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.
Several years ago, Suzie and I spent a month visiting Sicily. We saw the cities of Palermo and Catania, several hill towns like Ragusa and Noto (which are as cute as hill towns anywhere in Italy) and stayed in beach resorts like Cefalù and Taormina. Siracusa was my favorite place in Sicily, combining great architecture, Greek ruins and very posh stores. It’s sort of the Upper East Side of Sicily.
One part of Sicily that Cape May folk can enjoy that other Americans can’t is Moscato di Sicilia. It is a dessert wine that is so aromatic that the whole room will smell like honey and flowers when you pour the wine. Yet, it isn’t dark and oxidized like Sherry or Port or Madeira. Almost unique among dessert wines, it is light and fresh yet sweet and aromatic. It’s more like Sauternes or Icewine than the caramelized wines that we are used to. Unfortunately, it isn’t imported into the United States. I once ordered some from a wine store in Rome, but I suspect they weren’t as law abiding as they should be. I was stumped, then I discovered that there is one place in America that makes Moscato di Sicilia, Cape May
We wanted to share some pictures from the March Sherlock Holmes weekend in Cape May. This time we had one of the actors, Pamela Burke, stay with us. Our guests really got into the mystery and several brought wonderful costumes! Only in Cape May can a woman look perfect in a bustle and corset. Breakfast was fun with everyone discussing the clues and trying to get Pamela to cheat and give them some under-the-table help. She was good and refused to reveal the secrets.
Nancy and Jeff pouring sherry in Leith Hall’s parlor
Denise (in the middle in left picture) changed her outfit several times a day like a true Victorian woman – she looked absolutely wonderful. One of our guests, Jeff, was looking for a Victorian cane and found an entire Victorian morning coat outfit in his size. It looked great and fit perfectly.
During the winter of 2011, Suzie and I spent six weeks in Rome, writing a self-guided walking tour book to be called The Secret Streets of Rome. It will be out next Fall, published by Andover Press in New York. I’ll be posting lots of information about art and architecture, but first things first – Gelato. I don’t know how they do it, but Italians make ice cream so much better than we do. It’s actually much lower in fat than ours, but has much more flavor. The chocolate is very, very dark and extremely strong, the raspberry is dark purple and aromatic with raspberries. My favorite is stracciatella – which is Italian for fudge ripple (it means streaky) and is creamy vanilla with dark rivers of fudge. There are several great Gelaterie in Rome (of course) though aficionados insist that the best in Italy is in San Gimignano. Our favorite in Rome is the Gelateria del Teatro, located under a stairway to a tiny theater just west of the Piazza Navona.
Happily, for those of you who visit or live in Cape May, we need not despair. There’s a gelateria in Washington Commons (across Ocean Street from the Washington Street Mall) called Cione. For more ice cream, this one American, but organic, handmade, and really, really good, visit Bliss in the Carpenter’s Square Mall (that’s the little building behind Gecko’s in Carpenter’s Street).
Suzie loves Banana Bread and, of course, chocolate. So I like to serve Banana Bread for tea at the inn. Whenever we have some over-ripe bananas, I stick them in the freezer. To make Banana Bread, I move them to the refrigerator the night before and then just peel them directly into the mixer-bowl. All that slimy banana pulp just makes the Banana Bread better. If the bread seems too dry when it comes out of the oven – it has to be fully baked – just soak in some simple syrup ( ½ cup sugar dissolved in ½ cup hot water).
2 cups (10 oz) unbleached flour
¾ cup (5 ¼ oz) sugar
¾ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp salt
3 bananas, mashed (about 1 ½ cups)
¼ cup plain yoghurt
2 eggs, beaten
6 Tbs. melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups walnuts or other nuts, toasted and chopped (Suzie hates nuts, so I leave them out)
(You can reduce sugar to 10 Tbs. and add 2 ½ oz grated bittersweet chocolate (heaping ½ cup)).
350F., 9” loaf pan, lined with cooking parchment
Mix dry, Mix wet. Mix together. Bake about 55 minutes. Cool in pan then on wire rack.
This is Sherlock Holmes weekend in Cape May, so I thought I’d tell you the oddest Arthur Conan Doyle story. It is also a New Jersey connection for Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes was the ultimate reasoning machine, while his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, was a gullible dope. In 1922, the
Harry Houdini and his mother
Conan Doyles and the Houdinis were vacationing together on the beach in Atlantic City. Conan Doyle was very proud of his wife, who claimed to be a medium or clairvoyant. As they were relaxing on the sand, she announced that she felt the spirits coming through. They rushed back to the hotel and Mrs. Conan Doyle went into a trance. She said that she was channeling the spirit of Harry Houdini’s mother, who had recently died. Harry had been very close to his mother, and wanted séances to be real, but wasn’t willing to accept nonsense.
They all went back to the hotel and Mrs. Conan Doyle went into a trance. She used automatic writing to transmit a note from Houdini’s mother. The note had three crosses at the top of it and was clearly written by an old Italian lady. The catch was, Harry Houdini wasn’t Italian, and wasn’t Catholic. He was Jewish. Houdini was his stage name and him mother only spoke Yiddish, not English. Clearly, Mrs. Conan Doyle was taking advantage of Harry’s grief to convince him of her powers. Harry pointed out to Arthur how unlikely it was that his mother had learned English in the short time since her death, and how unlikely an old Jewish lady was to head her notes with three crosses. Arthur Conan Doyle was furious that anyone would doubt his wife’s powers – and the two men broke off their friendship.