We don’t usually let everyone know every time we buy some new furniture at Leith Hall,
but this time we’re very excited to have replaced two sofas. It all started when a guest noted that the wicker setee in the Audubon Suite was not as comfortable as he’d like. So we started a search for a new setee that was Victorian-ish. We found one that has Victorian front legs and is upholstered in a William Morris designed, 1880s pattern, fabric. The new setee is in place and quite comfy.
While we were shopping for that one, we came across a Colonial Revival style, 1890s looking setee that fits on the sitting room wall in the Turkish Suite. So we had to buy it. It is tall enough to snuggle in and rest your head. Just above the new setee is a painting of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain – pretending to be Turkey. The man in the painting who appears to be praying is our Moroccan guide, Rashid, who was actually checking his digital camera battery. His friends had dressed him up in a burnoose, so he looked exotic, though he was a completely modern guy. Come visit us at Leith Hall and try out the new comfy furniture.
Now is the time to plan for Presidents Day and Valentines Day in Cape May. Cape May and Leith Hall are always a romantic getaway, but this year there will also be a festival of wine related activities. The Cape May Wine School, the Self-Guided Wine Trail, and the Winery Cellar Tour and Tasting will all take place on President’s Day Weekend. M.A.C. will also host a Craft and Antiques in Winter show and sale in Cape May’s new Convention Hall. We’ll be there looking for more Victoriana to fill the inn, (as though we need more stuff.) Call us (609) 884-1934 or go online www.leithhall.com, to make your reservations now!
This past winter, Suzie and I went to Iceland to see the Northern lights. We stayed in the Northern Light Inn on a lava field in Southwestern Iceland, very close to the Blue Lagoon. We toured around our corner of the country and spent a few days in Reykjavik as well.
The Blue Lagoon was formed by the runoff from a geo-thermal electricity plant set in a lava field. The runoff contained so much white silica mud that it clogged the pores of the lava and created a shallow warm lagoon. Now it’s a spa and heaven to soak in. As you can see, it’s baby blue set in a landscape of black lava – very dramatic.
The weather at the Blue Lagoon changed every fifteen minutes or so. The sky would be bright blue, then huge hail would fall for a few minutes. Then the sky would be blue again, the rain. Then blue, then snow. All within a couple of hours.
We hired a car and driver who took us on a tour around the Reykyanes peninsula, that is Southwestern Iceland. We visited Gulfoss – a huge waterfall about a third the size of Niagara.
Iceland also has the oldest parliament in the world, running for a thousand years. This is the site of the original parliament – the Althing – where Vikings came together to vote.
Geyser is one of the few words in English that comes from Icelandic. The original Geyser is dormant now, but only a few yards away is Strokkur, which erupts every few minutes.
Reykjavik is the country’s only city, and its historic district resembles a more urban version of Cape May. It’s all Victorian with very similar buildings and gingerbread, only in Iceland the traditional siding is not clapboard by corrugated iron.
A recent Leith Hall b&b guest, Donna B., emailed me for two recipes for treats that we serve at afternoon tea. The first was Cape May bed and breakfast Gingerbread which was in an earlier post, and this is the second – Raspberry Sour Cream Coffee Cake. Of course, you could substitute any other preserves, but then it would be apricot or orange coffee cake.
Raspberry Sour Cream Coffee Cake
2 tablespoons canola oil or melted butter
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or vanilla paste
1/3 cup sour cream
1 small jar of raspberry preserves
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Line a 9”x11” baking pan with cooking parchment and spray with cooking spray.
Mix 1 1 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a second bowl, whisk together egg, milk, canola oil or butter, 1/3 cup sour cream, and vanilla. Mix dry ingredients into egg mixture.
Spread batter evenly into prepared pan. Drop raspberry preserves over batter by random teaspoons full. Combine remaining 2 1/2 cups flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Pour melted butter over flour mixture, and toss with a rubber spatula until large crumbs form. Sprinkle crumbs over batter.
Transfer pan to oven, and bake for about 23 minutes. . Continue baking until a cake tester comes out clean or cake springs back when prodded with a finger.
Recently one of our guests at Leith Hall b&b contacted me to request two recipes we serve at afternoon tea. This one, Leith Hall’s Cape May bed and breakfast Gingerbread, is for Donna. It has bits of crystallized ginger in it for an extra sharp bite. Sometimes I ice it with a bittersweet chocolate and butter icing (which I’ll put on almost anything) and sometimes I’ll sprinkle it with confectioner’s sugar through a paper doily laid on top of the gingerbread. We always have one chocolate and one non-chocolate treat at teatime. Suzie would never forgive me if I left out the chocolate, and we sometimes have guests who (sadly) don’t like chocolate.
