Today we’re going to take a look at Cape May and that most southern New Jersey city’s unique status as the only city in the New Jersey to enjoy National Historic Landmark status. Below you will find a series of questions and answers produced by the Cape May Historic Preservation Commission that should help shed light on the process of historic preservation.
The BHA has taken this text and incorporated hyperlinks and photographs that will help expand the many concepts, ideas and locations mentioned. We hope this proves informative and interesting and begins to open the gateway on further dialogue on the mechanics of historic preservation in our own borough.
For a broader understanding we have also pasted at the end a letter to the New York Times by former Cape May Mayor Bruce M. Minnix who explains that it is not simply the Victorian structures within Cape May that are considered historic landmarks; it is the whole town, inclusive of all construction from the 19th century Victorian homes to the mid-20th century bedroom community sections through the millennial megahomes that slipped through a few cracks. We have added our own comment at the very bottom, comparing the multi-faceted architecture and design of Cape May to our own borough’s diverse structures spanning in style and function through the twentieth century.
And now, ‘Ask HPC‘.
“Ask the HPC” is written by the Cape May City Historic Preservation Commission (HPC).
Its goal is twofold: to help explain and clarify the HPC’s purposes, deliberations and decisions, as it works to fulfill its responsibility to promote the historic preservation of Cape May; and, to give users a convenient, regular and easy-to-understand forum in which to get answers to questions about historic preservation.
Readers are encouraged to submit their questions about the HPC or about historic preservation issues in Cape May or in general, to the Cape May Star and Wave. Each question will be researched by and receive a response from the HPC, which will be solely responsible for the content. Questions published will be printed anonymously, however, all queries must have a return address and be signed by the correspondent.
Do you have a question that you think the HPC can answer? Send queries to: Cape May Star and Wave, Ask the HPC, 600 Park Boulevard, #5, West Cape May, NJ 08204, or send them by email to: The Cape May Star and Wave
Question: What is the Historic Preservation Commission?
Answer: The HPC is a seven-member commission of the City of Cape May, established under the Municipal Land Use Law of New Jersey and appointed by the Mayor. The board is charged with working with and advising the City Council, The Planning Board, the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Construction Official. The HPC’s responsibilities include considering the appropriateness of new development, external modifications to existing structures and any demolition within the Historic District. It also conducts surveys of buildings and sites within the Historic Landmark District and recommends the designation of Historic Districts, buildings and sites to the Cape May City Council.
Question: Who serves on the HPC?
Answer: The HPC consists of seven regular members who serve four-year terms and two alternate members who serve two-year terms. The members are appointed by the Mayor, and fall into the following classes:
1) Class A: A person who is knowledgeable in building design and construction or architectural history.
2) Class B: A person who is knowledgeable or who has interest in local history.
3) Class C: A person who is a resident of the city and holds no other municipal office, position or employment except for membership on the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Class C members shall constitute a majority by at least one.
Alternate members: Two alternate members who must qualify as Class C members. Alternate members may participate in all HPC proceedings but may not vote except in the absence or disqualification of a regular member. All members of the HPC volunteer their time freely.
Question: Must I ask HPC approval for the colors I wish to use on my building?
Answer: Since Cape May is a composite of architectural styles representing several eras, bringing a wide spectrum of colors used through these periods, the HPC does not rule on exterior color combinations.
Question: I own a historic house. must I ask permission of the HPC to remove the claw foot bathtub when I renovate my bathroom?
Answer: No. The HPC has no authority regarding interior renovations.
Answer: Each designation is separate and distinct.
A National Historic Landmark designation applies to buildings, sites and districts, sites and districts that meet the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for such designation. Certified Local Government was established by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and is administered by the National Park Service through the state’s Historic Preservation Offices. In New Jersey, Cape May is the only city having the landmark designation, while there are many cities with the CLG status.
Question: It is understood that Cape May was chosen as an historic district because of its concentration of “Victorian Structures,” so why does the National Historic Landmark District encompass the whole city?
Answer: Landmark status was granted because Cape May is a living document of architectural styles in a seaside resort. While Cape May is noted for its concentration of structures built during the “Victorian Period,” this city, like most American cities, was built and rebuilt over many architectural periods, a process that continues today. Throughout the city there are significant styles from all periods.
