Well before Hurricane Sandy, there was the Great March Storm of 1962, a nor’easter that decimated the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.
For the 23rd tribute of Women’s History month, I’m smiling in gratitude as I think of Carolyn Pitts, an architectural historian who saved Cape May, New Jersey from the folly of urban renewal. Raised in Mount Airy, she graduated from Germantown High School, earned a bachelor’s degree from Moore College of Art, and an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1962, as an employee of the National Park Service, she traveled to Cape May to survey the damage from the nor’easter known as the Ash Wednesday storm that had destroyed much of the town’s beachfront property.
Ms. Pitts was sufficiently impressed with the historic architecture and the social history of the town to seek out grants and return with teams of architects and historians to survey and document the town’s resources. Along with Bruce and Corinne Minnix and Fred Kuhner, she founded the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in 1970. For four summers, she and her team created detailed and precise drawings to record the historic structures. She then fought, successfully, to get Cape May placed on the National Register of Historic Places, although the town fathers and developers opposed the designation at the time.
In 1976, Cape May became the only National Historic Landmark city in the country, and one year later, Carolyn Pitts and her team published the Cape May Handbook as a guide for ongoing preservation efforts. Today, the economic vitality and charm of Cape May’s preserved historic environment attests to the foresight and vision of this stalwart preservationist.
Carolyn Pitts worked with the Historic American Buildings Survey and the National Register office. In 1996, she received the Meritorious Service Award for preserving landmarks of all types. The organization she co-founded, now named the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and Humanities remains a vital source of historic and cultural memory in the popular, bustling beach town.
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