In Cape May, New Jersey, sits a mansion shrouded in earth tones and the privilege of a warm history. George Allen, a Philadelphia merchant, commissioned a country estate for his family and future descendents in 1863. He chose the location because it was South of the Mason-Dickson line and allowed him to do business with both Confederate and Rebel soldiers during the Civil War. Internationally acclaimed architect Samuel Sloan designed the seaside palace and Henri Phillipi built it. In 1879, the beloved summer home escaped a great fire that swept over Cape May. However, after eighty-three years, it couldn’t escape the neglect an owner could inflict upon it.
George Allen’s niece, Ester Mercur passed away in 1946. Her husband, Ulysses sold the house and all of its furnishings for a mere $8,000. The property was bought for the sole purpose of income-producing and soon went in to a transition to be a boarding house. The interior was partitioned to create a multitude of small rooms. The exterior earth tones washed away to white. The whole renovation left the structure weakened. Nearly fifty years and neglect, caused it to be wounded. In the 1980’s, the boarding-house license was revoked, leaving the mansion to fall deeper in to despair. However, all was not lost.
In 1994, another Philadelphia family would revive the original splendor. The Bray/Wildes sorted through all the important furnishings, artwork, family mementos and heirlooms into four tractor-trailers, removing twenty-five dumpster loads of garbage. Then began an eighteen month process to restore the Mansion and surrounding grounds. Outside, the entire house was ground down to the bare wood and repainted in the original earth-tones and all five chimneys were rebuilt using the original bricks. The slate and tin roofs, copper gutters, brackets, porches, soffits, trims, moldings and fascia boards were replaced. Finally, the finial was re-gilded, the entire grounds were tamed and the Italian gardens were re-established. Inside, all of the original architectural elements, furnishings, including the gasolier fixtures, walls, ceilings, floors, stairs, doors and windows have been restored to their original splendor. The 30 inch granite basement walls were waterproofed and phase I of the project was complete.
With a rejuvenated appearance came a new name. The new owners named the structure The Southern Mansion after seeing a Samuel Sloan lithograph of the house titled the same. The doors reopened in 1996 but construction was far from being over. A South Wing was added which came with ten additional guest suites, twelve bathrooms, a second ballroom, a commercial kitchen, three balconies, a gallery, verandah, solarium and two magnificent circular staircases. The project was complete in 1997.
While the Mansion didn’t see a sleuth of violence, renovations stirred up a bit of the past. Ester Mercur who loved the summer home is believed to still reside in it. She is seen and heard throughout the house, particularly in the kitchen and Room 9. Guests and employees often get a whiff of perfume in reception where people are also touched or pulled. Shadows have been seen moving about in the foyer. A Confederate soldier has been spotted walking through a wall in to the lower ballroom. A male and female are often seen and heard conversing in Room 14. This 147 year old mansion was rescued from decay and is now being enjoyed by guests and ghosts alike.