Carolyn Pitts, 85, an architectural historian and a pioneer for the preservation of Cape May whose efforts got National Register and National Landmark status for the town, died of diabetes Friday at the Watermark at Logan Square. She lived in Society Hill.
Miss Pitts' drive to preserve Cape May began after a nor'easter hit the Shore resort in March 1962. The boardwalk and Convention Hall were destroyed, and beaches and homes were damaged when the town was flooded for three days.
Miss Pitts, an employee of the National Park Service in 1962, traveled from Washington to Cape May to survey the damage of historic buildings, backed by the Historic American Buildings Survey.
She obtained grants from local foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund teams of architects and historians to blanket the town. They discovered buildings that were the work of such distinguished architects as Samuel Sloan, Steven Decatur Button, and Frank Furness.
The teams also discovered aspects of the social history of the resort that had been forgotten or unrecognized. For four summers, Miss Pitts' team researched and produced precise drawings of the historical structures in Cape May.
Miss Pitts successfully fought to get Cape May placed on the National Register of Historic Places, much to the displeasure of city fathers.
"They called her brassy and bold," said Hugh McCauley, a historic preservationist. "The developers called her an obstructionist. They could not visualize the revival."
Through the rebirth, a profusion of the town's gingerbread houses and architectural decorations prompted the designation of Cape May as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. As the town was restored, buildings adorned the town painted in colors ranging from white to confections of deep-forest green, Pompeiian red, cobalt blue, and other vivid Victorian colors. Verandas and architectural trim were painted in contrasting colors.
To encourage historical reproductions, Miss Pitts, McCauley, Michael Fish and Trina Vaux published the Cape May Handbook, describing local architecture and how to maintain and restore it. More than 1,000 copies of the book were given free to residents, and it was immediately hailed nationwide as a model.
Raised in East Mount Airy, the daughter of a Marine, Miss Pitts graduated in 1942 from Germantown High School. Miss Pitts earned a bachelor's degree in 1947 from the Moore Institute of Art and a master of fine arts in 1949 from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1952, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to lecture in Europe and Istanbul, Turkey.
In the early 1960s, Miss Pitts moved to Washington and worked with the Historic American Buildings Survey and the National Register office. She became the architecture historian in the National Historic Landmarks program at the Department of the Interior. In 1996, Miss Pitts was given the Meritorious Service Award for preserving landmarks of all kinds.
Miss Pitts is survived by a sister, Elinore Desher.
No service is planned.