Price of History

Victorian inns line Gurney Street in Cape May. The Historic Preservation Commission is surveying homes to determine their historic value. Properties are designated as key, contributing or noncontributing.

Staff photo by Dale Gerhard

CAPE MAY — Sandy Johnson wants to know why her 1930 bungalow on Washington Street suddenly has historic value.

The city recently listed it as a “contributing” building, which means under historic preservation rules, the vinyl siding she installed in 1997 and any other modern building materials are not allowed.

“My house has no historic value and it has everything on it for easy maintenance,” Johnson said.

Latest Video

Johnson was the first to officially complain as the city begins the process of surveying 1,525 properties in the Historic District to determine their historic values. The city does so every so often. A survey was done in 1988 and then updated in 1993. The city is using state grant money, and contributing some of its own dollars, to do the most comprehensive survey to date.

The 1993 survey listed Johnson’s house as being “noncontributing,” which means it had no historic value. Properties can also be termed “contributing,” which give them some historic value,” or “key,” which is the most significant historic value. Unique buildings such as the Emlen Physick Estate are key structures.

The classifications determine the types of building materials allowed when exterior improvements are done. That can relate to siding, windows, roofs, windows and other exterior improvements.

The city sent certified letters to the 77 property owners of the 347 whose status was changed in the first round of surveys. Johnson was one of only two people of the 77 to question the changes at a City Council meeting Tuesday night. The Holiday House on Hughes Street, a summer retreat for girls run by the Girls’ Friendly Society, questioned its switch from key to contributing.

With a house in the Historic District, Johnson has to go before the city’s Historic Preservation Commission before making any improvements. She has gone before the HPC in the past, but since the house had no historic value, the commission’s design criteria were never required. She is concerned they will be next time.

City Council decided to amend the ordinance updating the first 349 properties to remove Johnson and the Holiday House, so it approved only 347 surveys Tuesday. Johnson and representatives of the Holiday House will meet with the HPC to iron out any differences.

HPC Vice Chairman Andy Fontaine was not familiar with the two cases, but said one difference for Johnson could be that her house is now older than in earlier surveys.

“As houses age and go through a marked progression, the grading changes. At some point in time, it crosses that line and went from one to the other,” Fontaine said.

As for the Holiday House, which was downgraded from key to contributing, Fontaine did not know the details but said alterations can be made to a structure to reduce its historical status. Fontaine noted owners sometimes “do stuff without coming in for approvals.” It remains unclear if this is what happened.

Fontaine noted the HPC’s design standards pertain to exteriors and are applied equally if the house is key or contributing. The HPC, he noted, does not regulate paint colors. Johnson would not have to remove materials she used when the house had a different listing.

“You can’t regulate people out of their house. Our point is to preserve some of the heritage we have. Nobody will tell her to remove the vinyl that is there,” Fontaine said.

The HPC, he noted, is “just the messenger.” To be classified as a National Historic Landmark, as it is, the city must follow state and federal guidelines. The city in the past has been put on a national “watch list” of landmarks in danger because some historic buildings were lost or compromised.

“We are doing this to maintain National Historic Landmark status and prevent going back on the watch list,” Mayor Ed Mahaney said.

That status, Fontaine said, is one thing that draws tourists to Cape May, so it is good for business.

Council passed the ordinance updating 347 homes and introduced a second ordinance that includes 527 properties. Mahaney said 283 of the 527 contain changes to the status, and owners would be receiving letters from the city. The public hearing and vote on that ordinance is scheduled for March 19.

The surveys are more detailed than the ones done in 1993. They generally were one-page explanations of the structure, compared with as many as eight pages now. They are all being reviewed by the HPC and Planning Board before going to council. Some buildings that have never been rated will be for the first time.

The survey said Johnson’s house was built in 1930 in the Colonial Revival style. She was not aware she had anything special.

“The description of my house, I thought the person had to be drunk,” Johnson said.

Contact Richard Degener:


Stay informed! Sign up to receive top headlines delivered to your inbox each morning.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.