Leith Hall Cape May bed and breakfast Gingerbread
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup butter
1 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ cup crystallized ginger, cut into tiny slices
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F Line a 9 “square pan with cooking parchment and spray with cooking spray
In an electric mixer, cream together the sugar and butter. Beat in the egg, and mix in the molasses.
In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Beat into the creamed mixture. Stir in the hot water. Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake 1 hour in the preheated oven, until the gingerbread springs back when prodded with a fingertip. Allow to cool in pan before serving.
Did you know that wooden house trim is called gingerbread because gingerbread was once very heavily decorated? During the Middle Ages, ginger was fabulously expensive and gingerbread was a desert at Royal and Noble courts. Sometimes, it was ornamented with real gold leaf in elaborate swirls. When sawn wooden ornament was introduced in the nineteenth century, people started calling it gingerbread because it reminded them of Christmas gingerbread houses – which are the last vestige of great medieval gingerbread constructions.Architecture and dessert all in one, my favorite combination
When Suzie and I moved to Cape May in 1989, one of the first projects on our list was to replace the sidewalk in front of Leith Hall and plant a flower garden. Our neighbors have narrow sidewalks with planted verges between the curb and the pavement and between the pavement and the property line. We wanted to replace our sidewalk with a narrow one and plant the verges. It never happened. New bathrooms, new furnace, new water heater, new roof, new porch; all these intervened. This year, twenty-three years later, we finally replaced the front sidewalk. We’re thrilled.
The sidewalk was laid by Mike Mohr of Mohr Masonry. He did a great job, worked really fast and was very easy to deal with. He’s coming back in a while to give the sidewalk a coating to make it resemble the slates next door more closely.
Victorian and native flowers
We’ve just planted the verges with thyme and phlox, sage and snow-in-summer, daylilies
and hostas. It still looks like a sea of mulch with tufts of greenery, but the plants are spreading and will cover the ground soon. The plantings are low growing and low maintenance, which we need; but are also Victorian, which we want. Victorians called Hostas, Funkias, which sounds so much funkier, somehow. The daylilies we planted are the orange, old-fashioned Hemerocallis fulva which the Pilgrims
brought from Europe and have been spreading ever since. Thyme and sage are the kitchen herbs and phloxes (Phlox subulata) and snow in summer (Cerastium tomentosum) are natives. We’ll see how they all do only fifty yards from the beach and occasionally being stepped on.
Suzie and I just got back from New York where we saw the new Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, which is set in Catfish Row in Charleston South Carolina. Many thanks to SK for the tickets. The show was wonderful and the music was, as always, spectacular. The show, together with Memorial Day fast approaching, reminded me of the first Memorial Day, which is a little known story. Just after the Civil War, freed black slaves in Charleston South Carolina wanted to honor the hundreds of Union soldiers who were imprisoned and died in the Charleston race course. The soldiers had been buried in an unmarked mass grave, so the freedmen cleaned up the site, built a memorial arch and landscaped the grounds. On May 1, 1865, they held a memorial service and supper to honor the Union soldiers.
Confederate groups held services to commemorate Confederate dead, also usually in May. In the North, (in Waterloo, NY) John Logan proclaimed May 30 as Decoration Day in his capacity as Commander in Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the Union veterans’ organization. The holiday was quickly adopted all over the North, while the south celebrated competing memorials on different days.
Memorial Day had its name changed from Decoration Day to Memorial Day in 1967. It was moved to a Monday date along with many other federal holidays in 1968, and became an official Federal holiday in 1971. During Woodrow Wilson’s term, the emphasis of Memorial Day shifted from the Civil War to a more general national holiday, including the Spanish American War and WWI dead. Wilson was the first southern president elected since the Civil War, and was the president who imposed racial segregation in the Federal Government.
From the beginning, Memorial Day has been the occasion for
parades and barbeques, and the tradition continues in Cape May. Memorial Day weekend begins our season of band concerts and Crafts and Antiques Shows on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate. On May 28th MAC will offer the Atlantic Brass band in a free concert to round out the holiday.
This year we’ve moved our collection of crystal and mirrored balls from the mantle in the
Iris Room to the piano in the parlor. Lots of guests and tour-goers ask about them, and one of our guests suggested that we write this blog post about them.
No Witches at Leith Hall
First, they are not Witch Balls. Those were blue or green blown-glass balls used to catch evil spirits. These beliefs existed in Europe in the 17th century and before. They are sometimes ascribed to New England – probably because of the Salem witch trials – but without much evidence. Usually, fishing floats, which are also blown glass blue or green balls, are brought out as evidence.
