Greater Cape May Historical Society

Colonial House History

Vernacular Architecture

Vernacular architecture is an architectural style that is designed based on local needs, availability of construction materials and reflecting local traditions. At least originally, vernacular architecture did not use formally-schooled architects, but relied on the design skills and tradition of local builders. However, since the late 19th century many professional architects have worked in this style.

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The Colonial House

Architectural historians have had difficulty dating the (Colonial House) structure, primarily due to interior surfaces that have been covered over by alterations dating from the early 1800s through the Victorian Era. Also many construction details can only be observed with the removal of exterior finishes, such as roofing & siding.

Observations by J. P. Hand & Lew Thomas in 2009

The house has many features typical of other first period houses in Cape May County, including a two room deep floor plan (rare in early Cape May) that is almost identical to the c. 1710 John Hand House located nearby. These two houses, along with the c. 1704 Thomas Leaming House in Dennis Township, may be the only three remaining “Colonial” houses with a two room deep plan in the County.

Almost all Cape May houses c. 1690-1850 have soffits (roof overhang) that are apprx. 12” wide. This structure has soffit boards that are considerably wider, a feature found only in the c. 1695 Reeves/Izzard House, & the c. 1728 Seaville Meeting House

The squared hand hewn floor joists indicate that the house sat over a basement at it’s original location (Joan Berkey & I have found that early Cape May County builders only squared the  joists supporting the first floor if they were to be viewed from below, as in The Blue Pig /George Hand House, & Nathaniel Foster House). Cape May houses  1690-1820+- that sit over crawl spaces have joists (first floor) that are logs, hewn flat on the top surface only

-The second floor ceiling joists are each hand hewn on four sides & are approximately 29’ long, they were originally exposed & whitewashed before hand split hard pine lath & plaster was applied c. 1800-1830

-The house was framed for a center fireplace, which appears to have faced into the East room, (There may have been back to back center fireplaces, but the framing only proves the existence of one firebox.

Observations by J. P. Hand in Jan. 2011

(When the cedar roof & some siding was replaced)

- All original timbers in the frame are hand hewn oak, including shouldered posts, plates, rafters, studs, & braces

- The second floor was occupied without any interior finish for some time, as indicated by two separate coats of white wash found on wall studs in the West (rear) wall, second floor. The first coat is a pale cream color, & the second coat is the typical white found in early Cape May buildings.

-The attic was “finished off” sometime after the original construction date, probably in the early 1800s. This is indicated by later knee wall studs that are hand hewn oak with old nail holes from siding nails. The North gable studs are original hand hewn oak while the South gable studs have been replaced with later water milled studs. It appears that the knee walls were made from the discarded original South gable studs.  The house was framed for a center fireplace, as can be seen by examining the first floor framing & the original rafters. When the fireplace chimney was removed & replaced by a smaller woodstove chimney the rafters that laid against the original chimney had to have ”extensions”  nailed onto them.  The hand split lath & plaster covers much of these later alterations.

-The tapered hand hewn rafters are seated on a 5/4” x 8” raising plate & are pinned together & numbered in the typical fashion of Cape May’s first period 1690-1730 & second period 1730-1790 houses (small Roman numerals incised with a chisel, as opposed to numerals cut with a saw kerf, the full width if the rafters as in our third period house 1790-1830).

- The present roof lath (much of which we replaced) is water milled oak  1”x3”s nailed at 9” intervals, this lath was laid out for 30” cedar shingles  with nine inches “to the weather”. This was an uncommon shingle length for South Jersey (Most early roof shingles were either 24” or 36” long) ‘ but I have a Bridgeton N. J. newspaper advertisement from the 1820s in which  thirty inch shingles  are offered for sale. This lath appears to have been nailed with machine cut nails (after 1790s), so the lath may date to the early 1800s when much work was done to the house.

- The biggest surprise found during the roof & siding repairs, was the clapboard siding itself. The structure retains on all four walls, much of the early (either original or early 19th c. replacement) wide horizontal siding. At a glance, the siding appears to be the typical 6” to 14” wide Jersey cedar clapboard  (3/4”+-) with a decorative beaded edge, that we see on Cape May houses before the Revolution & on through the Federal Period . In fact, the siding is unlike any that we (Myself, Joan Berkey, Lew Thomas, & saw mill operator & local historian George Brewer) have ever seen on the Cape or anywhere else. Only by removing the corner boards or the siding itself can the configuration of the boards be seen. Instead of ¾” squared boards lapped apprx. 1 ¼”, this siding is 1 1/8” ship lapped top & bottom, with a decorative bead on the lower edge of each, &( instead of being installed flush like flush board siding as seen in Salem, Cumberland, & Gloucester Counties & the Eastern Shore of Delmarva), each board is dropped down over the face, for the width of the rabbet, which gives the lapped effect of our typical wide beaded clapboard. The siding material is out of the norm as well, it is definitely not our local white cedar. After consulting with some other local woodworkers, we’ve come to belief that the wood is cypress, probably brought up from the Carolinas.

Conclusions: This structure has many characteristics of Cape May’s first & second period houses. The fact that the house was remodeled in the early 1800s can hardly be disputed. It is likely that some time passed between the application of the two separate coats of white wash & the subsequent Federal Era plaster finish. How old was the structure when the original fireplace was demolished & replaced with a smaller chimney stack for multiple woodstoves?  The 29’ second floor ceiling joists hewn on four sides aren’t necessarily an indicator of a very early construction date, (sawyer George Brewer of Dennisville informs me that early sawmills couldn’t accommodate logs that length), so they would have to be hewn.  Joan Berkey has found that as late as the 1840s, Cape May builders were still hewing the heaviest timbers; posts, girts, plates, etc. The fact that the 16’ first floor joists are hand hewn on all four surfaces , (which requires one log for each joist) does suggest an early construction date, not to mention that all of the studs & braces are hand hewn as well.

