If you like Designer Show Houses, Cape May’s got a great one this summer. A wonderful couple (Ioanna Iliopolis and Tom Cataldo) has
just built a beautiful new house on Washington Street. It is patterned after the grand Tuscan Villas of Cape May – the Southern Mansion and the Mainstay Inn. A Tuscan Villa is a cube-shaped house with a low hipped roof and a cupola And this new one, Cavalier Cottage, is a very cute example.
MAC (our local non-profit organization) didn’t have a designer show
house last year, and is thrilled with the generosity of the owners. All summer long you can visit the show house, and combine your visit with a lunch at the Carriage House Café at the Physick Estate. Each room was conceived by a different designer. Most are from Cape May, but also they also include designers from Haddonfeild and Devon, Pennsylvania. Consider visiting us this summer and combining the Victorian interiors at Leith Hall and the Physick Estate with the new interiors at Cavalier Cottage.
Cape May’s Chalfonte Hotel has been hosting guests for 137 years. And, Karen Fox has documented its fascinating history in her book and in this season’s show at the Carriage House Gallery at the Emlen Physick Estate. Henry Sawyer built the hotel – and his story is unforgettable. He was captured by the confederacy and held in the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond Virginia. He was condemned to die by chance in the cruel “Lottery of Death”, but his wife Harriet would not let that happen. She got to President Lincoln through Secretary of War, Stanton, and Lincoln ordered Henry Sawyer and two other prisoners exchanged for Robert E, Lee’s son plus two others. Harriet saved her beloved Henry, and Cape May got back its Civil War hero and hotelier.
The exhibit opens today, April 26th, and will run through the whole summer.
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.
I thought that I’d start sharing vacation photographs with you from our Winter trips. Last winter was a trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights, but I uploaded the photos somewhere and now have to search for them. So, instead, these are photos from our vacation of a year before. Those of you who have been guests at Leith Hall may know that Suzie and I got a
book contract to write a self-guided walking tour book of Rome. The manuscript is now embroiled in instability at the publishers, but I’ll show you some photos of Rome neighborhoods. The first is the Pincio Park, on the north side of the historic center of Rome.
It is part of the Victorian attempt to bring greenery into the center of the city. Italian cities generally have no public greenery at all; not a blade of grass nor a tree. Then you exit the gates of the city and find yourself in farmland. Rome has always had some private green-space, in the form of noblemen’s villas, but it is an overwhelmingly masonry city. The Pincio is the Central Park, the Fairmount Park, the Grant Park of Rome. One of my favorite places is the Villa Borghese. Scipio Borghese (Skippy to his friends) was a Pope’s
nephew. When the Pope was elected, the Borghese’s were an upper-middle class family. As Nepeto or nephew, Scipio was in charge of letting all of the contracts and making purchases for the whole Roman Catholic Church. With every transaction, Skippy got his cut. By the time the Pope died, the Borgheses were the richest family in Europe. The word nepotism comes from nepeto, or nephew for good reason.
We worked long and hard on this book, spending hours in cafes, sampling countless bakeries, and wandering through beautiful neighborhoods. Life is real. Life is earnest.
Saturday night SoMa Art Gallery in Cape May held an opening of three solo shows. The shows will be up for a while and are well worth a visit. The first artist is Harriet Sosson, Her collages always consist of familiar figures from art history surreally set in every-day surroundings. Earlier works have included Greek Gods riding the New York City subway and Renaissance figures in front of graffiti-ed urban decay. The collages are always formally satisfying – well composed with coloring and lighting considered. The humor is in the surprise of seeing familiar images in unlikely contexts.
This show has an added dimension for the old Caper May crowd. This exhibit features the Venus of Urbino being rescued by lifeguards, Mona Lisa at the beach, and others. Another part of Harriet’s show includes covers from an old giveaway magazine in town which featured a grid of photos of people on the beach. Now the people on the beach include Venus, and the Infanta of Spain by Velasquez, as well as friends and neighbors of thirty years ago. The nostalgic element of this show was a big hit with the locals during the opening night party.
Sean Taylor’s work is shown in an adjacent gallery. He makes both landscape and figurative paintings. The landscapes are often of the beach, with very modulated paint creating really beautiful complex colors. He does this in acrylic paint, which is very hard to do. (I’ve failed at it many times.) One large painting is of an empty beach with just sand, water and sky – yet it makes an interesting painting, nicely composed and pretty to look at. Another work shows rows of beauty contest participants, all identically coiffed and colored; all looking in the same direction. It makes a nice pop-art image of the conformist ‘50s or ‘60s, and is also very well painted.
The third artist featured last night is John Borrero. His works are very painted, rubbed, dripped, scratched, smeared, and abraded. Many include paper that has been buried in the paint, and a few include key escutcheons attached to the painting. All this manipulation produced semi-abstract landscapes that are dark and evocative. Some of the images are accompanied by short poems by the artist that are also moody and evocative. John Borrero also showed some sculpture composed of stiffened cloth and found objects. One was a woman made of brown cloth, a valve handle and a wooden spool that evoked a Jane Austen character very well. Another one was black clad and looked much more Wuthering Heights to me.
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.
The last post about our vacation in Spain reminded me that we have a painting of the same view of a courtyard in the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, hanging in the Turkish Suite in Leith Hall. I substituted a picture of Rashid Lamrani, who was our guide in Morocco for the young woman in the photograph. His friends had dressed him up in a traditional burnoose, so he looked very exotic. In reality, he was a very modern young man who had traveled all over the United States.
We also have a painting of the Todra Gorge in Morocco hanging in the bedroom of the Turkish Suite. If you look for the tiny figure riding a camel at the bottom of the painting – that’s Suzie. You too can see the paintings in the Turkish Suite by coming to visit us.
Now that spring is sprung in Cape May, we’re having some work done on Leith Hall this
midweek before it gets too busy. Easter is just over, and my mind turns to vacation. For us, vacation is always winter vacation, so I thought I’d share a few pictures of a trip we took to Andalucia, in Southern Spain, a few years ago. We toured most (or all) of the cities of Andalucia. One of these is Mijas, which is one of the “white villages” of Andalucia. It is very convenient to the beach resort of
Torremolinos and the other towns of the Costa del Sol, so it is often overrun with visitors. Not in January, however.
We’ve also been to the Alhambra in Granada a couple of times. I think that it may be the most beautiful building I’ve ever seen; oddly, in a completely different way than Western buildings. Instead of making the palace bigger and grander than a house, the designers made it more and more complicated. Instead of immense, like the palace of Versailles, it
has another courtyard with another set of rooms, and another and another. The result is a palace that is human scale and very pleasant to be in. Versailles is impressive, but not actually pleasant.