At 5:30 on a recent June evening just outside Cape May proper, the 1,500-square-foot art gallery and studio belonging to Dave and Christina Clemans is filled with a who’s-who of the island.
Surrounded by more than 60 of Dave’s paintings — many of them impressionistic depictions of nature — local luminaries munch on bacon-wrapped scallops and gourmet cheese. Tom Carroll, responsible for launching Cape May’s bed-and-breakfast revolution in the 1970s, motions through glass doors at the in-ground pool. “No skinny-dipping until after 7 p.m.,” he tells the crowd.
From the studio, guests will meander through a terraced garden to the property’s main house — one of the oldest in the county — for self-guided tours.
“It’s like its own little village here,” remarks local real estate agent Jody Alessandrine. “I’m half-expecting to run into a cobbler and a potter on the lawn.”
This celebration of the 30th annual Cape May Music Festival and its donors is the latest important gathering hosted by Dave and Christina (Chris, to friends) over the last 40 years. From a gala benefiting the Cape May Stage theater company, which carried a $500 ticket, to an intimate concert of the Exit Zero Jazz Festival, the almost three-acre property has become a hub for community-centered events.
It is, perhaps, paradoxical: Town leaders responsible for Cape May’s future routinely gather in a space that’s a window into the island’s past.
“Old men like attention,” said Dave, 77. “So if people want to see my house, I’m flattered. My wife says I’m a curmudgeon, and I am kind of crabby. I do a lot of bitching and moaning. But this place helps me. It has a soul that makes me feel safe and inspired. I don’t mind sharing that.”
When Chris, the longtime owner of a Cape May real estate firm, purchased the home in 1985, she had never seen inside — she’d merely fallen in love with it while driving along Sea Grove Avenue. When she called her husband to let him know what she’d done, Dave, the former owner of an art business with an interest in historic preservation, was immediately on board.
“The house, likely constructed in 1694, is a well-preserved example of first-period, heavy timber-frame — or what you would call post-and-beam — construction,” said architectural historian Joan Berkey, who prepared the 1996 application that landed the Clemans home on the National Register of Historic Places. “It’s a window into how the earliest settlers here lived. Most like it in the state have been lost to development pressure.”
The original 864-square-foot structure — which had only a dining room and hall on the first floor and bedroom and bathroom on the second — was built by a constable named Jonathan Pyne, among the first two officially recognized residents on the Cape (though whalers and Native Americans would have been there first). He used oak beams from trees likely felled on his property for the framing, which, held together entirely with pegs, is still intact and, in some places, still visible. The original cooking fireplace is still operational, although Dave, former owner of the Cucina Rosa restaurant in Cape May, naturally prefers a modern stove.
The property has had many owners over the years, including Judge Downs Edmonds. Along with John Wanamaker of Philadelphia-department-store fame, he helped found the religious retreat called Sea Grove, now Cape May Point.
The house, affectionately referred to as Lindenwood because of a 275-year-old Linden tree in the front yard, acquired the Federalist style it has today sometime between 1820 and 1840 — the windows, doors, yellow pine floors, mantels, and interior walls are from that period, and additional rooms, including a living room, kitchen and two guest bedrooms, were added then. For this reason, Dave and Chris furnished their home with Chippendale and Hepplewhite antiques from that era. They found many of them in Philadelphia or, in the case of one Isaac Brokaw clock, in Nashville. In the dining room, Spode English china is kept in the 1820s French armoire that held Dave’s clothing as a kid.
Of course, there have been what Dave calls modern “transgressions.” With additions he and Chris have done, the house is now 3,200 square feet. They turned a screened-in porch into a glass-room conservatory complete with a Raymour & Flanigan sofa where they eat French toast on Sunday mornings. The casement windows and 16 skylights there, which offer a view of 80-year-old perennial gardens and a rare American elm tree, are contemporary. That red-oak-framed studio and art gallery they had built (which doubles as a pool house for his early morning skinny-dipping) is modern, too. But Dave refused to use any artificial materials in its construction.
“I agonize over each new project and whether it’s appropriate,” he said. “And I attempt to maintain a continuity of design.”
It’s been a labor of love, he insists, that’s worth the anxiety.
“I’d be perfectly happy if I could putter around here every day and never leave again,” he said, adding that the Lindenwood grounds are a muse for his painting. “If my wife, the queen, didn’t insist on being social, I’d probably turn into some kind of recluse with stacks of newspapers everywhere.”
For now, at least, the Clemans home is open to Cape May socialites, particularly those with an appreciation for historic preservation.
“Only by respecting the past can you do a decent job of living in the present,” Dave said, strolling by a 30-year-old climbing hydrangea in his backyard. “You cannot entertain a future without reverence for what has gone before.”
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