Two men, developers of resort facilities in the Northeast, blew into Sag Harbor about 10 years ago intending to revive several of the most iconic properties in that town as they have done elsewhere in the tri-state area. They were, and are, Curtis Bashaw and Craig Wood and their company, Cape Advisors, are used to local folks defending their heritage when others come in. The thing is, however, that Wood and Bashaw didn’t let that bother them. They care about heritage too.
The big abandoned four-story Bulova Watchcase Factory in the center of Sag Harbor, one of their targets, had been nothing but an eyesore for 30 years, thanks to the negative efforts of certain highly vocal people in the Sag Harbor community. Developers had come in, proposed things and gone with their tails between their legs, to be replaced by other developers who had proposed things and gone. It had remained, all these years, a sturdy and formidable mess, and about 15 years ago, bricks began to fall off the main solid concrete structure into the weeds.
“We survived 67 hearings,” one of the two developers told me with a smile. Who could smile through 67 hearings? Curtis Bashaw could. And Craig Wood could. And now the results are in. The Watchcase, finally, is open. It’s been restored to its original Victorian appearance right up to its five-story roof turrets. Its gorgeous. Its 67 luxury apartment units are not going to disrupt a town of 3,000 people in any way that I can figure.
Because I wondered what kind of stuff Curtis Bashaw and Craig Wood were made of, to do what nobody had been able to do before, I made an appointment with one of them, Curtis Bashaw, and met him at the bar of the completely restored Baron’s Cove Inn, a hotel project they more recently did down by the waterfront. Beyond brass fittings, the fireplace and the mahogany and teak of that space, I sat watching down below as hotel guests basked in the sun alongside the swimming pool or listened to the quiet folk music being played by a local trio nearby.
I suppose I expected a man in a business suit. What I got was a slender fellow wearing a linen shirt, jean-cut pants, a baseball cap and deck shoes. He is about 50, acts half that, and is great fun to be around. People came over to him to say hello—employees, guests, friends—throughout our interview. Had someone told me he was the lifeguard there I would have believed them. He was the developer.
Curtis told me about his background. It is quite remarkable and swirls around his grandfather, who was the patriarch of an incredible extended family that made their home in Cherry Hill and Collingswood, New Jersey and spent summers in the historic old whaling resort town of Cape May where Carl McIntire, this grandfather, owned several of the major hotels.
“My grandfather was the minister of the Presbyterian Church of Atlantic City,” Curtis told me, “as his father was before him. You should Google him. He was quite famous. He was one of the first gospel ministers with his own show on the radio. He wrote books. He lectured. He traveled around the world. We’d go to church, my mom and dad and I, and after that we’d often go to his house where we would discuss the sermon he had given that morning. I was involved in that. I already had my opinions.”
One of the first jobs that Curtis ever had was as his grandfather’s assistant—carrying his bags, actually—as he traveled all around the world proselytizing his particular branch of Conservative Presbyterianism.
“How old were you?” I asked.
“Where did you go?”
“Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel.”
Curtis told me about his other grandparents and parents, but kept coming back to the patriarch.
His mother was Carl McIntire’s daughter. His father had been a lawyer with a degree as an accountant. He became Carl McIntire’s advisor when he joined the family. Carl McIntire’s wife Fairy, Curtis’ grandmother, had been a school teacher in Texas. Their daughter, Curtis’ mother, married this young lawyer-accountant and became a homemaker and raised Curtis, three daughters and another son. Carl McIntire was the center of the world to all these people.
“Grandfather grew up barefoot in Oklahoma. He studied the Magna Carta. The Bible. He loved America. He appreciated it as the land of opportunity.”
“What was your growing up like?” I asked.
“I went to the Cherry Hill public school from kindergarten to ninth grade, then to a Christian private school to finish up high school. I remember trips to Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Jamestown, to various battlefields, all with our extended clan. Most importantly we spent summers in Cape May. We were about God and Country.”
