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.

Much of the playfulness is the contribution of Bashaw’s sister, Colleen, who oversees the hotels’ interior design. In their most recent act of restoration, the pair took an unprepossessing 1970s seafront motel, the Coachman Inn, and turned it into the Beach Shack, a retro-themed family motel, complete with original laminated dressers, that Wright describes as “Mad Men on vacation.”

When he came to stay with his wife and daughter shortly after the reopening of Congress Hall, then-governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevey, was quick to recognize Bashaw’s skills and soon lined him up to run the influential Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which oversees gaming tax revenues of $250 million. Bashaw recalls chatting with the governor while he was dining in the Ebbitt Room at the Virginia (Bashaw’s first Cape May hotel, bought with the help of his father, an attorney, in 1986 and immaculately refurbished). “He said, ‘I can’t believe these places are in New Jersey,’ ” recalls Bashaw, a fierce cheerleader for what he calls “the un-harvested brand” of the Jersey Shore. “I said, ‘Well, you have the same bias as everyone else, and you’re governor -- come on!’ ”

But McGreevey also saw in Bashaw a confident gay man who had successfully integrated his sexuality into the rest of his life. Two years later, when the governor was struggling to come out in the face of a looming scandal over the appointment of his lover, Golan Cipel, as his homeland security advisor, it was Bashaw that he turned to for help -- and the man he asked to edit his resignation speech. “It was the scariest time as a gay man for me -- everyone just assumed that I must be another one of his lovers,” says Bashaw, who still bridles at the memory of one reporter who planted rumors in a local bar by asking leading questions, only to return two weeks later to find her innuendoes had taken root. “When she asks the question next time, of course someone is going to say, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that,’ ” he says.

Throughout the upheaval, one constant was Bashaw’s partner, Will Riccio, a Cape May native. The two had met at the reopening party for Congress Hall two years earlier and quickly formed an attachment. “I came out right when I met Curtis,” says Riccio, who was 21 at the time and impressed with Bashaw’s approach to life. “He’s very passionate and positive -- he sees possibilities for everything.”

Although McGreevey’s resignation hastened Bashaw’s departure from the CRDA (he was asked to stay on, but left after 18 months), it inspired one of his most expensive projects, the $112 million non-gaming hotel, the Chelsea, in Atlantic City, not far from his grandfather’s first church. “I felt like Atlantic City had been co-opted by these carpetbagger casino companies that hadn’t put anything back,” he says. “They’d just put these boxes on the beach -- no windows. They didn’t celebrate the town, they just wanted people inside. And here is this place with this amazing street grid, with this texture going back hundreds of years.” Opened just as the U.S. was tipping into recession, the Chelsea, which has ocean views and a heated seawater pool, but no slot machines or gaming tables, has struggled to recoup its costs, unable to compete with hotels that make up in casino earnings what they lose in massively discounted rooms. “Every good quality can also be your undoing if you’re not careful,” Bashaw concedes, aware that his nostalgia for Atlantic City’s past may have clouded his judgment.

But if the recession proved challenging to his ambitions, it also underlined the prescience of his operation in Cape May, where the hotels -- developed with Craig Wood—presaged a shift away from the flash and ostentation of the ’90s and toward a simpler American classicism. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, that kind of low-key elegance became even more appealing. Now, Bashaw is ready to export it up the Eastern Seaboard, starting with a new property, the 37-room Chequit Inn, on New York’s Shelter Island. “You see a lot of bicycles with ribbons on them, a lot of farm stands that aren’t so pristinely branded and marketed,” he says of the tiny community at the tip of Long Island , which hasn’t changed much since the 1870s, when Methodists turned it into a summer resort. “The Chequit felt like a perfect fit because you could see there were traditions in this place -- a mid–19th century building that needed to be renovated, not in that über-glitzy way, but just by letting the building’s personality come out.”

There are tentative plans for other hotels, including one on Block Island, 13 miles northeast of Long Island’s Montauk. With each project, Bashaw’s starting point is to find existing buildings—alert, as always, to the tide of time and the patina of successive generations. Recently, he found himself choosing his favorite books as a gift for his nephew -- Anna Karenina, Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath -- great sagas that reflect his love for the sweep of history. “I’m not a short-story guy,” he says. “I sit in these buildings and feel a congeniality with the people that have gone before. They were custodians of the same thing that I am, and there’s a cool connectivity to that. In one breath, you realize your insignificance. But in another, you realize that you are part of a larger sequence of things that gives relevance, in some way, to your finite period on earth.”

Additional reporting by Jon Roth

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