The State We're In

Science and history meet at new Cape May Point center

Jun 29, 2023

By Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director

As real estate people often say, the three things that matter most about a property are location, location, location. And if you’re an organization dedicated to helping birds and marine life, there’s no better location in New Jersey than the tip of the Cape May peninsula.

That’s why the future looks bright for the new Cape May Point Science Center, which just opened to the public in a Victorian-era building situated where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay.

“Avian and marine life are our two focuses,” said Bob Mullock, president of the science center, located in an iconic red-roofed building most recently known as St. Mary-by-the-Sea, a retreat house for Catholic nuns. “This building is so blessed for its location.”

Cape May is internationally famous as a hotspot for wildlife. Migrating species, including birds and monarch butterflies, funnel into the Cape during their fall migration, awaiting the right conditions to cross the Delaware Bay. The waters surrounding Cape May are filled with marine life, including whales and dolphins.

The Cape is also a significant Black history site, with the recently-opened Harriet Tubman Museum and places associated with the Underground Railroad. The Cape May lighthouse served as a beacon for enslaved people escaping their captors by crossing the Delaware Bay in boats. The science center property – practically in the shadow of the lighthouse – is believed to have provided a landing spot for enslaved people seeking freedom in the north.

The three-story science center building was originally constructed in 1889 as the Shoreham Hotel. When the hotel business foundered, the 135-room building served as a home for aged and infirmed Black people, with the support of abolitionist William Still.  William Still is the brother of James Still – “The Black Doctor of the Pines” – whose Medford, NJ, office has been preserved by the Department of Environmental Protection and is currently being restored as a visitor destination.

In 1909, the building was purchased by the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Philadelphia-based order of nuns, as a retreat house. The U.S. Army took it over during part of World War II to house 600 soldiers. After the war ended, it was returned to the sisters and continued as a religious retreat.

When the nuns announced plans in 2016 to demolish the building and return the land to nature, local preservationists stepped in with a bold proposal to convert it into a center for scientific research and education.

Cape May Point Science Center, LLC purchased the property last year for $5.5 million, and quickly began forging local partnerships to advance scientific knowledge. Some of the first projects involved tracking tagged raptors on their migrations, using artificial intelligence to identify dolphins by the markings on their fins, and tracking the movements of horseshoe crabs in the ocean and bay.

“We didn’t want to be just a museum with artifacts,” explains Mullock. “We wanted to be a science center that recognizes problems, analyzes those problems and does something about them.” The center’s research is guided by a Science Council made up of leading scientists.

Of course, the Cape May Point Science Center also wants to engage the general public. On June 2, the center held its official grand opening, making tours available to visitors interested in the center’s unique mix of science and local history.

“We have a great history in this building – it’s an amazing building,” said Mullock, who also helped establish the Harriet Tubman Museum.

Inside the science center’s welcome center, known as the community room, tour guides recount the building’s rich history. The welcome area includes a wall filled with photos of birds, all taken within a mile of the center.

The building’s former chapel has been repurposed as the center’s exhibit room, filled with information about wildlife species found in and around Cape May, including monarch butterflies, dolphins, whales, sharks, and eagles. Each exhibit includes an advocacy project calling on visitors to take action to help protect the animals and the environment.

The science center’s vision for the future is to continue to grow, both as a museum and a hub of scientific research. Mullock envisions offering retreats where members of educational and scientific communities can immerse themselves in classes and the surrounding environment.

“I think we’re going to see this become one of the most outstanding science centers on the East Coast,” predicted Mullock. “Within five years, I’d be shocked if we didn’t have many colleges and universities using this as a place where their students can earn credits.”

The science center already is hosting a Rutgers University project to measure the impacts of climate change on sea level, wave strength and the warming of the ocean using antennas on the building. Mullock envisions using other new technologies to identify migrating birds flying overhead by their sounds and silhouettes, and protect endangered species like northern right whales by tracking their movements and warning nearby ships to slow down when one is nearby.

The center is also getting the local community involved through public programs, including stargazing from the center courtyard, nature journaling, and yoga. It also offers numerous volunteer opportunities. “So many people retire here in Cape May and have a tremendous amount of energy that they want to use,” Mullock said. Dozens of volunteers recently turned out for events to maintain the building and plant a pollinator garden.

Interested in learning more about the Cape May Point Science Center, or seeing it for yourself by attending a tour or program? Visit the center’s website at www.capemaypointsciencecenter.org/.

And for information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

About the Authors

Tom Gilbert

Co-Executive Director

Alison Mitchell

Co-Executive Director

John S. Watson, Jr.

Co-Executive Director

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director, 1999-2021

View their full bios here.

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