Dr. Emlen Physick’s stately mansion
The restoration of the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate is one of Cape May MAC’s crowning achievements. Thousands who’ve toured return from year to year for a new take on this architectural gem.
CAPE MAY — When you walk into the 1879 Physick House Museum, you step back in time to a much different era. The crown jewel of Cape May MAC’s (Museums+Arts+Culture) three historic sites, it is, in equal parts, an outstanding example of Victorian Stick Style architecture, beautifully and lovingly restored, and a testament to the dedication and perseverance of visionaries who fought tooth and nail to save it.
The house was built for Dr. Emlen Physick, who never married, and his widowed mother Mrs. Frances Ralston. Dr. Physick’s two maiden aunts, Isabella and Emilie Parmentier, also lived here. Dr. Physick descended from a famous and wealthy Philadelphia family. His grandfater, Philip Syng Physick, is considered the Father of American Surgery, having invented numerous medical instruments and procedures, including the stomach pump, still in use today. Emlen Physick graduated from medical school but never practiced medicine. Upon his move to Cape May, he built this home, designed by the great American architect Frank Furness, and lived the life of a gentleman farmer, owning two tenant farms and keeping chickens, guinea fowl, cows, horses and dogs, on the estate. He was a Cape May civic gadfly in his day.
Over the course of the 20th century, the house fell into disrepair. Members of the Physick family passed away and the property changed hands several times. By the 1960s it was considered by locals as Cape May’s “haunted mansion,” in such disrepair that a demolition permit was eventually issued for its destruction.
The dramatic story of its survival is extensive, and involves many individuals who would then become the founders in 1970 of the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, the organization that has thrived since then, now known as Cape May MAC.
Watch one of these founders, Tom Carroll, in this series of videos that features highlights of this year’s exhibit, “50 Years of MAC,” now in the Carroll Gallery, Carriage House, on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate. You can now visit the exhibit in person! The exhibit is open daily:
Each year, tours of the Physick House Museum are revised to feature particular aspects of Victorian life and culture. This year, Cape May MAC’s 50th anniversary year, the tour theme is “This Old House: Preservation of the Physick Estate,” in which we focus on the Physick House, itself, from its years as a grand residence for the Physick family, to its tragic decline, to its near demolition and, finally, to its rise as fully restored local historic landmark.
The complete arc of this story is full of fascinating details, and can be heard on a full guided tour of the estate.
Tours are now offered daily. Masks are required and guides wear masks or shields. Social distance is maintained.
For more information, visit www.capemaymac.org.
(Thanks to Cape May MAC Curator Gail Capehart for her contribution to this story).
(Story updated August 1, 2020).