Once dubbed “Tommy’s Folly” by locals who thought the structure was far too large to ever fill, Congress Hall, in Cape May, N.J., has proven any doubters wrong by surviving nearly two centuries and standing today as a symbol of the style, grace and history of its seaside town.
This grand hotel traces its roots to 1816 when a smaller building --ironically called “The Big House” -- stood on this amazing plot of oceanfront land. Owner Thomas H. Hughes saw the potential Cape May held to compete with other East coast resort towns like Newport, R.I. and he couldn’t have been more right. His legacy is this lovingly restored landmark that offers one of those rare experiences where the old mingles with the new so seamlessly it lends an air of timelessness to the entire property.
While the structure itself, as well as much of the interiors, are historic in their own right, so too have been the guests who have passed through Congress Hall’s doors. In fact, the hotel got its name following Hughes’ election to Congress. But he wasn’t the only politician in the house. Cape May was a popular summer retreat for several presidents including Ulysses S. Grant, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan; and Benjamin Harrison used Congress Hall as his “summer White House” during his presidency.
The hotel also counted Composer John Philip Sousa among its fans. Sousa and his Marine Corps band would perform concerts on Congress Hall’s lawn and he would later compose the Congress Hall March in honor of the hotel. Photos of Sousa and his band, as well as other historic shots of the hotel and its guests, can be found throughout the hotel.
Architectural details throughout the property have been meticulously restored, recreated and cared for and the hotel pays homage to its past at every turn. A basement “speakeasy,” for example, gives a nod to the days of Prohibition when in fact it was Congress Hall that opened Cape May’s first post-Prohibition cocktail bar.
Every space within the hotel, and outside on the grounds as well, is designed above all else to be inviting, to encourage you to sit back, relax and enjoy the stories the hotel and it’s many other visitors have to tell.
Very comfortable, well-appointed rooms offer up a wonderfully casual, yet sophisticated beach vibe with their white-washed furnishings, walls in shades of sky blue and sea foam with citrusy pops of color from the carpet and accessories, black-and-white tile and a claw foot tub, and rocking chairs on the balconies. Multiple bars and restaurants take on different design themes, cozy fireplaces and social areas that encourage guests to meet and mingle. It’s a throwback to an era when the grand hotel was itself the destination.
From my personal experience, I can tell you Congress Hall is most certainly a place for celebrations of all sizes. I stayed here the night I completed a 14-day drive across the country with a friend from college -- from Venice Beach, Calif. and the Pacific Ocean to Cape May’s beach on the Atlantic and Congress Hall where I was by no means the only one celebrating.
I arrived just days before Thanksgiving and the lobby already was decked out for the winter holidays with white lights and bows, wreaths and trees, sophisticated sparkle and nutcrackers as tall as first graders. Wedding guests bustled around the hotel all night and I spent a few very entertaining hours in The Brown Room, a richly appointed cocktail lounge with an old glamour vibe just off the hotel’s lobby, exchanging stories with groups celebrating everything from an annual “girl’s weekend” to a wedding anniversary.
History buff, design buff, coastal buff -- Congress Hall will satisfy one and all.