Congress Hall in Cape May
Congress Hall began life as a simple boarding house for summer visitors in 1816. Owner Thomas Hughes called it “The Big House”. Local residents called the building “Tommy’s Folly,” thinking the building was too big to ever be a financial success.
The first incarnation of Congress Hall was very different from the Congress Hall you can see and visit today. The downstairs was one single room that served as a dining room. The two upper floors were divided into quarters for the guests, but the rooms were very simple. Walls and woodwork were bare, as supplies at the times were hard to come by. The simple conditions did not stop guests from coming to stay at Hughes’ Big House. Year after year, the summer saw the hotel packed with guests.
When Hughes was elected to Congress in 1928, the hotel was renamed in his honor. Congress Hall’s reputation grew as quickly as Cape May’s identity as America’s first summer resort. By the middle of the 1800s, Cape May was a booming vacation destination. Congress Hall doubled in size and was hosting guests from around the region.
Tragedy struck Cape May in 1878: a huge fire swept through thirty-eight acres of the town’s seafront. Congress Hall was destroyed.
Within a year, the hotel was rebuilt — this time in brick, rather than wood. Business boomed again. Several of the nation’s presidents vacationed at Congress Hall, including Ulysses S. Grant and James Buchanan. President Benjamin Harrison even called the hotel his summer White House, and conducted national business at Congress Hall. Composer John Philip Sousa also loved the hotel, conducting concerts on Congress Hall’s lawn throughout the summer of 1882. Sousa also wrote a march in honor of the hotel called the “Congress Hall March”.
Between 1905 and the early 1920s, the hotel fell into disrepair and closed. When the city council agreed to repave the roads around Congress Hall, owner Annie Knight undertook a stunning renovation on the hotel. Congress Hall reopened in the early 1920s.
In 1934, Congress Hall was home to Cape May’s first cocktail bar after the Prohibition era. Where the Brown Room is today was once that historic bar.
Congress Hall operated as part of the Cape May Bible Conference from 1968 until 1995. The use of the building helped save it from destruction when many historic landmarks were being demolished to make room for modern motels. The present owners purchased the building in 1995, planning a complete renovation to return Congress Hall to its former glory.
Renovation was completed in June 2002. More than a thousand tons of decayed and outdated materials were removed. Many original elements were retained and reused in the renovations. Floors and baseboards, doors and doorknobs, tiles and plumbing, and even light fixtures have been rescued and recycled. Renovations have been done to conform to or surpass the National Park Service standards for historical landmarks.
Congress Hall today, as it did in the past, occupies one city block. A rich piece of Cape May’s history has been preserved for generations of vacationers and south Jerseyans alike.