CAPE MAY — If Doug McMain didn’t own a 35-room 19th century Victorian bed-and-breakfast, he could simply buy new windows.
Maybe he would go with vinyl windows, which never need painting. He wouldn’t have to worry about sash weights and copper chains to move them up and down.
Cape May, however, is a National Historic Landmark city that treasures and regulates all things Victorian. So McMain, owner of The Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast on Ocean Street, has few options when it comes to repairs.
The basement workshop under the Queen Victoria has all the materials to make double-hung windows that look more than a century old even though they are brand new. There is no vinyl in sight.
Old Victorian structures are beautiful. That’s why Cape May draws so many tourists, but they come at a price, one that commercial owners shoulder as a part of business, but one that threatens to overwhelm private owners.
Advertised as the largest stock of fully restored Victorians in the nation, Cape May’s 19th century building market has been going through changes in recent years. Strict fire codes from the state and a room tax instituted under former Gov. Jim McGreevey have resulted in many bed-and-breakfasts being converted to condominiums, private homes and whole-house rentals.
While the new owners must maintain the structures’ exteriors according to local preservation rules, they are free to alter the interiors. Meanwhile, it remains unclear whether the new uses will bring owners with the same love of history as the B&B owners.
Jay Schatz, who owned The Abby Bed & Breakfast, got out of the business. The Abby is now whole-house rentals. Schatz said McGreevey’s room tax was the “beginning of the end,” and the fire codes didn’t help. Maintenance, or lack of it, was the final blow.
“I wasn’t making enough to do maintenance on the building, and I didn’t want to see it deteriorate,” Schatz said.
Private homeowners find it even harder to afford such projects.
“Painting costs $20,000 easy, and more like $25,000 with the shutters,” Barbara Skinner said of her Civil War-era home on Congress Street.
Making matters worse, Skinner said, is that federal environmental regulations have made oil-based paints much less effective, and in some cases a homeowner has to remove the old, effective oil-based paints that had lead in them. Lead abatement is not cheap.
The city has a Historic Preservation Commission that enforces the standards and has its share of battles with property owners. McMain is a believer in the commission and the old materials, but for some, the regulations and taxes are too much to bear.
Skinner said she keeps repairing the standing-seam tin roof because a new one would cost $75,000 or more with “metal costs so high right now.” The commission regulates roofs and usually wants “same for same” if there is a replacement, Skinner said.
She said she would like more discussion about using modern building materials and more financial help, possibly grants or loans, for owners of private Victorian homes.
“People new in town are aghast at what’s required to keep the properties in their original condition. The average property owner just can’t do it, so you lose private properties and everything is commercial. I haven’t heard too many ideas and creative solutions to finance the repairs,” Skinner said.
The city used a revolving loan fund to lend money to efforts to save a historic hotel and a movie theater, but they are both commercial. There is no similar program for private homes, Skinner said.
Local Construction Official Bill Callahan has worked in towns with more modern construction, such as North Wildwood, and said Victorians present unique problems.
“You have to get a Victorian architect. You don’t want one who just got out of architectural school,” Callahan said.
And, if construction renovations total more than 35 percent of a bed-and-breakfast, modern fire codes come into play, including sprinkler systems, outside fire escapes and hard-wired smoke detectors, he said.
“It’s what killed the B&Bs, the modern codes. That’s why people are selling them,” Callahan said.
The maintenance and repair work that goes into maintaining a Victorian home means work for skilled carpenters and craftsmen.
Callahan said he has noticed the Amish have been getting a lot of work in the county lately, because there are people willing to pay for older construction methods.
The Queen Victoria’s basement workshop is a busy place in winter. Besides windows, 128 balusters for a porch are being replaced. The original wood was pine, but it was 19th century pine. The pine today is not the same wood that came from America’s old-growth forests, so McMain is replacing the balusters with mahogany, using a template made from the originals.
When McMain and his wife, Anna Marie, bought the 1882 inn nine years ago, they budgeted $48,000 a year for maintenance.
“It’s not even close. We spend way more than that,” McMain said.
In-house master carpenter Paul Roy does much of the work. Sometimes outside help is sought. Lower Township carpenter John Hassay built new door frames for the inn, and Skip Loughlin, a former chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission and owner of Beach Boy Builders, installed them.
Hassay, 42, found the niche in 1985 after 10 years of roofing and never looked back. He has done Victorian carpentry jobs in Washington and New York City, but 99 percent of his work is just a few miles from his home. He can usually copy what is left of the original woodwork, but sometimes he has to do some guesswork to “fill in what you think was there.”
“The HPC keeps everything original and keeps us working. I’m lucky to enjoy it,” Hassay said.
Painting is the biggest maintenance bill for the Victorians, which in the Historic District cannot be clad in synthetic siding.
“It’s like a bridge. You start at one end and then just go back to the other end,” said Bob Mullock, owner of The Chalfonte Hotel on Howard Street.
Mullock has two painters on staff constantly working on the interior and exterior, including the shutters. On winter days when the temperature climbs above 50 degrees, they are outside. In summer, they are outside five days a week.
“It does look good when it’s done, and that’s the charm of it. The hotel is almost smiling,” Mullock said.
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