New Look for Washington Mall in Cape May

by Press Release | May 4, 2008
New Look for Washington Mall in Cape May This getting old business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And that’s pretty much what happened to Cape May’s Washington Street Mall: the pavement cracked, paint peeled, trees lost their gracefulness, water lines aged and Father Time, not to mention Old Man Winter, the summer sun and millions of footfalls, all contributed to turn the ingénue Mall of the early 1970s into an aging dowager 30 plus years later.

Now, after 200,000 brick pavers and months of construction, the Mall has an exciting new look -- a face lift that has erased the ravages of time with new walkways, lighting, fountains, trees, flags, benches and planters. The process, like all beautification programs, was not without pain, a few disappointments and some aggravation – and, of course, money – lots of it.

But, the winter of discontent has been replaced with a summer of anticipation, enthusiasm and celebration as the whole community prepares to open the refurbished Washington Street Mall. The rededication and blue ribbon cutting will be Saturday, June 21 at 10 a.m. near Our Lady Star of the Sea Church at the Ocean Street end of the Mall. Activities for the official Mall opening will last through the day and into the evening.

As the nation’s first seaside resort, vacationers have flocked to Cape May since the 1800s – and perhaps earlier - by steamboat and later by train. The popularity of this seaside town lasted through the Victorian era and well into the early part of the 20th century. By the late 1960s, however, the huge Victorian homes - many vacant or subdivided into rooming houses and apartments – had fallen into disrepair and reflected the diminishing fortunes of the resort.

Elected officials, looking for ways to rejuvenate the town’s economy, talked about closing several blocks of Washington Street, an idea not embraced by business people and many of the residents. Despite the misgivings, the mayor and others moved ahead and the by the summer of 1971 the Washington Street Mall opened between Ocean and Perry streets with park benches, flowers, shrubs – but no traffic, only pedestrians.

From the get go, the Mall was a success and was followed quickly by a renaissance throughout the town – the MidAtlantic Center for the Arts was established to save the Emlen Physick estate and in 1976 the entire town was designated a National Historic Landmark District. And, as the old saying, the rest is history.

Two businesses on the Mall were landmarks in town long before anybody even thought about this idea of a Mall. Dellas Five and Dime has been in business since 1947on the corner of Decatur Street, providing all the things that 5 & 10-cent stores have offered customers for decades. The store was refurbished last year with a look reminiscent of the 1940s and 50s - a soda fountain, stainless steel stools and a red and white-checkered floor. The Ugly Mug, on the other hand, hasn’t changed all that much. Hundreds of mugs still hang from the ceiling - the mugs that face toward the ocean represent deceased members of the drinking club; the ones facing west, or away from the ocean, belong to those people who still frequent the Mug for a beer, sandwich or just a fun evening with friends.

Both sides of the three-block Mall are lined with bookstores, art galleries, clothing stores, jewelry stores, gift shops and a variety of restaurants with inside and outside dining areas. More shops stretch along Carpenter’s Lane behind the Mall plus along Liberty Way. New stores are expected to open this season, including a fish market and the newly-constructed Lynn Arden Children’s Shop. The Mall also hosts sidewalk sales, art shows and holiday hospitality evenings in December.

The banner weekend to welcome summer and celebrate the Mall includes the resort’s first Harbor Fest that begins, appropriately, with a Summer Solstice Bonfire Friday evening along Cape May Harbor. Festivities continue Saturday with events at the Cape May Nature Center on Delaware Avenue that will feature top chefs going head-to-head with a scallop cook off, a kayak and a canoe regatta, a street fair with food vendors and a beer tent, Coast Guard demonstrations, a blessing of the commercial fishing fleet and a wreath laying at the Fisherman’s Memorial. A water taxi will link various harbor venues and trolleys will transport people from the Washington Street Mall to the Cape May Harbor and back to enjoy all the activities from one end of town to the other.

Cape May, proud and protective of its past, still has an eye to its future. The next project in this resort is a new convention hall on the beach front. The current hall, built as a temporary structure after the March storm of 1962 devastated the entire town and destroyed the ornate and historic Convention Hall, will be replaced with a new state of the art, $10 million facility that is expected to open by summer of 2010.

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