A Southern Mansion

by R. Cohen | Nov 16, 2015
A Southern Mansion In 1863, Philadelphia industrialist George Allen built an American bracket, post, and beam villa on the island of Cape May. Designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Samuel Sloan and constructed by Henri Phillipi, this incredible seaside palace was used by Allen and his descendants as a country estate for the next 83 years.

In 1946, the last of Allen's direct relatives, Ester Mercur, passed away. Her husband, Ulysses, sold the estate with all its furnishings for the pittance of $8,000. Purchased as income-producing property (and before Cape May began its own renaissance), the building was converted into a boarding house, and immediately a different type of clientele began to occupy the home. The earth-tone exterior was painted white, while the interior was partitioned into many small rooms. Unfortunately, the conversion caused structural weaknesses. During the next half century, little maintenance was administered to the house or the grounds. By the 1980s, the boarding-house license was revoked, and no income allowed for upkeep.

While vacationing in Cape May in early 1994, the Bray/Wilde's, also of Philadelphia, walked along the north side of the abandoned property in sheer disbelief. How could such a beautiful house with enormous grounds in Cape May be in such disrepair? Then they saw the for-sale sign. By August of 1994 the house had been purchased and the Bray/Wilde's began wading through 130 years of history. Having sorted all the important furnishings, artwork, family mementos and heirlooms into four tractor-trailers, they removed 25 dumpster loads of garbage! Over the next eighteen months, the Mansion and grounds were restored.

The main beams were rotting with age, and new I-beams were installed to support the Mansion and straighten the rolling hallway floors. Electricity and plumbing were replaced, including the addition of a new HVAC and sprinkler system to conform with current codes. Outside, the entire house was ground down to the bare wood and repainted in the original earth-tones and all five chimneys were rebuilt using the original bricks. The slate and tin roofs, copper gutters, brackets, porches, soffits, trims, moldings and facia boards were replaced. Finally, the finial was re-gilded, the entire grounds were tamed and the Italian gardens were re-established. Inside, all of the original architectural elements, furnishings, including the gasolier fixtures, walls, ceilings, floors, stairs, doors and windows have been restored to their original splendor. The 30-inch granite basement walls were waterproofed and Phase I of the project was complete.

Inspired by a Samuel Sloan lithograph of the house entitled "The Southern Mansion" (which now hangs prominently in the entrance hallway), the house was re-opened with that name in the spring of 1996, and Phase II of the renovation was begun. The new South Wing houses ten additional guest suites, twelve bathrooms, a second ballroom, a commercial kitchen, three balconies, a gallery, verandah, solarium and two magnificent circular staircases, all designed and built in the same style as the original Mansion.

By the summer of 1997 the project was complete, and genuine southern hospitality had returned to Cape May. Today, the Southern Mansion is Cape May's premier luxury bed and breakfast inn/boutique hotel, offering the largest, most luxurious and romantic accommodations. Whether you are getting away for a romantic one-night getaway with a four-course gourmet meal or a two-week summer vacation, there is nowhere else to stay. For more information, call 800-381-3888 or visit their website at www.southernmansion.com.

For more South Jersey History, visit our History page.

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