The Emlen Physick Estate in Cape May, New Jersey, is a Victorian house museum, originally belonging to the Physick family. The Physicks were the wealthiest year-round residents of Cape May, a seaside resort town. The 1879 Victorian home was built in the modern ‘Stick Style,’ which differed vastly from the Gothic, Mansard and Italianate homes of the day, with their decorative gingerbread trim.
Stick style is characterized by strong geometric shapes, boxy projections, and a grid work of raised boards which overlay the clapboard exterior walls. The home is assumed to have been designed by Frank Furness, a prolific Philadelphia area architect, although no documents have been found to prove the connection. Furness built over 600 homes at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, yet fell out of favor in the early 1900’s, and many of his homes have since been destroyed. The Physick estate contains many of Furness’ most characteristic features, such as oversized corbelled chimneys, porch brackets and jerkinhead dormers. Inside, the home features original furnishings, artifacts and memorabilia that further tell the story of what life was like in Cape May at the turn of the century.
A carriage house on the 4-acre estate is home to a gift shop, a café and tearoom, and the Carroll Gallery, which hosts rotating exhibits related to Cape May’s heritage.
History: The Victorian home was built in 1879 and lived in by Emlen Physick Jr., his widowed mother, Frances Ralston, and her sister, Emilie Parmentier. Emlen was the grandson of a prominent Philadephian doctor, Philip Syng Physick, who is considered to be the founder of contemporary surgical procedures, and the inventor of many of the surgical instruments used today. Although Emlen was a medical school gradutate, he was never a doctor. Instead, he used his wealth to buy and sell real estate in Cape May, operated two tenant farms, and was politically active. His life was indicative of the social changes occurring during the Victorian Era in Cape May.
After Dr. Physick’s death in 1916 the home passed through several owners before facing demolition in the 1960’s. Hoping to avoid the demolition of the property, a group of local citizens formed the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities (MAC) to raise the necessary funds to save the home. By 1973 the group had received enough funding in grants to assist the City of Cape May with purchasing the estate. MAC currently leases the property from the city and continues to fund ongoing restoration efforts. Today, MAC has developed into a multi-faceted organization that serves over 300,000 people annually, promoting the interpretation, preservation and restoration of Cape May’s historical assets. Most of the organization’s funding comes from group tours, as well as dues paid by its 3,500 members.
Ongoing Programs and Education: Known as the original haunted house in Cape May, several ghosts in the home have been identified and documented by the psychic medium Craig McManus, including Dr. Physick’s dogs. McManus claims the doctor’s great Aunt Emilie is the strongest presence in the home, having stayed in the home since her death to watch over the property through each change of ownership. Midnight at the Physick Estate is one of the most popular tours. The ghost tour hosts up to 25 people at a time, who hope to catch a glimpse or sensation of the home’s historic residents.
Tours at the home are themed according to season. For the 2017 holiday season, the “Let’s Go Shopping” theme explores consumer culture in the Victorian era as revolutions in industry, manufacturing, retail and advertising encouraged more Americans to purchase luxury goods. Shakespeare at the Estate is an outdoor summer program that takes place on the grounds of the home. The plays are produced by Cape May’s REV Theater with support from the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities. Spring programs include The Dr. Is In, in which a period actor resembling Dr. Physick answers visitor’s questions and presents a talk. Neighborhood walking tours, cycling tours and luncheon or tea tour combinations are also available in the spring. A combination trolley and home tour takes guests on a guided trolley tour through Cape May’s historic district, followed by a guided tour of the Physick Estate. The 2-hour program offers information about the history of the Physick family and what life was like in Cape May at the time they lived in the home.
1048 Washington St., Cape May, NJ 0820, Phone: 609-884-5404
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