing many of the city's most historic buildings to this day. The careful care and passion for keeping Cape May's history alive are evident through the efforts of MAC, creating an atmosphere that makes one feel as though they are, indeed, in the 1880s.

For those who would love the chance to experience Cape May's historic homes up close and personal, MAC offers tours of several. Additionally, they offer a trolley tour which allows visitors to get a feel for the entire town while taking in various Victorian styles and landmarks.

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