Our collection is of mirrored balls and crystal balls. Gazing balls are the big mirrored balls seen on pedestals in gardens. They were very popular in the 19th century. Then again, Victorians could never leave well enough alone and packed their gardens with statuary, sundials, urns, gazing balls, trellises and arbors, obelisks, cupids and gnomes. We have a gazing ball in the tiny front garden at Leith Hall.
In the parlor, we have lots more mirrored balls. Some are mercury glass which was very popular in the early and mid-nineteenth century. It contains no mercury, but is silvered on the inside, then sealed. It was called mercury glass because it looks like mercury. One interesting use for them was to display one large reflective globe on the sideboard in a dining room. That way, the master or mistress of the house could keep an eye on the servants during a dinner party and make sure they were doing their jobs properly.
The clear balls are “crystal balls” for communicating with the “other side.” These became very popular after the Civil War, along with séances, Ouija boards, clairvoyants, and Theosophy. The explosion of interest in spiritualism probably resulted from the number of young men lost in the Civil War and their families’ reluctance to be cut off from them. Or, maybe being a clairvoyant was one of the few ways for women to be famous in Victorian times. Or, maybe it’s just another one of the new religions of the nineteenth century, like Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.
Susan says, “We have lots of collections beside the mirror balls; Victorian Eastlake style silver, decorated Easter eggs, shells, and Japanese woodblock prints. Come visit us and see all of the Victorian stuff at Leith Hall.”
My last blog post was about the new exhibit at the Carriage House Gallery at the Physick Estate describing the restoration and renaissance of Cape May. That reminded me of our own restoration story at Leith Hall bed and breakfast. In 1989, when we bought Leith Hall, we had to decide what we wanted to make of it. A bed and breakfast is whatever the owners want it to be and usually reflects the owners’ interests and tastes. It is always better for the B&B to embody your real interests so that your enthusiasm shows for the guests’ sake and for your long term satisfaction, too.
Why an Authentic Restoration?
I used to work as an Historic Preservationist advising clients on restoring historic buildings. So, faced with a big 1880s house with 1960s furnishings and decorations, Suzie and I had to decide what we wanted our bed and breakfast to look like. We decided to make a Victorian period house. Since I learned what wallpaper, what furniture, and what objects were popular during any decade when I went to school, we decided that we’d make the house look like the 1880s.
Art Wallpaper at the Beach
The clues were in the woodwork. The baseboards, door and window surrounds and newel posts at Leith Hall have chamfered edges and bands of reeding. This style is part of the Aesthetic Movement that was popular in the 1870s and ‘80s, so we bought hand-made reproduction Aesthetic Movement wallpaper for the whole house. We bought Eastlake style (Aesthetic Movement) dressers and armoires, picture frames and decorations.
The Iris Room on the first floor is a good example. The wallpaper and ceiling paper are from a room-set by Bradbury and Bradbury called “Fenway”. The fens are swamps in Eastern England. All of the motifs in the wallpaper: the irises, cattails, fiddlehead ferns, whirlpools, and lightning bolts refer to the swamps. We thought of calling it the swamp room, but no one would rent it! So we called it the Iris Room. The dresser is made of walnut with burl walnut panels in Eastlake style and has a red marble top. The bedside table, rocking chair and side table, the mantelpiece and plates hanging on the walls – all date from the 1880s. Of course the television and the air-conditioning break with authenticity (not to mention the private bathroom) but even a b&b at the beach has to provide guests with modern amenities. Victorians after all, didn’t bathe much or change their clothes, so even I am not all for authenticity.
This Friday, a new show is opening at the Carriage House Gallery at the Emlen Physick Estate. It is about Cape May’s revival during the 1970s and comes from a book by Ben Miller, The First Resort. An article in the Cape May County Herald consists of an interview with Tom Carroll, who was there at the time. Suzie and I were the beneficiaries of the “Cape May Renaissance” since we moved to town in 1989. If Cape May had torn down the Victorian houses to build motels, by now the motels would be thirty years old and unfashionable. Instead, we kept our architectural heritage and can re-use it every time Victoriana comes back into fashion.
The latest Victorian Revival is Steampunk. It’s been around for a few years now and is based on the idea- what if technology had continued on the steam-powered, mechanical path of the 19th century, and hadn’t become the electronic world that we have today? Wooden laptop computers, time-machines chairs, lots of leather and lace; it’s a hoot.
The First Resort exhibit will be on all Summer. Come visit us and visit the Carriage House Gallery while you’re here.