In 1962, when Curtis was just 2 years old, his grandfather bought the down-at-the-heel grand hotel of Cape May called The Admiral. He restored it and renamed it the Christian Admiral. He also bought Congress Hall, another magnificent old hotel in Cape May, and he bought a third one, the Windsor, as well. Thousands of people came to Cape May every summer for what sometimes were four-week bible conferences. McIntire also held retreats, bible readings and evangelical events. He published 12 books and hundreds of pamphlets, booklets, sermons, speeches and documentary portfolios. He had a radio show that was broadcast on 600 stations around the country. He founded and published the popular Christian Beacon every week.
“Cape May turned to tourism after whaling died and developed some of the largest hotels in the country in the mid 1800s. Cape May was eclipsed by Atlantic City in the early 20th century.
But the times were changing. In the 1950s and 1960s, these big old rambling hotels, all built in the prior century, were getting old and tired as the country drifted into the modern era. In the 1970s, the big new thing was motels. Some of the old hotels were acquired by Curtis’s grandfather for his conference center and some were torn down. Some of the big mansions took in boarders, and became bed and breakfast establishments.
“Were you the eldest male grandchild?” I asked, taking a guess.
“I was the second oldest. The oldest was Norris.”
“Was he urged to follow in grandfather’s footsteps?”
“We both were. Norris did for a while. Now, though, he works for a public affairs company, and he’s the Deputy Mayor of Lower Township, New Jersey”
“I went to Shelton College for my freshman and sophomore years, this was a college my grandfather founded. In the summers, I worked for my grandfather. I was a busboy, a bellhop, a waiter. And then I transferred to Wheaton College near Chicago, where I finished up.”
“That was a long way from home.”
Curtis was thinking of something.
“I remember the summer of 1977. We were cleaning up the dining room listening to Fleetwood Mac and their album Rumours. I was 17 and working at Congress Hall, and I was looking out at this large back lawn of the big hotel, considered by all to be Cape May’s downtown back yard, with this full moon casting shadows. And I was thinking—some day I’m going to fix up this hotel.”
After graduating from Wheaton, Curtis applied to and got accepted to Rutgers Law School. He intended to go.
“Because of my experience working in the hotels, my grandfather put me in charge of managing Congress Hall. I deferred Rutgers. Then I deferred a second year, and they told me the next year I either had to go or I would lose the opportunity. I decided to forgo law school.”
Many of the smaller hotels were closing and for sale in Cape May now.
“The bed and breakfasts had charm, but no TV, air conditioning and private bathrooms. Meanwhile, the motels had TV, air conditioning and private bathrooms but no charm. A little hotel, with all of the above, could succeed.
“I went to my dad and convinced him to help me buy the Virginia, a small run-down hotel.”
This was in 1986 when he was 26 years old. He needed to raise $1.2 million from banks, but none would lend it to him. He persisted. He knew this would work. As a back up plan, he applied to Wharton Business School to get an MBA. He needed more skills.
“Then came this special day,” he told me. “In the morning, I got a letter from Wharton telling me I had been accepted. Then, in the afternoon, I heard from a bank. It was the seventh bank. They said yes. After giving it some thought, I decided to do both. I went to school in Philadelphia during the week, then I’d come home to Cape May and run the Virginia.”
Curtis rebuilt the Virginia, reduced the 33 rooms to 24, gave them all private baths, added a restaurant, and in 2014, the Virginia was named as one of the top 500 Gold List hotels in the world by Condé Nast.
Curtis graduated Wharton in 1990. His thesis was about how to run a boutique hotel.
It was during his college years that Curtis discovered he was gay. I would not mention it here, except that in an extended, very powerful family with Christian values, way back then in the late 1980s, it was very important to Curtis what his grandfather might think.
“My grandfather wrote me a letter stating that I had such promise. He wrote that he wanted me to be a preacher and that he would pray for me, but I would need to make decisions about what was right for myself according to the eyes of God. ‘I don’t think this lifestyle is God’s plan for you’ he wrote, ‘but tolerance is people of good will learning to live together.’ And so he would.”
