WEST CAPE MAY — A little over a year after a fire burned down their home, Gayle Stahlhuth, 69, and Lee O’Connor, 71, are deep into the reconstruction process.
The house was the headquarters for the East Lynne Theater Company, where Stahlhuth serves as artistic director and O’Connor as technical director.
In addition to losing their house in the April 4, 2018, blaze, they lost many of their possessions, including clothing, personal pictures, items used in past East Lynne productions and many of their favorite pieces of furniture.
Before breaking ground on reconstruction, the exterior design of the building had to be approved by the Cape May Historic Preservation Commission, because the original house was a historic cottage originally built sometime around the 1850s.
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“It was hard to plan out every detail so soon, especially because I’ve never done this,” Stahlhuth said. “I design sets, I don’t design houses.”
A huge part of the reason Stahlhuth and O’Connor were able to persevere through this situation was the help they received from members of the Cape May community.
“The list of people that have helped out since April 4 is too long to name,” Stahlhuth said. “The outpouring of support from West Cape May, theaters in Cape May, theater companies in New York, and so many other people in the community has been overwhelming.”
Stahlhuth described their original home, a bright blue, two-story house, as a “funky little beach cottage.” The most prominent feature of the property was its screened-in porch, which was covered in overgrown foliage and had a well-maintained garden in front of it.
Their new house is a tan one-story building with a large attic. One thing that will remain the same is the screened-in front porch, which Stahlhuth said was a necessity.
“The goal was to make the house look like it had been there the whole time,” Stahlhuth said. “We did our best at planning everything so that the house fit the neighborhood.”
Members of the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May did their part to help by washing the couple’s dishes and silverware.
Mal and Dottie Knapp, friends of Stahlhuth and O’Connor from North Cape May in Lower Township, offered to take any clothes that could be saved and wash and dry them at their home. They also provided Stahlhuth and O’Connor with a generator so they could have power as they made their way through the rubble to see what could be salvaged.
The Knapps they were motivated to help because of how much Stahlhuth and O’Connor have done for the community, and referred to the East Lynne as an asset to Cape May.
Two more friends of Stahlhuth and O’Connor, Luisa Dinis Ferrer and her son, Richard, helped by taking any furniture, books and photos that could be saved out of the house, and by taking pictures immediately after the fire for insurance purposes.
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“We helped Lee and Gayle because that’s what West Cape May’s community does best. We help each other, especially when needed. When the fire happened, we felt this was our time to give back,” Ferrer said. “Whatever they needed, we jumped at the chance to help.”
Stahlhuth and O’Connor said it felt like anyone in Cape May who owned a truck stopped by to help haul away damaged furniture.
“It’s nice to know your neighbors want you to rebuild,” Stahlhuth said.
The East Lynne Theater Company Board of Trustees set up fundraisers and helped find housing for Stahlhuth and O’Connor within 24 hours of the fire.
The couple currently split their time between their New York apartment and a condo on Lafayette Street in Cape May. Stahlhuth said the Cape May condo is small, but the location is perfect.
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“We had to live somewhere close to the theater,” Stahlhuth said. “Even if we lived somewhere like Wildwood, we wouldn’t be able to run back and forth from home to the theater to grab something we may need or may have forgotten.”
Stahlhuth said she and O’Connor visit the house multiple times each week to check on the progress being made and see what else has to be done.
They’re hoping to be able to move in soon, but there’s still plenty of work to be done, including getting final approval for gas and electric services.