While the roof was off & some of the old siding was removed, I looked for hand wrought nails which were used prior to 1800. I didn’t find any nails other than machine made cut nails, but future repairs may expose earlier nails as well as other architectural details.

It appears to me that this may be a first period house (1690-1730) which was remodeled around the war of 1812 (Memucan Hughes died in 1812) , or it may have been built around the time when   Memucan  received a tavern license  (1765) & was remodeled  within fifty to seventy years during the Federal period.

The Hughes Family and Memucan Hughes

Memucan (Me-Myoo-can) Hughes, born in 1739, was a descendant of the original whaler yeoman. The Hughes family was among the earliest settlers of Cape May and Salem counties. Hughes' grandfather received a land grant in 1691. In 1754, Memucan, at 15, was commissioned an ensign advancing to Lieutenant in the Pennsylvania artillery. He migrated to Cape May in 1761 and married his cousin, Martha Hughes. He became a member of the Committee of Safety of Cape May and a paymaster at the onset of the war.

He and his brother, Ellis, operated taverns in Cape May. Taverns were important to travelers for shelter and strong beverage. It took three or more days for the stagecoach to travel to Cape May. Travelers brought news from Philadelphia from up north on the war’s progress. Ellis owned one of the first boarding houses in town and the first to advertise the benefits of vacationing on Cape Island in a Philadelphia newspaper.

In 1799, Memucan was indicted for causing a public nuisance. There was too much merrymaking at the tavern. Memucan did find religion and invited two Methodist preachers to hold services in the tavern. In 1810, he helped to establish the Cape May Methodist Church. He donated land to the Tabernacle Methodist Church (Erma) where he is buried.

Cape May County’s African-American experience with the Methodist Episcopal Church is part of Memucan’s legacy. The Hughes family was one the largest slave-owning families in Lower Township. The Hughes family manumitted their slaves, giving them land for a meeting house.

Memucan married twice. Martha died (1761). He married Rhoda Allen in 1799. Memucan was a citizen, soldier, patriot and entrepreneur. In the latter part of his life he “suffered much continued bodily affliction”. He died in 1812.

The Richard Cook Collection

The Cook Family donated the entire collection to the Nature Center. One panel is on display at the Colonial House. Below is a description and background for the collection.

Richard Cook was a lifelong summer resident of Cape May Point and a longtime member of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey (ASNJ).  Over 80 years, Mr. Cook amassed an unusual collection of prehistoric artifacts that represent Paleo-Indian through post-Colonial occupation periods on the peninsula, e.g. the last 1,000 years of human settlement.  

In Mr. Cook’s own words in an article he wrote for the ASNJ Bulletin in 1960:

At the southernmost tip of New Jersey, the Lenni Lenape Indians fished and swam long before the white settlers arrived. The author and his family have scoured the area for Indian artifacts.  All of the finds have been surface discoveries.

The artifacts were collected on a four-mile strip of beach at the mouth of the Delaware Bay.  Nature’s greatest excavator, the ocean, has been consistently eroding this area, and the strip of beach has been moving constantly inland.  As a result, after every storm or exceptionally high tide, new artifacts are brought to light.

The area was primarily a summer rendezvous for the Lenni Lenape and consisted of groups of small fishing, hunting, and berry-picking sites. There was a more permanent village near Lake Lily, which would have provided a ready and accessible fresh-water supply.  The character of the beach has changed little over a large part of this region since the Indians first camped there. The swamps that in places are just yards behind the dunes that border the beach, are loaded with cranberries, waterfowl, and muskrats. The beach plum, huckleberry, and blackberry bushes yield an abundance of fruit.  The ocean and bay provide d fish and shellfish available throughout the warmer months of the year. Deer were probably in fair supply and squirrels and rabbits were plentiful.

The collection consists of 23 framed wooden panels of wire mounted artifacts, one glass table display, and a chest of drawers with 7 drawers filled with both historic and prehistoric artifacts. Many high quality flaked stone tools are in the collection, most from local material (secondary gravels from Cape May formations).

Some of the unusual historic earthen wares may be evidence of early European landings by explorers, whalers, or fishermen from the Iberian Peninsula. These ceramics are currently being researched for their origins.

Richard Cairns Cook died on August 3, 2017 at the age of 91. Mr. Cook was a graduate of Pennsylvania State University and Duke University and did additional graduate work at Rutgers.  He was an executive with Johnson and Johnson and later a director with National Wholesale Druggists Association. Through the generosity of Mr. Cook’s family, the collection was donated to the Nature Center of Cape May.

One panel from the collection is on loan from the Nature Center and can be viewed at the Colonial House Museum in Cape May .

Visit the Space Shuttle Tree

Space shuttle tree

On April 4, 1997, the Space Shuttle Columbia was launched from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. The four day mission orbited the earth 63 times, traveling a total of 1.5 million miles.

Astronaut Gregory Linteris, a New Jersey native, took Eastern White Pine seeds with him on that flight. NASA gave those seeds to the New Jersey Forestry Service which grew only 35 trees. The seeds germinated in only 7 days, about one-half the normal germination time. They were dedicated to the memory of the seven crewmembers who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. It is called a "Space Shuttle Tree."

By placing the tree on the grounds of the Colonial House Museum, Cape May positions the very old and the very new in a very visible location, 653½ Washington Street, Cape May, NJ.