|By Dianna Marder, The Philadelphia
InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 30, 2009--CAPE MAY -- Once or twice a year, Mary Paddock and her husband, Lynn, drive 700 miles from their home in Indiana, and pay $35 each to bed down on sleeping bags in unheated rooms -- all for the opportunity to donate sweat equity, scraping and spackling the walls of this city's historic Chalfonte Hotel.
The Paddocks, ages 70 and 71, have never been proper guests at the Chalfonte -- but they have volunteered here in the off-season for nearly a dozen years.
While family obligations will keep the Paddocks away this weekend when the Chalfonte marks the first of its two May 2009 Work Weekends, many longtime volunteers are returning.
Among them: Gail Angel of Churchville, Md., who has spent 14 years as a Chalfonte Work Weekender; Georgia Grieder, of Morris County, N.J., nine years; Helen Bubka, of Northeast Philadelphia, six years; and Joyce Grohman of Pomona, N.J., who this weekend is returning for her 16th year.
They'll arrive tomorrow night and stay through Sunday afternoon, to make beds and unfurl the awnings, so all will be ready when the hotel reopens for the season on Memorial Day weekend.
Even in Cape May, where the Chalfonte is one of many faithfully restored structures on the National Register of Historic Places, the hotel is a sight to behold. She commands almost an entire city block at Howard Street and Sewell Avenue, with her ornate, gingerbread verandas and distinctive Italianate cupola.
Completed in 1876, the Chalfonte began life as a boarding house and is the city's longest continuously operated hotel. For decades, men were required to wear jackets to dinner, and children younger than 8 were served in a separate room.
The hotel's Southern hospitality and legendary cuisine have been featured in Life magazine, Ladies' Home Journal and, years ago, on TV's The Phil Donahue Show. The Food Network was here in 2004.
Still, this isn't a nonprofit. Why does this hotel keep a waiting list of folks who want to become Work Weekenders?
"We feel connected to the hotel because the hotel cherishes its connection to history," says Valerie Brown, a lawyer, lobbyist and yoga instructor in New Hope, returning for her 16th Work Weekend.
It seems the tides lure these Work Weekenders as surely as their passion for historic preservation. Some serve on their local historical societies, and others were trained as Master Gardeners by horticultural groups back home. But like parents doting on a delicate child, the volunteers are also invested in maintaining the Chalfonte's peculiar ambience.
"There is no other place like this," says David Bearr of Westminster, Md., who is returning this weekend with his wife, Dianne, for their ninth year.
A portrait of Mary Satterfield, whose family bought the hotel in 1910 and who ruled in her Southern style for 65 years, dominates the lobby.
Anne LeDuc, who first came to the hotel as a 3-year-old guest and bought the hotel in 1975, initiated the Work Weekends in the early 1980s, along with an award-winning historic-restoration program with University of Maryland students and professors.
But the Chalfonte was sold in the summer of 2008, and despite assurances from new owner Bob Mullock, some Work Weekenders have wondered whether the program would change.
Mullock says it won't. He is old friends with LeDuc. He ran a bed-and-breakfast across the street from the Chalfonte for years, owns the highly rated Cape May National Golf Club, and lives in Cape May Point. In 1980, Mullock was married at the Chalfonte, and he says Work Weekending is one of the many Chalfonte traditions he hopes to continue.
What is it about this place?
No air-conditioning, no television in the rooms, no elevators to take third-floor guests to their rooms. The floors creak, and most of the 75 guest rooms shared bathrooms in the hall -- until now.
When the Chalfonte reopens this season, 30 rooms will have private baths; the legendary Magnolia dining room will be air-conditioned; and new Presidential and Bridal suites will have their first occupants.
But night will still bring the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages, and Victorian-dress dances will still be held in the 120-foot-long ballroom.
The Chalfonte's celebrated chef Helen Dickerman, who arrived at the age of 4 with the Satterfield family, has since passed, but her grown daughters, Dot Burton and Lucille Thompson, still run the kitchen in her style.
The Ladies, as they are called, serve grits, cornbread and fried green tomatoes at breakfast; and at dinner, vegetable soup with baby lima beans and black-eyed peas, fried chicken, crab cakes and spoonbread.
Work Weekenders get the same great food for less. For $35, a Work Weekender is rewarded with five meals and two overnights, which would cost a guest about $412.
"For us," says Mary Paddock, who plans to close up again in October, "it's a working vacation we can afford."
Reach staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or firstname.lastname@example.org or read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder
Information on the Chalfonte Hotel Work Weekends is available at 609-884-8409.
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