The Chalfonte Hotel, built in 1876 by Civil War Union Army Colonel Henry Sawyer, was originally planned as a boarding house. Sawyer came to Cape May in 1848 and when the Civil War began, enlisted in the 25th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry where he served for 3 months. He then enlisted with the First Regiment Cavalry, the New Jersey Volunteers. After fierce fighting, Sawyer, then a captain, was captured by the Confederate Army in June 1863 at the Battle of Brandy in Virginia and incarcerated at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond. After his wife’s plea to President Lincoln, Sawyer was swapped for W.F. Fitzhugh Lee, the son of General Robert E. Lee. Sawyer resumed active duty, and when the war ended, returned to Cape May.
In 1867, Henry Sawyer became proprietor of the Ocean House in Cape May and then, in 1873, the manager of the new Clayton House in Wilmington, Delaware. In 1876, he opened the newly-constructed Chalfonte and, when a city-wide fire destroyed 2,000 hotel rooms, Sawyer added a 100-foot long wing containing a dining room, a 2-story colonnade and 19 guestrooms.
After 13 years of ownership, Sawyer sold the Chalfonte in 1889. The new owners added more rooms bringing the total to 75. But by the 1890s, the hotel suffered through the Panic of 1893, 6 owners and a couple of sheriff sales. Nevertheless, a southerner named Susie Satterfield fell in love with the lace woodwork, wide verandas, shutters and louvers, fireplaces, music room, library and tall columns. She and her husband, Calvin Satterfield, bought the Chalfonte from Hannah Cresse and reopened it in 1911. The Satterfields operated the Chalfonte with punctuality, manners, a sense of humor and tight-fisted management. They imported staff from Virginia and North Carolina and transformed the Chalfonte, built by a northern Civil War hero, into a retreat of southern hospitality. Susie had a very strong personality. She was petite, strong and possessed a good sense of humor. She and Calvin had a comedy routine that was hilarious. During the Depression years, Susie saved the Chalfonte from foreclosure so that her son, Calvin Jr. and his wife Meenie continued to own and operate the Chalfonte. Susie Satterfield died in Richmond on December 26, 1939 after 28 years as major domo of the Chalfonte. Meenie Satterfield and her head housekeeper, Martha Nash, ran the hotel for an additional 40 years.
After 70 years of ownership by the Satterfield family, the Chalfonte almost faced demolition but was saved by Anne Le Duc and Judy Bartella who had helped manage the hotel for more than a decade.
Over its lifetime, the hotel has had 4 owners – Henry Sawyer, the Satterfield family and Anne Le Duc and Judy Bartella, who owned and operated the hotel for 30 years during which their efforts to preserve the building included a partnership with the University of Maryland. In the summer of 2008, the Chalfonte was purchased by Robert and Linda Mullock and family: Cynthia, Zack, Dillon and Ellie.
The historic Chalfonte Hotel is recognized as the oldest continuously-operated hotel in Cape May which is New Jersey’s southernmost point, below the Mason-Dixon line and running parallel with Washington, D.C. The Cape is named after Cornelius Jacobsen May who performed the first extensive exploration of the area in 1621. Cape May contains one of the country’s leading collection of Victorian architecture -600 gingerbread-style homes clustered within a 2-mile radius. It is also known as a premier locale for bird watchers who can observe nearly 50 species of birds. From Cape May Point State Park or from the 180-acre Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, bird watchers can see birds of prey such as hawks and falcons and such exotic species as the black skinner and piping plover.
Before acquiring the Chalfonte Hotel. Bob and Linda Mullock purchased the old Southern Inn in the early 1980s and converted it to the Victorian Rose Bed & Breakfast. In 1988, Bob Mullock purchased a 150-acre farm just outside of Cape May and with golf architect Karl Litten created the Cape May National Golf Course in 1991.
The Chalfonte Mullock Mission is a family venture with divided managerial responsibilities. After an extensive renovation in 2009, the 70 guestrooms have beautiful new bathrooms, wireless Internet access, louvered doors that welcome fresh sea breezes. The rooms are television, radio and telephone-free. The nationally-acclaimed Magnolia Room Restaurant features fried chicken, crab cakes, hand-risen rolls, corn pudding, spoon bread, blueberry cobbler, lemon meringue pie and other Southern favorites.
The Chalfonte Hotel is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This article has been excerpted with the author’s permission from the book, “Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi,” AuthorHouse 2013. The author, Stanley Turkel, is a recognized authority and consultant in the hotel industry. He operates his hotel, hospitality and consulting practice specializing in asset management, operational audits and the effectiveness of hotel franchising agreements and litigation support assignments. Clients are hotel owners, investors and lending institutions. His latest book is “Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf.”