Hotel History
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Christian Admiral Hotel History

The Christian Admiral was conceived at the turn of the century when several financiers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh decided to reclaim and develop the wasted marshland from Sewell’s Point to Madison Avenue known as Poverty Beach. Peter Shields and Senator William Flynn formed the East Cape May Company and began development in 1905 with the expectation if selling 7500 lots and building two great hotels.

The Christian Admiral, then called the Hotel Cape May, was the first of two hotel’s built, and was formally opened to the public on April 11, 1908 (coincidentally, the infamous Titanic set sail 4 years later on April 10, 1912). On March 5, 1908 the "Cape May Herald" reported, "The newest hotels of the world have been studied for suggestions as to the construction, equipment and furnishing of this hotel, and the best of been utilized. It is complete in every detail."  The 350-room hotel with its marbled lobby and ocean-front dining room cost one million dollars to build, nearly twice the estimated cost. (How ironic considering that in 1993, when offered for sale, the asking price was 3.5 million.) The hotel was then considered the "largest in the world".

The prospects of this luxurious resort attracted personalities such as Henry Ford who bought 400 acres of land. US Army General Hospital Number 11 It was on the Christian Admiral’s beach that his famed race with Louis Chevrolet and Alexander Christy took place.

During the first World War, the Hotel Cape May was rented by the United States Navy and used as a General Hospital (# 11) for soldiers injured in battle.  Its name was changed to Admiral King and it was again used during the second World War as a rest and recreation center for officers of the US Navy.  In 1962, a great hurricane hit South New Jersey leaving the Admiral with tons of sand and four feet of water in its lower lobby.  The Admiral was purchased that year by the Reverend Carl McIntyre's Christian Beacon Press and a renovation took place the following year. It was operated as a Bible Conference Hotel from 1962 until 1991. Note: Most of this information about the history of the Christian Admiral was provided by the hotel during our visit in July, 1991.


Remembering the Christian Admiral Hotel

Certain events remain in your memory for a lifetime!  Its not often that a visit to a hotel creates such a magical memory, unless you are in Walt Disney World.   However, my only 2 visits to the Christian Admiral Hotel will last a lifetime.   Thinking about the visits brings back wonderful memories, as clear as the star-filled sky one could gaze at during a visit to the hotel.

It was the summer of 1989, my parents, avid collector’s of Antiques, were attending the 2nd annual "Antiques in the Summer", presented by Don & Joyce Coffman to benefit the Cape May County Art League.  The show was held in the great gymnasium attached to the Christian Admiral Hotel. It was my first visit and I believe my parents second.  They stayed for 3 nights and I joined them for the later two.  I remember approaching the stunning hotel from Pittsburgh Avenue.  What a sight to behold.  The mammoth steps leading to the grand lobby - incredible. Once inside, one could not but notice the massive columns and marble throughout the lobby. The hotel was simply divine.  My parents had a room on the 6th floor (there were 7 total with the top floor designated as a restaurant and banquet area).  Their room (suite) looked out over the mighty Atlantic Ocean.  The hotel was by no means a modern day Marriott, it was a step back in time.  No television, no heat, no air conditioning, no telephone!  Just the awe of staying in this historic grand hotel.   The rooms were well appointed, designed for relaxation and conversation (two values so difficult to find in our modern world).

The hotel featured a library, several dining rooms, banquet areas, several bowling alleys (common when the hotel was built), an outdoor swimming pool as well as many other amenities.  Outside the front entrance, one could relax on the large covered porch in a high back wooden rocker listening to the waves crash at the shore.  I remember sitting there listening to the waves, smelling the salt air, watching the people stroll along the beach - it was beautiful, it made one smile.

