OCEAN CITY – The 1922 construction of the Ben Franklin Bridge was big news for Ocean City, a then-obscure tourist destination full of what Karl Wirth, Ocean City Historic Museum’s coordinator, called “bungalows and old wooden hotels.” The bridge, and an automobile charge led by the Ford Model T, brought a surge of visitors from Philadelphia to Cape May County’s northernmost barrier island, and to the Flanders Hotel, which celebrates a century of life in 2023.
A lot was riding on the construction of the new hotel, the most expensive development project the island had yet seen. It came to life through heavy lobbying efforts from the Ocean City Chamber of Commerce and twenty-four of Ocean City’s most successful businesspeople. The $1.5 million project, nearly $27 million in contemporary dollars, was funded by the Ocean City government and by locals who bought shares in the project through the Ocean Front Hotel Corporation.
Today, dozens of hotels and amusements are strewn across the city, and there is no single development that the city depends on for economic prosperity. But in 1923, the Chamber found through studies it commissioned that an expensive, regal hotel would elevate the entire city in the minds of city-dwellers and regional vacationers.
The website for the Flanders Hotel claims that “the hotel was built to transform Ocean City into a world-class venue,” which might sound like hyperbole, but it is truer of this establishment than any other in the county.
The hotel opened its doors on a rainy afternoon in July 1923. An August 4, 1923, article in the Ocean City Ledger said that 400 people showed up for the event, and that over 1,000 people invested in the Ocean Front Hotel Corporation.
Thomas F. Armstrong, a Philadelphia mogul and Ocean City believer, gave the opening remarks – he read a poem, “It Couldn’t Be Done,” by Edgar Albert Guest, to stress the significance of the opening day. Dr. Alan Corson, an officer of the corporation, told the crowd a hundred years ago: “If you think this building went up without nerve and sacrifice, you’re mistaken.”
The hotel was designed by Vivian B. Smith, who was born in Ocean City and graduated from Ocean City High School. He had a concrete vision for the hotel, literally; the building’s concrete construction would spare it from the 1927 fire that swept the city’s boardwalk. The hotel shares design cues with the Ocean City Music Pier, the old Ocean City High School, and City Hall.
Karl Wirth with the historical museum told the Herald that the risky plan paid off – the lavish hotel attracted city-folk who “weren’t here to rough it.” At the Flanders, these well-to-do folks were greeted by doormen, bellhops, a pool, tennis courts, reading lounges, sumptuous dining halls, and a grand ballroom. There was nothing else like it in Ocean City. Guests were drawn to the island by the Flanders but stuck around for everything else.
As the Flanders Hotel grew in popularity, the beaches just outside the front steps grew in size. Sand drifted from the north and was deposited on the Ocean City beaches, which “wasn’t really a good thing, Wirth said. Those who live in the Wildwoods will be familiar with this phenomenon. “Looking down from the boardwalk to see beach-goers and swimmers was a big attraction,” he said, so a bigger beach meant it was harder for passersby to ogle.
In 1927, a fire burned down so much of the boardwalk, just a few steps from the Flanders hotel, that the boards were completely rebuilt several hundred feet closer to the water. This robbed the hotel of one of its greatest assets: proximity to the beach. To fill the gap, the hotel’s manager Howard Slocum lobbied the city to allow three saltwater swimming pools, one Olympic-sized, one for diving, and one for children, in the space between the hotel and the boardwalk. Mayor Joseph G. Champion and the city government allowed this on one condition: the pools must be open to the public, not just hotel guests. These pools give character to some of the most iconic postcards of the Flanders Hotel, and of Ocean City from that time.
The heyday of the Flanders Hotel occurred at the same time as America’s prohibition on alcohol. In the hotel’s early days, “The Catacombs” at the hotel was envisioned as a basement-level dining facility and a place for guests, modesty being a chief virtue, to access the beach without entering the more formal upper levels in their bathing suits.
Wirth told the Herald that this lower level morphed into “the hangout spots of organized crime leaders. It was an illegal bar that brought gangsters from Atlantic City and New York.” Today, the catacombs flood too often to host guests. A pumping system keeps it dry, and it is primarily used for storage.
But the lavish days of the 1920s gave way to the decade-long Great Depression, and once the economic downturn finally relented, war came. The Flanders Hotel celebrated its greatest success in those first few years of operation. The results of the million-dollar-investment were nearly immediate: Ocean City did indeed attract a wealthier class of visitor. But when times were tough, visitors found it hard to justify staying at a place so opulent as the Flanders. Wirth said that more modest motels, like the ones in Wildwood, were the venues of choice for guests.
The model that once carried the Flanders to success – a massive operation with every bell and whistle imaginable – was deeply out of vogue, and incredibly expensive to maintain. As revenue declined, the hotel was forced to sell the land that housed the famous outdoor saltwater pools. Wirth said that the situation was so dire that the hotel had to sell its expensive wooden front desk. A humiliating sheriff’s sale took place in 1993, and another auction in 2002 claimed some of the hotel’s old regal items like carved wooden thrones, grand pianos, and Persian rugs.
“At one point, the front desk was just card table and chairs,” Wirth said. “The wrecking ball was at the doorstep.”
The hotel closed its doors in 1995. In the early 2000s, the hotel was nearly condemned by Ocean City’s Department of Community Affairs. In the following years, many ideas were floated, including converting the hotel into a retirement home. And, under the ownership of James Dwyer, some of the space was transformed entirely, into condominiums and townhouses during the condo boom that swept Cape May County in the early 2000s.
But the story does not end there, or the 100th anniversary Gala for the Flanders Hotel that took place on a cheery November evening would feel sorrowful and not triumphant. Peter Voudouris, Director of Operations at the hotel, stood at the gala’s podium and addressed the crowd. In his speech, Voudouris said that the hotel had become “an eyesore to Ocean City” before it was revitalized. Voudouris was one of the chief players who brought the hotel back from the brink – he helped the hotel slowly open more and more rooms for guests to spend the night once again.
He told the crowd how he and his team bought back assets that had been claimed by the hotel’s financers, items core to the functioning of the hotel like the front desk, elevators, and mechanical room equipment. And there is not enough space in one article to discuss the herculean effort of re-doing the building’s ventilation system.
Voudouris inherited the building at its worst, but now oversees it at its best. The hotel no longer relies on hotel reservations to keep it afloat. The building is a vital conference hall and meeting area – the county and Ocean City chambers of commerce both book it frequently. The hotel is a popular wedding destination, and operates a popular restaurant through the “Flanders Supper Club.”
Voudouris said that 2023 was a record year for the Flanders Hotel; more than 100,000 guests spent time at one of the hotel’s amenities. At the gala, Mayor Jay Gillian set the tone for the next century of the Flanders.
“It’s been a long time since you’ve seen the Flanders like this,” Gillian said to the crowd.
Contact the author, Collin Hall, at email@example.com or give him a ring at 609-886-8600 ext. 156