CAPE MAY — Like the Civil War colonel who built it, the Chalfonte Hotel sits proudly on its block of land, dressed in a white suit, enjoying the afternoon ocean breeze and breathing a sigh of relief after all that it has been through in its 138 years.
The Chalfonte gives the year 2009 a passing glance and then returns to its own era taking those who check in the hotel with it. If you are in a big hurry and want to conduct business deals and race around like a madman, then you best get on the parkway and plant yourself in Atlantic City.
For those who want the Cape May beach experience, the Chalfonte will ask you to sit in a big rocking chair, go to the beach in the afternoon, eat a Southern fried chicken dinner that has become famous worldwide and sip wine on the porch after dark. If you insist on checking your email, the Chalfonte will allow you Wi-Fi although the colonel would scowl at the thought.
The Hotel has had only four owners since it was built in 1876: Col. Henry Sawyer, the Satterfield family of Richmond, Va. and Anne LeDuc and Judy Bartella, who owned and operated the hotel for 30 years during which their efforts to preserve the building included partnership with the University of Maryland and the institution of work weekends.
In the summer of 2008, the Chalfonte was purchased by Robert and Linda Mullock and family: Cynthia, Zack, Dillon and Ellie.
In the past 11 months, the hotel has received a great deal of work to its infrastructure with replacement of plumbing, electrical work and for the first time in its history: air conditioning.
For years, the hotel was hindered by a lack of bathrooms. It followed an old tradition of the bath down the hall, something that went out of favor with travelers about the time Richard Nixon was in the White House.
While a few bargain priced rooms use the shared bath principle, the bulk of rooms have brand new bathrooms. Despite those modernizations, the ownership has not succumbed to putting televisions or telephones in the rooms.
“For a lot of people, coming here is a complete getaway and kind of pulling the plug on all that stuff,” said Robert Mullock.
He said the hotel required a lot of renovation. The size of the hotel and bargain priced rooms also proved to be an obstacle.
“We had calculated that for every day that it was open, the Chalfonte was losing $1,000,” he said.
He said if the hotel has closed for a season, he doubted it would have ever reopened.
Mullock said he did not want to change the number of rooms in the hotel with about 70 in use at this time. Some of the rooms are small by Holiday Inn or Marriot standards.
They look as if they have appeared on a page in Southern Living magazine with white linens, beds made by a ship’s craftsman and antique tables. Mullock describes the décor as “American Zen,” comfortable and uncluttered.
Some larger rooms were created such as the Presidential Suite and Bridal Suite by combining two smaller rooms.
Although the hotel is not required to have a fire suppression system, Mullock chose to take a giant step and install the system on the second and third floors and public areas on the first floor in the first 11 months of ownership.
The Chalfonte has large windows that can be opened to receive ocean breezes. Mullock said he did not want the feeling of a sealed building like big, franchised hotels.
Anne LeDuc convinced Mullock to buy the hotel. He said he knew what restoring the hotel would entail.
At age 60, Mullock said he was unlikely to see the financial benefits of owning the Chalfonte. He said profits would be put back in the hotel during his lifetime.
Mullock said he is amazed about how much has been accomplished with the hotel in 11 months.
“It has passed a really important stage of survival,” he said, noting a number of hotels burned down in Cape May while others became so dilapidated they fell down or were demolished.
A likely scenario was the Chalfonte closing and being converted into condominiums had he not purchased the hotel.
“It is probably the least changed hotel and the oldest hotel in the oldest resort city in the United States,” he said.
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