Restoration Town

3.22.2012

By Aaron Hicklin

With his beautifully refurbished hotels, Curtis Bashaw has reclaimed Cape May's legacy as the original American beach resort town. Now, he plans to export his formula.

Photography by Ofer Wolberger

The summer of '77 was particularly magical for Curtis Bashaw. As in previous years, he spent it working at Congress Hall in New Jersey's fading Victorian resort town of Cape May, a three-hour drive south of New York City. It was the summer of disco and the apogee of gay liberation, but Congress Hall, a former hotel-turned–Evangelical center by Bashaw’s fire-and-brimstone grandfather, was filled with young volunteers who had come to serve God. "I was 17 and living in the boys’ dorm room,” recalls Bashaw. “We’d finish in the dining room, do our clean-up to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and then run to the boardwalk and sneak cigarettes."

Although Bashaw’s grandfather, Reverend Carl McIntire, had salvaged the decrepit Congress Hall in 1968, after using his daily radio address -- the "Twentieth Century Reformation Hour" -- to raise funds for its purchase, the sprawling building was sliding irretrievably into ruin. From his perch on the boardwalk that night, under a full moon, Bashaw looked up at the hulking shadow of his grandfather’s bequest. “I remember having this late-night moment and thinking it would be really cool one day to fix this place up,” he says.

It would take another 25 years -- and $25 million -- but in 2002, Bashaw got to stand alongside former New Jersey governor Christine Whitman, in front of several hundred invited guests, and declare a renovated Congress Hall hotel open for business. White doves were released to fly above the crowd; a local minister led the congregation in prayer. There were cocktail receptions, a gala dinner, and dancing. It was barely three months after Bashaw’s grandfather had died, at 95 years old, and the reopening of the hotel, with its storied history dating back to 1816, was a vindication of sorts for the grandson.

McIntire, who had taken on communists, liberals, and Nixon—and whose far-fetched schemes included rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem in Florida and a theme park celebrating the Vietnam War -- had not been popular with the locals. Lifeguards had thrown tomatoes at him for fighting to keep the town’s beaches off-limits on Sundays; he'd engaged in a long-running and very public feud with city authorities over property taxes; and as the popularity of his broadcasts waned through the ’80s, the very buildings he’d rescued (when preservation was a foreign concept) came to be seen as symbols of blight and neglect. By 1994, with McIntire deep in bankruptcy proceedings, only the ground floor of Congress Hall remained in use; a second much-loved building, the Christian Admiral Hotel, had to be demolished two years later. Now, Bashaw was able to bequeath the town -- and his grandfather -- a happier legacy.

"During the party, I walked out onto the lawn and looked back at the lights, with the sound coming out of the ballroom," says Bashaw, sitting in a spacious office in Manhattan's SoHo and proffering bowls of popcorn and raisins. "It's a clichéd moment, and there are plenty of bigger dreams in the world, but it was definitely very moving."

Bashaw, now 52, is an inveterate host, and learned from his mother that "when the rollercoaster is about to leave the tracks, you put your best foot forward -- company is coming, and once it gets here, you have to be focused on them, not on the details." It's the kind of advice he now dishes at staff orientations for the 1,500 people he employs annually in his five Cape May hotels (additionally, with his business partner, Craig Wood, he owns the Chelsea Hotel in Atlantic City and the Mondrian SoHo in New York City). "It's my one outlet where I'm allowed to be a preacher, like my grandfather was," he says. "I tell them our mission statement: We're a family of hotels providing welcome. And what's the etymology of 'welcome'? It comes from the word 'weld,' and it means 'to join.' "

This is something of a theme for Bashaw, who talks a lot about the value of personal and community integration. "I was always a natural integrator, and I always refused to be identified by my sexuality first," he says. "I never felt like an Uncle Tom in doing that -- I just didn’t feel I needed to." Visiting New York City in his twenties, he was struck by the tendency of gay men to form exclusively gay networks. "In late-'80s New York, it was very easy to hang out with people exactly like you," Bashaw says. "Whereas in a small town like Cape May, if I wanted to hang out with people like me, it would be a party of four or five. So you end up integrating more. In a way, I felt I was having more impact on my little town than I was in New York, where it felt easier to be indulgent in a way that didn't push boundaries."

Bashaw is aware of the irony that his grandfather’s legacy in Cape May rests on the shoulders of the town's most prominent homosexual, but he also loves to view the history of Congress Hall as a series of custodians, passing the baton down through the generations. Each leaves something of them behind. Although a secular hotel these days, the focus on classical entertainment and seasonal rituals at Congress Hall owes much to McIntire’s influence. Bashaw is a big proponent of encouraging guests to abandon their cell phones for old-fashioned entertainment that brings people together -- group sing-alongs on the lawn, ceramics classes on the veranda, and tree-lighting ceremonies at Christmas.

"He is an extremely sophisticated and sensitive guy, and his appreciation of historic and down-and-out properties is something that I share," says the hotelier André Balazs, whose own properties, including L.A.'s Chateau Marmont and the Mercer in New York City, reflect a similar sensitivity toward the bones of old buildings.

For the novelist Jay McInerney, a frequent visitor to Cape May, the key to Bashaw’s success has been to make Cape May hip, while still honoring “its middle class, New Jersey, saltwater-taffy soul.” It’s what Jack Wright, editor of Exit Zero, a Cape May magazine that draws on a similar romance with the past, describes as Bashaw’s lack of snobbery. “This is not the Hamptons, not even close,” he says. “There’s a playfulness about everything he does, infused with a high regard for quality.”

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