Modernizing an historic landmark

March 3, 2003
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Congress Hall was originally opened in 1816 in Cape May, NJ, as the town's first large hotel. After a fire destroyed much of the building, it was rebuilt in 1878. Since then, it has only been renovated once in the 1920s. Though the building is an historic landmark, it was time for it once again to be updated.

Robert Lichtfield, AIA, of New York, NY, was called upon to design the renovation of the building. "The goal was to restore the exterior of the building to be close to the 1879 design," said Litchfield. "We kept to the design, but changed some of the colors."

The fourth floor exterior of the hotel was originally made up of gray slate. In order to keep close to the original appearance, 8,000 square feet of new slate replaced the old.

"We restored it in accordance with the 1879 gray slate that was there," said Litchfield. "We matched the new slate installation with the existing slate, with slate from Evergreen Slate Co. in Granville, NY. No original slate could be saved because it was in bad condition, but we replaced it in the same style, location and pattern as the original."

Evergreen Slate Co. provided 16-x-8-inch pieces of mottled gray black slate, in 1¿- to 3¿inch thickness.

In order for the new slate to match the original, the slate had to be cut exactly as the old pieces were cut. Installers from Thomas Co., Inc. of Atlantic City, NJ, worked hard to have the pieces be an exact match. "The most difficult aspect of installing the slate was that we had to match it with the existing slate," said Mike Thomas of Thomas Co., Inc. "Some of the existing slate had different patterns, like fish scales or scalping, so we sent those pieces to the quarry to have them cut the new pieces to match. It was an historic renovation, so the pattern had to match exactly what was there. "

Once the patterns were cut into the slate at the quarry, the next step was for it to be field cut to fit the different areas of the roof, such as around the windows. "Trying to replicate the pieces of slate in the field was hard, but we measured each course to match the old, and we matched what we had to."

The pieces were then carefully hand-nailed to the roof by the installers. "It was a vertical application," said Thomas. "From start to finish it took about five workers eight weeks to complete."While the exterior installation needed all new material, the interior was a combination of old and new stonework. The interior includes a ballroom, lounge, 104 guest rooms, restaurant and corridors. "For the interior, our goal was to restore the public spaces - such as the lobby, lounge, ballroom and corridor - close to its prior state, combining the 1879 and 1920 designs," said Litchfield. "We had more freedom to capture its eclectic nature. We modernized the private guest rooms, and also did significant repair and detailing to capture some of the 1879 design."

Though marble was not used for the original lobby floor in 1879, White Cararra was placed there in the 1920s renovation.

"The marble in the lobby was restored, and some of it was replaced," said the architect. "The original 1920s marble was 12 inches [square] by 1 to 1 1¿inches thick. About 40% of it was replaced because it was cracked or damaged, while the rest was cleaned, refinished and buffed."

Four to six workers from Atlantic Tile & Marble of Little Egg Harbor, NJ, worked on the restoration of the marble floor in the lobby for eight weeks. "The hardest part of installing new flooring with the old was matching the elevations," said Keith Zelles of Atlantic Tile & Marble. "The hotel had settled over the years, so there was a lot of laying out work involved. Using a mud installation, we would float the mud up to match the elevation of the doorway, and drop it down for lower sections."

Once the new material was installed, the older material was cleaned and stained to match it. Old stone that could not be restored did not go to waste, as it was used for other applications in the building. "We used some old pieces for vanity tops and partitions in the public bathrooms," said Zelles. "We tried to reuse as much as we could, and cut the stone -- most of it was White Carrara marble -- on site. This was challenging, but we bought a site saw for the job, and it came out pretty nicely."

Because the hotel's history includes significant guests, such as four past presidents, it was important that the renovation stay true to its original architecture, while bringing it up to date. "Congress Hall's single most important aspect is its history," said Litchfield. "The history is as important as its architecture. Once the building was renovated, about 2,500 people came to the opening on June 7, 2002, including Former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman as well as the town's mayor and past mayors."

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