Question: Why must a building owner comply with the HPC’s directions?
Answer: The simple answer would be to say that it is the law. However, the HPC is charged with applying the various guidelines regarding exterior renovations, development and demolition to ensure that the improvement preserves the integrity of both the structure and the neighborhood. If the improvement is considered to be inappropriate, the HPC will offer suggestions to the owner for a more appropriate way to accomplish the owner’s wishes.
Question: Where can I find these called guidelines?
Answer: When the owner is contemplating exterior renovations to a property, he or she must consult the City Construction Office in City Hall. At that time, the applicable guidelines will be given to the owner. Manufacturer information for specific restoration or renovation projects is also available in the Construction Office. The owner may also request a meeting with a member of the HPC for informal guidance on a project.
Question: What is the difference between a “Key Building” and a “Contributing Building”
Answer: A key structure is a unique architectural structure on an importance example of an architectural period of style. Noted examples are The Mainstay Inn, The Abbey, the Physick House or the properties at 1105 New Jersey Ave. or 1120 New York Ave. Contributing Structures are those whose architecture enhances the neighborhood where they are located but the style is not unique, such as the group of houses on the north side of New York Ave. between Madison and Trenton Aves. (the 1000 and 1100 blocks).
Question: How does a site earn a key or contributing designation?
Answer: In the case of Cape May, site designations are a result of a survey of the Landmark District. The survey team reviews each site in the district, applying the Secretary of the Interior standards for identification and evaluation an the State Historic Preservation Office guidelines for Architectural Survey. After the standards are applied, the corresponding designation is given.
Question: Who did the original surveys?
Answer: The original surveys were done by teams contracted by the City of Cape May and were chaired by certified Architectural Historians.
Question: Are all applications for exterior renovations heard by the full HPC board?
Answer: Many applications are approved by the construction official if the renovation involves replacing materials in a same for same situation. Applications that are in complete accord with the applicable guideline and have all information required for a decision are often approved in review by a sub-committee of the HPC.
Question: What is “same for same?”
Answer: “Same for same” is when the applicant intends to replace a deteriorated material with the same material, ie: the applicant wishes to replace a cedar shingle roof with a cedar shingle roof. This application could be approved by the construction official.
To the Editor:
There is a serious misunderstanding about the whole city of Cape May’s designation as a National Historic Landmark. That listing honors the entire town, even the undeveloped land. The designation is not just for its Victorian buildings. Different structures are important for different reasons, but all of Cape May is important.
The belief that only Victorian architecture is valued is mistaken. The idea behind our landmark designation was unique. It was to create a living textbook of seashore buildings. The city has two centuries of building styles that were popular in their time. All the buildings are historically important to the entire United States.
Consider some examples: The 1927 Franklin Street School, built to be racially integrated; the boxy American Shingle style of the early 1900′s; the Colonial House, which holds the historical society’s museum; twins and quads from the 50′s and 60′s in Village Green; the massive beachfront houses from the 1990′s; and the motels from the postwar 40′s. That is an important list even without the more than 600 wooden Victorian buildings that have made the town famous.
All these buildings contribute to the nation’s oldest seashore resort. They are the reasons that the city is a landmark. It ain’t just Victorian. It’s all of Cape May, the town where we choose to live.
BRUCE M. MINNIX
The writer was mayor of Cape May from 1972 to 1976.
As you can see, recognition and preservation of historic structures in Cape May as a district are not limited to simply the Victorian homes. Certainly they are the biggest draw, much like our own early 20th century bungalows could be, but we too enjoy a near-century of designs and ideas cemented in the homes throughout the borough – from the Beachwood Circle structures that served our residents as grocer, pharmacy, soda shop and gave World War II outgoing servicemen a good memory of home to carry through the European and Japanese theatres; to modern ranches that sprouted in the postwar era of the automobile, Garden State Parkway and upwardly mobile families; through the bi-level designs of the energy conscious 1970s and into the increasingly amenity-centric expansive structures of the 1980s and 90s.
Beachwood is itself a photograph of middle America in the twentieth century and one that alongside its civic mindedness and volunteerism surely deserves preserving for its economic, cultural and heritage benefits for this and future generations.