|By Jacqueline L. Urgo, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Aug. 15, 2008 - CAPE MAY -- The venerable Chalfonte Hotel, with its frothy gingerbread railings and ornate porches stacked like decks of a ship, has been likened to everything from a wedding cake to an ocean liner.
But the 132-year-old queen is a time machine more than anything else.
Unlike at some hostelries in this bed-and-breakfast capital, guests at the Victorian-era Chalfonte are spared phony, over-the-top interpretations of the period. There has been no effort to incorporate the high-end amenities a few of the resort's old hotels have struggled to pull off in recent years.
How to preserve the magic of the beloved hotel, but gently move it into, at least, the 20th century -- with air-conditioning and private bathrooms -- is now the work of Robert Mullock, who bought the place two weeks ago.
So concerned were owners Anne LeDuc and Judy Bartella about finding a like-minded caretaker that they accepted less money from Mullock than speculators and developers had offered.
"When you walk in the front door and check in, you can expect to have pretty much the same experience that people had when they gathered here for a vacation 140 years ago," said Mullock, who paid $3 million for the property, at Howard Street and Sewell Avenue.
By design or by chance, much of what builder and Civil War hero Henry Sawyer handcrafted -- the pretty fireplace facades, the now-creaky oak floor, the heavy doors and windows -- remains intact.
Plain white matelasse coverlets adorn the beds in 70 simply furnished guest rooms, which contain no phone jacks, no televisions, and no WiFi.
Most guest quarters don't have private "facilities." Toilets and showers are in bathrooms off the main hallways in the three-story hotel, which smells like a combination of the seashore and your grandmother's attic.
The Chalfonte has never been air-conditioned, either. Original louvered doors, which serve as screens when the rooms' regular doors are open, send ocean breezes wafting through.
And because the uninsulated building has no heat, the hotel closes between Columbus Day and Memorial Day weekend.
Much of that will not change, said Mullock, who also plans to keep open the Chalfonte's Magnolia Room, a dining room that serves traditional Southern cuisine.
But a few new creature comforts are unavoidable, Mullock conceded. Installing air-conditioning and more private baths is a trade-off to ensure occupancy levels and, hence, solvency, he said.
"When people are booking reservations, these are things they ask for," he said. "I don't think these are requests we can ignore. But I think we can make these additions without changing the character, the ambience, of the hotel."
Mullock draws the line at installing heat, however.
"If we were to go in and add insulation and everything else that goes with adding a heating system, we would completely change the soul, the character, of the old building," he said.
Mullock, only the third owner in the hotel's history, moved from Doylestown to Cape May 30 years ago. He and his wife, Linda, operated the Victorian Rose Inn on Columbia Avenue before opening the Cape May National Golf Club in the Erma section of Lower Township 20 years ago.
LeDuc, of Newtown, and Bartella, of Moorestown, bought the Chalfonte in 1983 after managing it for about 10 years. The pair -- Quaker-school educators by trade -- had toyed for a while with the notion of selling. But they couldn't bear the thought of the hotel enduring a radical renovation or, worse, becoming the site of condos.
"Preservation of this 132-year-old marvel of a building is an ongoing process," LeDuc said. "We fell in love with her so many years ago and are delighted her welfare will continue with Bob Mullock's leadership.
"The Chalfonte is unique," she said. "It's 'family, food, fun' and some hard work."
The challenge of maintaining the hotel's authenticity in a resort so dripping in history that the entire town is a National Historic Landmark led LeDuc and Bartella to devise some innovative practices.
Each summer since 1979, students and professors of urban planning and historic preservation at the University of Maryland have spent three weeks at the Chalfonte, researching and repairing architectural components.
In the early 1980s, LeDuc and Bartella also created "volunteer work weekends," when guests receive room and board in exchange for 10 hours of work -- such as painting, landscaping, installing awnings and repairing furniture -- needed to open or close the hotel for the season. About 1,400 people, mostly repeat guests, have volunteered over the years.
No one seems to mind the absence of a few modern conveniences.
"People come to Cape May for the history of the town, and the people who choose to stay here understand that where they are staying is as important as the destination," said Debra Suplee Donahue, a spokeswoman for the hotel.
Without the intrusion of television or the Internet, guests "create an authentic experience here that has nothing to do with the outside world, and they're doing that in a very organic way that isn't contrived."
The Chalfonte is "its own culture," Suplee Donahue said. "People always say they feel like they're coming home when they come here to stay."
Contact staff writer Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-823-9629 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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