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Cape May - Will Work for Food and Lodging

The fist banging on the doors down the hall got louder as it came closer to my room. I could hear a loud male voice calling out, "Good morning, Sunshine" and "I want to hear those feet hit the floor." Not exactly the genteel wake-up call you'd expect at a gracious Victorian hotel in the heart of Cape May, N.J. Not exactly the type of wake-up call you'd expect anywhere, actually, except perhaps if you're a Marine or a minor at home with your parents.

But then again, it was not an outrageous breach of hotel etiquette, considering that nobody in the rooms was there to be a pampered guest. We had come to the Chalfonte Hotel to work. There was painting, cooking, laundry and gardening to be done this weekend, and we were going to do it.

So how much were we getting paid for our 10 hours of labor? Actually, we were paying them -- $25 for a room and meals from Friday dinner through Sunday lunch.

Since 1983, the Chalfonte has invited volunteers to visit in the spring and fall to fix up the hotel. In springtime, they help open for the summer by making beds, washing blankets and generally sprucing up the place with spackle and paint. Now, with the season winding down, we're here to help close it down by unmaking beds, washing blankets and generally sprucing up the place with spackle and paint.

Friends whom I'd asked to come along hemmed, hawed and finally bailed on me. They said they're loath to work on their own houses, so why spend a weekend working on someone else's? I didn't see it that way. I saw it as a cheap beach weekend, in exchange for several hours of labor each day that left afternoons free for ambling along the beach and kept my bank account relatively intact.

I arrived after dark Friday and crossed the lovely, old-fashioned lobby with its antique furnishings to check in with Jim Abrams, the maintenance manager who does the wake-up calls. He welcomed me more warmly than a paying guest in summertime and came out to my car to help me carry my bags.

Abrams showed me to a room with a double bed, a marble-topped dresser, a wood chair and white curtains. The hotel has no air conditioning or heat, so the sea air flowing through the windows and louvered door controls the temperature as it did when the place opened in the late 1800s. There was a sink in the room, the kind with separate hot and cold water faucets and a rubber plug for the drain. Showers and tubs are off the main hall.

The next stop was the hotel kitchen, where a vat of homemade chicken and vegetable soup sat on the 16-burner stove. Sandwich fixings, fruit and cookies also awaited volunteers who had missed the dinner hour.

I put together a meal and sat at the metal food prep table with three other "work weekenders" from Philadelphia and New York. Already I was feeling at home, like I had the run of the place and the exploratory privileges of a hotel employee with access to places and secrets the paying guests do not get.

The next morning, over eggs, bacon, spoon bread and warm biscuits, Anne LeDuc, one of two women who own the 70-room hotel, gave a brief history of the "grand dame."

It was built in 1876 by Col. Henry Sawyer, a Civil War hero who was captured by the South and then released in exchange for the son of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

She told stories of the "old days," when some guests arrived by railroad from Philadelphia all sooty from the "cinder special," a train whose windows wouldn't close. LeDuc and Judy Bartella, schoolteachers from Pennsylvania, began managing the hotel in 1975 and bought it in 1983 from the Satterfield family of Richmond, who had owned it since 1910 and had lent it its Southern charm. They are only the third owners of the hotel.

But the upkeep of the Chalfonte is constant, as the hotel has never undergone a major renovation. And the owners are not wealthy. So they came up with creative preservation programs to get non-paying help to lend a hand. That includes not only the weekend volunteers but also students from the University of Maryland, who assist in and learn about historical architectural preservation. "We struggle to keep up the building," LeDuc said. "We couldn't do it without work weekenders."

When the talk is done, we are given our assignments. They assigned me to painting -- a never-ending job. I chose outside walls. Others took on the task of scraping and painting the hotel's 188 green window shutters. Those who weren't painting helped with landscaping, stripping beds, doing laundry or cooking for the rest of us.

In all, about three dozen volunteers were buzzing around the place. Every so often tourists on walking tours would wander by and look at us curiously, or a tourist-laden horse and buggy would clop past. And there we were, helping to preserve one of the key buildings in Cape May, listed on the National Register of Historic Sites. "It's amazing how fast this place would run down if they didn't have people like us," said Robert Lowitz, a retired auto dealer. "It would look like a ghost town in two to three years."

We took breaks for lemonade and fruit and to admire our work. Abrams came around frequently to see how we were doing or if we needed anything. At 1 p.m., he dismissed us for lunch. I took a plateful of food out to a rocking chair on the hotel's long, shady front porch and rocked and ate and talked to others and watched people go by. Since we had the afternoon off, I used this free time to head toward the ocean to accomplish other goals for the weekend: eating saltwater taffy, fudge and chocolate-covered pretzels; practicing my skee-ball skills at the little arcade on the beach: sticking my toes in the Atlantic surf; and dozing on the sand. Others toured the historic town.

I reported back as requested at 4:30 p.m. and put in two more hours of not-too-taxing labor. Newfound painting friends from New Jersey listened to a New York Mets game on the radio while prying into my personal life. We bonded in that peculiar way that strangers do when they spend hours together working on the same task.

After we quit work for the day, we all gathered for a dinner of fried chicken, string beans, salad, potato salad and cherry cobbler, prepared by two of the hotel's regular cooks and some volunteers. This time we sat at long tables in the Magnolia Room, where paying guests dine in season. Unlike them, we served ourselves in the kitchen, bringing our plates out to the dining room.

There was something about that casual air that made the experience so, well, homey and special. Yes, you can pay for the night and get your bed made for you in the morning. Yes, you can pay for dinner in the Magnolia Room and get served. But for $25, you get the freedom to snoop around back passages and ask to see other people's rooms.

And you get to sit in the kitchen with longtime cooks Dot Burton and Lucille Thompson and watch them shape dough for dinner rolls and listen to stories about the hotel over the century. Dot and Lucille are the daughters of Helen Dickerson, who was a cook at the Chalfonte for 40 years. They first came to the hotel in the summers from Richmond, when they were 9 and 7 years old, respectively. Their job was in the bathhouse out back, where they took guests' bathing suits, rinsed out the sand, tagged them with a number and hung them to dry until morning. They earned $4.50 a week for that job in the 1940s. Eventually the two sisters learned Southern-style cooking from their mother and have carried on the kitchen tradition for decades.

On Sunday, I went back to the paintbrush for a few hours. When we finished, Abrams gave us each certificates of appreciation. Good old Jim, we called him, the cheery wake-up man. The thing is, he couldn't have woken us any other way. The Chalfonte has no telephones in the rooms. And besides, at fancier hotels, those without the offbeat charm of the Chalfonte, how often are you called "Sunshine?"

First published in The Washington Post. All rights reserved.


2007 Ellen Perlman. All rights reserved.