Architecture in Cape May

Historic Styles

Architecture, architecture, architecture – for me, that’s what Cape May is all about. The Cape May Historic District includes about twelve hundred 19th and early 20th century buildings. We were the first resort in the United States and still retain the atmosphere of a beautiful small town in 1900. Everything is within walking distance and every street reveals new delights and surprises. Though we have only one Colonial house (before 1776), we have hosts of every other kind; Gothic Revival, Italianate, French Second Empire, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival. One of the great joys of Cape May is wandering around without a plan or structure, just discovering on your own.

Historic District

The whole city of Cape May (and part of West Cape May) is listed as an Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. You can take trolley tours which describe the history and architecture of the town. You can see Cape May in greater detail by taking a walking tour. You can see Victorian interiors either on a tour of Bed and Breakfasts or a a guided tour of our house museum – the Emlen Physick Estate (Elan used to be the curator).

Other Historic Preservation Resources

You can get regular news about Historic Preservation throughout New Jersey from Preservation New Jersey, our statewide not-for-profit group (Elan is a former board member). You can find out who is getting grants to do restoration projects in the state by visiting the NJ Historic Trust (Elan is the Chair). For information on what cultural and arts intitutions are being helped by the state you can go to the NJ Cultural Trust website. (Elan is a trustee)


There are lots of Victorian architecture styles. Queen Victoria was on the throne for over sixty years, and tastes changed every couple of decades just as they do now. This is my guide to the styles that you can spot in the streets of Cape May – in case you are not up for a guided architectural tour.

Gothic Revival

This style was introduced in the United States during the 1840s. In fancy examples, the building is asymmetrical and covered with vertical board-and-batten siding. Cape May’s best example is theChurch of the Advent Church of the Advent on the corner of Washington and Franklin Streets. For some reason, the fans of the Gothic Revival thought of this style as particularly English (even though it was invented and perfected in France) so it is often used foe Anglican/Episcopal churches. We also have Gothic Revivallots of less fancy versions, where the building is not asymmetrical (or particularly Gothic-ish) but there are pointed windows in the attic. There is a row of buildings on Columbia Street with Gothic windows.


We have hundreds of Italianate buildings in Cape May. It was the most popular style during the nineteenth century. Basically, any building with a heavy, horizontal cornice is Italianate. Contrasted with the Gothic Revival style, the emphasis of Italianate buildings is horizontal. Because of this, in houses the roof is often very low pitched. The Bedford on Stockton Street is a beautiful Italianate styleItalianate style double house. The Mainstay (on Columbia) and the Southern Mansion (on Washington Street) are both Tuscan Villas – which is s particular house shape in the Italianate style. A Tuscan Villa is a cube-shaped house with a low pitched roof ornamented by a Tuscan Villacupola on top.

French Second Empire

French Second EmpireA French Second Empire house is one with a Mansard roof. A Mansard roof is a roof with a very flat upper part and a very vertical lower part. It allows a whole living floor above the cornice.  The Mansard can be concave, convex or straight. These houses were very popular during the 1850s and 1860s, but continued to be built in Cape May through the 1880s. The Queen Victoria is our nicest French Second Empire house in townFrench Second Empire (Notice how the roof shape follows the shape of the end pavilions and the center projection). Of course, Leith Hall is also a French Second Empire house.

Queen Anne

Queen AnneToward the end of the nineteenth century, the asymmetrical, picturesque tradition that was expressed in the Gothic Revival earlier in the century came to be shown in the Queen Anne style. If you see towers and turrets, a wrap-around porch and gables, spindles and cottage sash windows, you are looking at a Queen Anne house. One of the best is The Merry Widow on the corner of Carpenter’s Lane and Jackson Street. Another cute Queen Anneone is just across the street from Leith Hall at Beauclaire’s. My favorite ecamples are on Congress Street one block up from the beach.


In the very late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, there was a medieval revival movement that didn’t want to revive the architectural style of the Middle Ages, but the craftsmanship and the relationship between the craftsman and his patron. This stylebungalow favored furniture made of oak with very straight lines. They favored low ground-hugging houses with the porch tucked under the main roof of the house. This house type is called a bungalow. They are usually sheathed in natural cedar shingles and have very squared details based on joinery like

Rhythym of the Sea
Rhythym of the Sea

pegs and mortises.  Cape May has a few bungalows and a few larger craftsman-style houses.