CAPE MAY - Over the last 135 years, everyone who has summered at the Chalfonte Hotel has lived somewhere else the rest of the year.
But in their heart of hearts, many of them likely have called the three-story wooden wedding cake on Howard Street their true home.
Because this hotel of "heroes, heartaches, legends, love affairs, and unforgettable characters," is a magical place where people find their soul . . . or soul mate, says Karen Fox, author of a new book about the storied hotel.
The Chalfonte was published this summer by Exit Zero, a local publisher specializing in Cape May history. Fox wrote the book at the urging of the hotel's previous owner, Anne LeDuc, 86, of Moorestown, who sold the property in 2008.
Bob and Linda Mullock, a local couple who operate various enterprises, including the Cape May National Golf Club, bought the property. Without altering its historical integrity - the Chalfonte was recently named one of the prestigious Historic Hotels of America by the National Trust for Historic Preservation - the Mullocks have added amenities such as private bathrooms and air-conditioning.
"This book was a work of love . . . of my love for the hotel and all the people who come here perennially who really love it," said Fox, of Blue Bell, Pa., a former television news editor and documentary producer who owns a summer home in Cape May. "It's a story about love and survival."
The remarkable Victorian-era structures of Cape May are an anomaly in the tear-it-down/build-it-up-new culture of the Jersey Shore, and they constitute the largest collection of such buildings in the United States. The sprawling Chalfonte, with its vast stretches of gingerbread-decorated porches and balustrades two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, is an architectural gem among them.
It hasn't always been easy to keep the Grand Dame looking her best. "She has been flooded, battered by the salt winds, and the porches are forever falling off," Fox said.
A veritable army of volunteers, some of whom come back every year, has been enlisted to scrape, paint, polish, and otherwise help maintain it in the off-seasons.
The heart and soul of the Chalfonte emerged as Fox pored over documents and diaries and scanned the faces in sepia photographs.
The most interesting recollections of the place surfaced in a series of interviews Fox conducted with longtime guests, volunteers, and descendants of the hotel's original owners. Woven among the narrative timeline, the commentaries create the book's textured backdrop.
The hotel was the creation of Civil War hero Henry Sawyer, a Union Army captain who was taken prisoner. Just before he was to face a Confederate firing squad, Sawyer was traded for a son of Robert E. Lee who had been captured by Yankee troops.
Sawyer returned to Cape May after the war to build the Chalfonte, where in 1876 a stay cost $3 a night (today it ranges from $89 to $499) and boasted modern improvements such as hot and cold water, baths, closets, and "sewerage." Sawyer operated the hotel for more than a decade but sold it just before the death of his first wife in 1889.
In 1911, the Chalfonte was bought by the Satterfields, an old Virginia family who had moved to Philadelphia from Richmond after the death of their eldest daughter. They had long summered in Cape May, and matriarch Susie Satterfield set about to "lose herself in the loss of Rose" through hard work, according to the recollections of one of her contemporaries.
So, as Fox noted, the hotel built by a Civil War hero of the North was bought by a daughter of the Confederacy who bestowed a unique Southern lifestyle on it that helped sustain the hotel for nearly a century.
LeDuc, who had spent summers at the Chalfonte since 1927, managed the hotel with fellow teacher Judy Bartella in the 1970s. They bought the place in 1982.
The women quickly realized they needed a lot of help maintaining the old hotel, so they developed "work weekends" - people could stay free during the spring or fall in exchange for labor.
The program attracted extensive restoration help from architectural students and faculty from the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Maryland.
"We always wanted the place to feel like home for the guests who came here, where they could sit in rockers on the porch and relax and meet up with old friends," LeDuc said on a recent afternoon. "This is much more than just a commercial hotel - it's a state of mind. I've always loved that people come here to heal, to recreate. That is the spirit of the Chalfonte."