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The original Columbia House, built in 1846, was a large hotel built by Captain George Hildreth. Its grounds stretched from what is currently Hughes Street straight through to Beach Avenue, since Columbia Avenue did not yet exist. By 1850, the Columbia House had expanded to be the largest and most "aristocratic" on Cape Island. In 1878, a great fire roared through Cape Island, destroying most of the hotels and private homes in the center of town, including the Columbia House hotel.
It was during this time that the Victorians built their opulent summer "cottages" with great attention to detail and architectural diversity. The streets of Cape May quickly became lined with Gothic Revival, Second Empire, and Renaissance Revival homes. On the grounds of the original Columbia House hotel, William Essen chose to erect a magnificent Queen Anne style cottage as his summer home complete with a majestic turret, a rounded veranda, and ocean views. Built in 1886, it is this structure which is currently known as the Columbia House.
William Essen, a German immigrant, made his fortune selling ice cream and baked goods. The Essen family enjoyed entertaining guests on the veranda of their summer cottage and their parties often made the social pages of the newspapers at the time. The bakery that the Essen family opened in 1872 is still in existence today on Washington Street in Cape May and is currently called "La Patisserie." As for the Columbia House, its current owners, like the Essens, still enjoy entertaining guests in the summer and year round as well!