Shore Guest House Just Takes It Easy
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Thursday, September 17, 1998
by Daniel Rubin
A "No Vacancy" sign swings from Springside's porch, but the four guest rooms are empty. The mauve Victorian on Cape May's oldest street is locked, but Bill and Meryl Nelson are home.
The night before, they slept with their bedroom door open. "We roamed naked around the house," says Bill, 73, a writer, retired engineer and ex-surfer who would rather be building his boat than letting people in off the street to ignore the artworks, books and '30s furnishings that fill this monument to a boyhood estate.
It's the week after Labor Day, and the phone is ringing, Bill lets it go. The machine will pick it up, he says. He's in mid-story. He welcomes the change of season, but wonders why only he wants to heed it.
"I can't get over it. So much business in September. I'm not ready for it. I wish they would stay home, but that's a bad attitude."
August was a particularly good month of Cape May, and particularly wearing on Nelson. A few days before, a guest approached, bored. "What's there to do here?" the man said. "You can see the Victorian buildings." Bill offered solicitously. "We have that back in Staten Island." "You can go to the beach."
"We went yesterday." They would up hitting an outlet mall.
Nelson shudders when he tells that story. He is a towering figure with long, snowy hair and unruly eyebrows and sideburns. His voice is gentle, his laugh explosive.
He's actually a fine host, sizing up his visitors, then making a appropriate suggestions for adventures and helping them find answers in his deep library of reference volumes.
One thing tends to lead to another with Nelson, so a question about the concrete ship off Sunset Beach turns into an explanation of why the Europeans tend to build bridges out of concrete, and how steel is made, and whether taconite ore comes from an American Indian word.
Springside is not an impulse buy, but many of its guests would go nowhere else. For one thing, visitors must share bathrooms, and that weeds out the unsociable. The price scares others - it's on the low side, $60 to $75 a night for a bright room with a ceiling fan and perhaps a view of the ocean. And the Nelsons don't feed their guests unless it's a weekend. He says it's appalling, the notion of strangers forced to sit together at breakfast making conservation: "We would rather sit down and each read our books."
He explains his demographics: "We get nurses. We get interns. But not doctors. We get psychologists, but we don't get psychiatrists. We get teachers, but we don't get principals or superintendents. Once in a great while, we get somebody with some real money, but it's an accident."
What his guests get is a cozy place graced with maritime sketches and Manhattan streetscapes drawn by his renowned uncles, Reynolds and Gifford Beal; Gauguin-like beach scenes painted by his not-so-famous Aunt Eleanor; and photographs of his father dressed like a midway sharpie from his days at Harvard, circa 1912.
They also get to hear a serious collection of early jazz- 78s, LPs, CDs. He's big on Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman. Upstairs, they can get lost in shelves stocked with Ray Bradbury, Russell Baker, Dick Francis.
"The inside is sort of a mess," Nelson says. "But people feel at home that way. It makes me nervous to be in a room that doesn't have any books or magazines and everything's in its place."
The house is one of the Seven Sisters built in 1890 and 1891 around a formal garden and fountain on Atlantic Terrace, which runs behind Jackson Street. It was originally painted yellow ochre, moss green, barn red and clay.
The Nelsons have been in Cape May since a Columbus Day vacation 25 years ago. They had been living together in East Brunswick. She taught school in Newark. He was out of work, having been laid off by a soon-to-crash computer company in Princeton that he managed.
He went surfing- he has written a textbook on his boyhood passion. She went walking. "She came to the water's edge and said. 'How would you like to live here?" I said, "That would be fun.'"
Bill renovated a 50-room apartment building while looking after their five children from previous marriages. Meryl taught in the local schools. After five years, they bought the vacant place known as Mrs. Watkins' Rooming House, at 18 Jackson St.
"The place was a wreck," he says. It took about 10 years to whip into shape, particularly since Bill also made five boats during that time. His latest is a 25-foot yawl modeled after the 19th century oyster boats that used to ply Long Island Sound.
They named the guest house Springside after a Poughkeepsie estate that his grandfather acquired at a tax sale in the beginning of the century. "He was an opportunist," Nelson says. Grandfather was also an active collector, though his taste was peculiar.
While Nelson has many of the family heirlooms, some eluded his grasp, such as a seven-foot-tall white marble replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Another treasure was a life-size wood carving of a gorilla wearing a straw boater. It had mother-of-pearl teeth and held out a tray for calling cards. It greeted guest to the original Springside. It could be useful now.
Those of us who know Bill, think that this article captured his essence. By the way, he is fond of explaining that this time he was not misquoted at all by the press. We wish to thank Dan Rubin and the Philadelphia Inquirer for this fun article. - Meryl