by Lou Mancinelli
“Here were collected all the negroes of Alexandria and its vicinity, free or slave … The building was crowded on every floor … The negroes were terribly frightened, old and young, men and women and children, mothers with babies in their arms, were all screaming in terror … This was the first slave pen opened by the war, not through any order or command, but purely by the impulse of our better nature …”
So goes the account of the release of a number of detained individuals, from the Civil War diary of Henry Sawyer, builder of the historic Chalfonte Hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, and grandfather of Henry W. Sawyer III, a prominent Chestnut Hill attorney. That and other accounts are published in “The Chalfonte,” (Exit Zero Publishing, 2011), a new book by Blue Bell resident and long-time journalist and History Channel and Food Network documentarian, Karen Fox.
The book chronicles the 135-year history of the Chalfonte, a Victorian hotel that resembles a Mississippi riverboat. Wide verandas span the building topped by a cupola. Fox recounts the tales woven by the people of the building, from the stories of the Civil War toils of its builder, to the stories of the people who visited, maintained and operated the hotel through the years to its current status. The book includes more than 300 vintage photos and architectural drawings that illustrate the passing years at the hotel.
Coincidentally, 100 years ago, the Chalfonte was bought by Susie Satterfield, daughter of Confederate general, R. Lindsay Walker. Satterfield eventually settled in Germantown, after she escaped to Philadelphia from Richmond. She sought solace after the drowning death of her young daughter, who had recently graduated college. Through the Walker family, Satterfield’s American roots stem back to Virginia, where her forefathers were neighbors and friends of Thomas Jefferson. It is that old southern luxury that Satterfield felt and tried to share with her guests at the Chalfonte.
Named as one of the Historic Hotels of America, in the National Trust for Historic Prevention in 2010, the Chalfonte is the oldest continuously running hotel in Cape May, a locale lined with doll-house like Victorian structures, at least 600 of which are historical buildings.
More than a decade before Sawyer built the Chalfonte, he was shot in the thigh and in the cheek at the Battle of Brandy Station, Virginia, a battle where men “fell as the leaves fall in autumn,” he wrote. He was eventually picked up by a Union death squad. Sawyer was scheduled to be executed, but was later freed from the notorious Libby Prison, in exchange for Robert E. Lee’s captured son, an arrangement said to have been arranged by President Lincoln. Sawyer’s grandson, Henry W. Sawyer III, was a civil-rights era Chestnut Hill lawyer who argued cases before the Supreme Court.
After serving in World War II, Sawyer III graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s accelerated law program for veterans. He later worked on the Marshall Plan in Europe. During Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist era, on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, Sawyer III represented alleged communists who were called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and the Senate Internal Security Committee, or those charged with related violations.
Now, on weekends, weather-permitting, his sons, Henry IV, or Hal, and Jonathan work on the structure their grandfather built and designed. These days, Hal lives in Mt. Airy with his family and works as a carpenter. Jon lives with his family in Fort Washington. The eldest Sawyer got his start as a Lehigh County apprentice builder. When he saw an ad that read carpenters were needed in Cape May, he went to New Jersey to work at age 19, in 1848.
“The thing that sets this hotel apart from almost any hotel anywhere,” said Fox, 71, “is the people keep coming back…third, fourth and fifth generations… It’s home to them.”
“The Old Girl, the Grand Dame, the Leading Lady, the Place that Time Forgot…The Chalfonte,” as is written on the book’s back cover
Over the years, the Chalfonte has hosted numerous performances for its guests like the Festive Brass ensemble, a group that played for 25 seasons. The Savoy Opera Company performed Gilbert and Sullivan operettas at the hotel. Cabaret performers like Jilline Ringle, the “red-hot mama,” also performed.
Today, the hotel is owned by the Mullock Family. Bob Mullock purchased the Chalfonte with the intentions to preserve the traditions and historic quality of the building and its environment. Fox dedicates an entire chapter to the Mullock mission, one that included millions of dollars in investments to modernize technology and appliances, and preserve the building.
“I am not interested in being rich,” Mullock is quoted as saying in the book. He refers to the peak of the last real estate bubble, when firms sent drawings of mansions and other dwellings that could be built at the hotel’s location.
“I am not interested in that,” Mullock said. “Nor I am interested in converting the Chalfonte into 25 condos at half a million each. I didn’t choose the Chalfonte; the Chalfonte chose us.”
Fox herself began going to the Chalfonte in the mid-1960s. She was raised in a farming village in Colesburg, Iowa, outside of Dubuque. Something about the Chalfonte struck home in her mind. It reminded her of her great-aunts, educators who lived in “wonderful old Victorian houses.” It reminded her of her Midwest childhood, when there was music from Victrolas, time for conversation and books.
She began her career as a journalist in that same area in the early 1960s. In 1963, she came east but was unable to find work at a newspaper. She worked at Penn Mutual Life Company until 1968, when she started at KYW as a radio news writer, the day before Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Fox went on to work at the Channel 10 news assignment desk from 1979 to 1999. At the turn of the century, she wound up traveling the world and working for Food Network and the History Channel, doing research for and writing television shows. In 2004, she left that position and began to focus more on writing books and short stories. Since then, she was written and worked for a number of publications, including the “Cape May Magazine.”