My second visit was in July of 1991.  The sensation returned once again!  I recall falling asleep to the sounds of the ocean, the fresh air of the sea. This time we explored! Walking throughout the hotel, around it, everywhere we could get.  On the top floor, with windows surrounding you, sat one of the hotels restaurants or banquet rooms. I’m not sure which, because on both visits, this area was closed. We rummaged about finding a menu from a banquet held some 20 years before! We learned about the massive boiler room. The hotel was closed in the Winter because it had no heat, the boiler had not worked for years.  Of course, it was July now and the pool was open. We enjoyed a refreshing plunge after a long walk on the beach.  The hotel was full of secret doorways, passages and references to its bygone days.  Little did we know, its life would come to such a tragic end in less then 5 years.

The End of An Era

Admiral Hotel 1940

During our visits, one could clearly see the strides the hotel owners were taking to comply with the relentless Cape May County Inspectors. Walls that stood for nearly a century were being covered or torn down to make way for sprinkler systems - required in Cape May. The cost was massive. The owners struggled to meet the needs of an ever increasing presence of "Inspectors".  They simply could not raise the funds fast enough.  The great hotel would soon be closed permanently, not at the owners choice, but at the decision of local government.  The hotel was condemned, even though just months before, guests were enjoying its immense pleasure.  The same government that closed the hotel would later vote to have it destroyed.  The owners tried to save their hotel with campaigns to raise funds to save it.  You see, without the great financial backing of big corporate business, the hotel relied on the good of the people who owned it and of those who cherished it as part of the community.  Many visitors to this page have emailed to share their memories of the famous hotel.  I have no first hand knowledge of the hotel finances or resources.  Therefore it would be impossible for me to access whether or not the owner at the time the hotel was closed by the the city had the resources to make the necessary repairs.  It is my opinion that without the financial backing of a large corporation or state and/or federal money, the hotel was unable to cope with the enormous cost to repair and restore the hotel.

An advertisement appeared in the September 23, 1993 edition of "Hotel & Motel Management" with an asking price of $3,500,000. The advertisement described the hotel "as is condition with tremendous potential" and boasted the hotel's 4.13 acres of ocean front as well as the roof top dining for 150.  Oh to have the opportunity again to dine overlooking the mighty Atlantic Ocean from the great hotel.

Even though Cape May is considered a National Historic community, the Christian Admiral apparently sat "just outside the historic lines".  While several members of the Cape May historical society voted to save the hotel, the votes were not enough.   Efforts to sell the hotel were unsuccessful.  Fortunately for the powerful and greedy, a company was interested in the Christian Admiral, not for its historical significance, not for renovating it, but for the incredible amount of land the hotel stood upon. It encompassed an entire city block!  The developer planned to tear down the hotel and build nearly two dozen townhouses on the land.  The vote was approved and the hotel was demolished in March, 1996.  A "deal" of which the details I am not privileged to know, was struck.  The Christian Admiral Hotel was torn down.   In doing so, funds were to be used to help restore the Congress Hall Hotel.  My question to the "officials" who made the deal, is who is responsible for repairing the Congress Hall Hotel?  Like the corruption that has nearly destroyed another New Jersey shore resort (Asbury Park), who is going to take responsibility? 

Corporate greed won, the Historical Society lost.  And now, on the land where the hotel stood proud for nearly a century, sheltering soldiers during two World Wars, where the likes of Henry Ford stayed, where in modern times we stayed to escape the pressures of the stressful world we live in, new townhouses are being built, the development is called "The Admiral Estates".  What a loss the people, to the community, to the nation, to the world.

Note: In 1995, the present owners (Cape Resorts Group) purchased the Congress Hall. It has since been renovated and is open.  The group owns several Cape May hotels and resorts. 

In Memory

When you’re in Cape May again, take an evening stroll along Beach Drive. Then as you reach Pittsburgh Avenue, step onto the beach. Listen to the waves crash.  Smell the salt air.  Gaze into the moonlit ocean.  And breath in the sounds, the scents and the spirits of the once great Christian Admiral Hotel.  I am certain in your mind, you will see the greatness again and hear the sounds of nearly a century of visitors, strolling along the grounds, sitting on the porch, creating memories to last a lifetime.

Please share your memories with me, via email or in my guestbook!

Boardwalk and Beach Drive, Cape May

Tuesday February 08, 2011 02:04 AM