CAPE MAY POINT — Workers last week cut through 200-year-old, handmade nails and pulled up 16-foot floorboards from what is believed to be the oldest house in the borough.

They were salvaging what they could from the home on Cape Avenue, much of which was built in 1800 to 1815 in Lower Township and moved twice — landing in its current location in the 1940s, according to architectural historian Joan Berkey.

It is about to be demolished by its owners to make way for new construction, part of a trend that has longtime locals worried their sleepy beachside community of historic homes and cottages is disappearing under the pressure of high real estate values.

Large new homes are selling for more than $1 million, while two-bedroom, one-bath cottages are on the market for about $500,000.

“Developers come down, change everything around, and the borough is weak about protecting its buildings and houses,” said John Reilly, who has lived here at least part time for most of his 62 years.

Many old structures have already been lost, or soon will be, Reilly said, including St. Mary’s By the Sea, a 1909 retreat for nuns that is one of the most recognizable buildings in town. The nuns plan to demolish it in 2021, or soon thereafter, and return the land to nature because of an ongoing erosion problem.

The house that is being demolished sits on a large lot and was sold in 2015 for $800,000 by the Theobald family, with the verbal understanding it would be preserved, some members have said.

But now, owners Dinkar Savji Bhatia and April Adams, of Potomac, Maryland, have gotten permission to demolish it to build new. They could not be reached for comment.

Borough Commissioner Robert Mullock, who said he has seen evidence the house was part of the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape to freedom, was working with a group to save the house by moving it. But there wasn’t enough time, he said. The borough has no laws to stop the demolition.

But that may soon change. The fate of the Cape Avenue home has reignited a move to change local laws to protect historic structures, advocates say.

The state is ready to help the borough craft a protection ordinance, said Jonathan Kinney, certified local government coordinator with the state Division of Historic Preservation.

Cape May Point sits at the southernmost tip of the state and has a population of just 285, making it the smallest community in Cape May County.

It started out as part of Lower Township, then became its own summer community of mostly two-story homes in the 1870s, according to a report for the state by the architectural firm Barton Ross and Partners, of Livingston, Morris County. Smaller bungalows popped up from 1900 to 1955.

Pastor Donald Theobald and his wife, Betty Walkingstick Theobald, bought it in 1952 for $5,200 and hosted scores of family and church visits for decades, said grandson Jonathan Edwards, of Winnipeg, Canada.

Edwards said he is heartsick over the loss of the house, as are other family members.

Berkey based the estimated age of the house on the nails used in the attic flooring and other aspects of construction she examined recently.

Its heavy timber frame is “all pegged together and would be easy enough to unpeg and save,” she said. “That type of framing used to be very common, but there are very few remaining, and most that do remain are in Cape May County.”

Some of the old floorboards from the Cape Avenue home will be reused in a Harriet Tubman museum planned for Cape May, Mullock said, and in the family home Adrienne Scharnikow is moving from Avalon to Cape May.

“We are trying to turn the story around. We need to salvage everything we can,” said Scharnikow.

Under state law, municipalities may designate properties as historic and regulate what can be done to them through a local preservation program, said Kinney. First they must establish an ordinance and seat a historic preservation committee.

“The zoning law is maintained, but this adds one additional layer,” said Kinney. “Municipalities can tailor it to their resources, goals and how strict they want to be with regulations. The key to preservation is the local level when it comes to private property.”

He said the borough already has documented its historic areas, and only needs to pass an ordinance to protect them.

Mayor Robert Moffatt said he was involved with trying to get a preservation district started in the Point years ago, before becoming a commissioner, but there was a lot of opposition.

“People didn’t want to become Cape May,” which greatly restricts what owners of historic buildings can do with their property, he said. “But it doesn’t have to be like that.”

The borough could opt for a less restrictive approach, he said.

“This was a done deal before I knew about it. That’s the way things work — it’s private property,” said Moffatt. “The only thing we can do is ask them to delay a little bit. It’s a shame, but yes, I hope it can stimulate the community to get behind preservation.”

Contact: 609-272-7219 Twitter @MichelleBPost

Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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