So I’ve decided to leave the Victorians and their bathing machines, and their abominable bicycles, and terror of electric lights, alone this week.
Instead I’m going to fawn over some random hotel named Congress Hall on the Jersey shore.
Why? Because my friends tell me I need to let go of my Victorian fixation…of the notion of Victorians as the root of all absurdity and evil. That it is diminishing my character and wrecking my otherwise productive life. They say that I am probably projecting things upon the Victorians that I don’t like about myself, that bashing the Victorians is on some level a form of self-protection against the inevitable wounds of modernity. They say the Victorians have something to teach me, if I would just listen.
Okay, but look at their dopey bicycles, I say.
My friends say if I keep it up there will be an intervention.
That is why I will be writing about Congress Hall in gushing, glowing, grandiloquent prose: to prove I can write something nice about a Victorian era mainstay in a Victorian era town.
Let us commence with Cape May, New Jersey, historic landmark, semi-frozen-in-time. Regard the slate sidewalks, gas streetlamps, horse-drawn carriages for hire, Victorian houses of dizzying proportions brined in a century of salt, creaking floorboards, tarnished mirrors the color of the sea, hitching posts, gingerbread trim, Stick, and Shingle to the nines, thick-paned glass; muted, tasteful paints becoming of a temperate climate, 19th century blue bloods, and the dark glamor of the Atlantic. It’s a sweet little town.
Kudos, Victorians. I applaud you.
We are ignoring the guy at the ped mall dressed in a lobster costume handing out coupons for 20% off a plate of popcorn shrimp. We are averting our eyes from Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, the lamest mini-golf course in the world, and colossal, child-crushing, plastic ice cream cones, for they belong to our times, twenty-first century times, “A time,” as my friends would have it, “of great fracture and wounding.”
Let us alight on the stately and alluring, four-story Congress Hall, rising from the beach-front lawn in a pale, delectable lemon-curd yellow. It is a very feast for the eyes with it’s unfailingly erect columns, plentiful windows, and skirtings of hydrangeas in full bloom. My eyes have feasted upon it for six summers now.
I have other good things to say about it: No less than five U.S. presidents have holed up here. The legendary Ulysses S. Grant and the boring-as-hell Benjamin Harrison amongst them. Never mind the others…just know that they held the highest public office and they very much enjoyed the sea breezes and tastefully appointed rooms.
Benjamin Harrison christened Congress Hall his “Summer White House,” and you better believe he laid the presidential smack-down from this very spot. Albeit in a very boring way…by signing papers. Side note: Harrison would lay in bed at night with the lights on, so terrified of electricity that he refused to touch the light switch. He was the first president to inhabit an electrified White House and the first president to have his voice recorded. Undoubtedly he sounded something like “Mrrrmmmrmmmrrroorrrrrr:” The most boring sound in the world. I’m not blaming that on his being a Victorian. It was probably genetic.
John Philip Sousa was also a regular guest at Congress Hall, and so enamored of the place that he wrote a song called the “Congress Hall March.” He debuted it on the Congress Hall lawn from a seashell shaped podium.
Yet, a time I scorn not: Victorian times.
When I’m in Cape May, I always spend a little time slumming it in Congress Hall. I walk into the lobby and survey the furnishings. I read the display of historic menus that include such dishes as Mock Turtle a l’Anglaise, Hearts of Lettuce with Russian Dressing, and Ice Cold Watermelon Balls. I pronounce loudly, to anyone in hearing range: “That is disgusting.” I venture out back and regard the guests splish-splashing wealthily in the pool. I try to imagine Ulysses S. Grant stroking his mustache in a third-story window, worrying that his horse wasn’t given enough hay at dinner. I try to imagine Benjamin Harrison doing boring things like rifling through a stack of papers.
Don’t take my word for it–that Congress Hall is inspiring , and erect, and charming. Read these Congress Hall advertisements from the early 20th century:
LOCATION: Congress hall stands in an enclosed lawn of three acres; fifteen feet above the ocean beach drive, commanding an uninterrupted view of the ocean. It is reached by the Reading an Pennsylvania railroads by 90-minute trains.
It commands a view of the ocean! It is powerful and naval like.
ADVANTAGES: Only brick hotel at the Cape. All rooms are outside ones. Pure water from the famous Cold Spring. Passenger Elevator, Electric Bells, Bath Rooms on each floor. Perfect sanitary arrangements. Fire escapes from every room.
And it’s a good thing re: the fire escapes, since the original Congress Hall burned to the ground in 1878, by no fault of the Victorians I’m sure.
AMUSEMENTS: It is the social and musical center of attraction. Offers the finest and safest beach on the Atlantic Coast. Golf, Tennis, Shuffle Boards, Billiards, and fine roads for Riding, Driving and Cycling. Hops three nights each week. Orchestra concerts every morning and evening.
This seems to imply that driving was once fun.
BED ROOMS: The guest rooms are most attractively furnished, embodying every comfort so conducive to restful sleep. The windows of each room present a view both charming and interesting.
Views like this:
So see, the Victorians were capable of doing something right. Of course, we should mark the distinction between British Victorians and Victorian-era Americans. A distinction I hope to be allowed to expound upon some day.
Do you know what Victorians called their bicycles?
I’m just telling you this to impart information. It really makes no difference to me what they called them.