DENNIS TOWNSHIP — Members of the Dennisville Historic Home Owners Association started a project two years ago to expand the historic district beyond the original boundaries set in 1987.
While they view the history as intrinsically important and worth recognition, members also hope to use history to prevent something they fear could occur in the future: the expansion of Route 47.
“That’s one of the main reasons we undertook this project,” said Jack Connolly, president of the association. “To give us a better sense of protection.”
Route 47 is also called Delsea Drive, because it runs from the Delaware River to the sea in Wildwood. Along the way, it crosses Dennis Creek, an outlet to the Delaware Bay that was the reason fishermen and ship builders settled Dennisville in the 18th century.
The possibility that the state Department of Transportation might one day widen Route 47 to four lanes and encroach upon homes spurred the association to fund the project, with hopes that better state and federal historic status would make it impossible to get road construction permits.
Traffic on the highway backs up for miles during the summer, when tens of thousands of vehicles travel through each day. The jams start where Route 55 merges with Route 47 in Maurice River Township, funneling two lanes into one in each direction.
The DOT does not currently have plans to expand 47, but the department’s Access Management Code lists it as a potential four-lane highway.
More than 200 structures were surveyed in the area, and the analysis for the historic district expansion should be completed later this year. As proposed, the new district boundaries would surround a nearly four-mile stretch of Delsea Drive, from Jakes Landing Road south to the border with Middle Township.
Joan Berkey, a South Dennis resident, is the architectural historian who compiled the survey. She has done similar historic surveys for Cape May, West Cape May and Hammonton.
“Dennisville is one of the most unique villages built around a shipping industry,” she said on a recent afternoon in her own historic home. “I would say it is one of the best-preserved villages in the county.”
Her house sits on Route 47 and dates to 1790. It was built by Thomas Ludlam Jr., grandson of Joseph Ludlam II, a Long Islander who moved to Cape May County to join the whaling industry. Much of the area is named after the family, including Ludlam Island, which is home to Sea Isle City and Strathmere.
The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural significance. It is designed in what’s called post-medieval English style, with wood clapboard on the outside and exposed wooden framing beams on the inside.
Berkey sat across her kitchen table from Connolly. His job is to review the recommendations Berkey prepared in a report that’s 6 inches thick.
After he’s finished and they meet with the association’s members, the next step will be working with the state Historic Preservation Office to determine whether to prepare an application to expand the Dennisville district or to both expand the district and create an entirely new one in the South Dennis section.
In any case, Connolly said, many residents there believe that surrounding Route 47 with an official historic designation will effectively choke off any widening plans.
“It stands the hair up on the back of people’s necks when they hear these sorts of discussions,” Connolly said. “Nobody wants that kind of development on his or her street. We’re just trying to protect the historic district as best as we are able.”
The broadened limits would help protect many historic homeowners who are technically outside the historic district, such as Janet and Robert McShain, who live on Route 47 at Tyler Road.
The McShains are not quite sure how old their home is but believe it was built between 1760 and 1780. It was once home to William S. Townsend, a former freeholder, farmer and merchant, and one of the wealthiest men in the area during the early 1800s. Today, it is also known as “five chimneys” — a literal nickname.
The couple moved to the area seven years ago from another historic home in Philadelphia. Maintaining the old building is a project, but they have immersed themselves in the history.
“It was the original settlement in this area,” Janet McShain said. “It was where they used to build ships, and it is one of the earliest towns here.
“There’s nothing like Dennisville.”
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