“I loved and appreciated my upbringing and values I was taught,” says Curtis.
And then a very bad thing happened.
It was 1988, and the country was enduring the Savings and Loan debacle. It went into a recession.
“Grandfather’s company went into bankruptcy. There were ballooning loans. There was no saving it. The Christian Admiral, the Windsor and the Congress Hall, all of them, closed. This was not a personal bankruptcy, so our daily lives were not affected. But grandfather’s nonprofit, the Christian Beacon, a
501(c)(3), filed for Chapter 11 to protect the conference facilities.”
Grandfather was 80. There was no starting over.
On the other hand, there was Curtis. And Curtis, at 30, was the owner of the Virginia, the possessor of all the knowledge a degree in business could give to him, a lover of history, hotels and resorts and filled with the desire and determination to preserve the old hotels. He would, as it turned out, have to explain things to a bankruptcy judge, the creditors, the mortgage holders and the investors. The amount he would need to raise would be in the neighborhood of $6 million.
“As it worked out, Congress Hall would remain abandoned for nearly 10 years. I made deals with the RTC mortgage bank, which had foreclosed. I got the creditors to wait. I found that I could borrow some money from new investors and the rest I could get by tearing down the Christian Admiral, selling the land and using the money raised in the real estate sale to restore Congress Hall in the center of town and repay the creditors.”
In the middle of all this, he set up a partnership with Craig Wood, a man from the Midwest who after five years with Helmsley Spear in New York City, joined with Craig to get through the re-structuring in Cape May and do traditional real estate deals in the City.
The partnership became a corporation called Cape Advisors and it opened an office in New York City on Lower Broadway in 1995.
In New York, the two men concentrated on older buildings in need of renovation. They restored 210 Lafayette Street at Broome, 100 11th Avenue at 19th Street, a building at Broadway and Broome and the old Electric Circus on East 8th Street, which they renovated into apartments.
Meanwhile, in Cape May, over the next 15 years, in addition to Congress Hall and the Virginia, Cape Advisors bought and restored the Sandpiper, a 1970s mom-and-pop bed and breakfast, the Star Inn, an old building from the 1920s, and the Beach Shack, a building from the 1960s.
“Looking back,” Curtis said, “when I first bought the Virginia, I employed 28 people. Now we employ over 1,000 people in Cape May. We have had a huge impact on that town. And the town has prospered in many ways.”
I asked Curtis how he came to get involved with Sag Harbor.
“I had been coming out to the Hamptons a lot during the 1980s and early 1990s. It was an escape from Cape May. I had many friends I’d stay with. It seemed to me that for a resort of this size, there weren’t, if you didn’t consider Montauk, very many places to stay. I think there were no more than 10 of any great size in
Curtis learned that the owners of the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton wanted to sell. He and Craig put in a bid for it.
“But we lost it. Someone bought it for all cash.”
The grand opening for Congress Hall in the center of downtown Cape May was in June of 2002.
“Grandfather was so looking forward to it,” Curtis said. “But he died four months before the opening. He was 94. He would have loved it.”
“But he had seen what you had done.”
Soon, Cape Advisors had purchased and were putting together a renovation plan for the five-story Bulova Watchcase Factory in Sag Harbor. It was 2006.
Here was a factory building constructed in 1881 as the largest and most dominant structure in the community. It had been abandoned in 1981, had undergone a Superfund site cleanup paid for by Bulova that lasted 15 years, had scaffolding around it to keep people walking by from being hit by wayward bricks, and had just gone through a plan, that had collapsed, that might have turned it into a community arts and crafts gallery and workshop where artists could rent spaces. Who would have paid for it? That was the rub. The last of what I believe was three other commercial developers had last looked at it five years before.
Sometimes people just don’t know what they are being presented with. Here was a resort hotel and apartment complex developer that knew how to do things beautifully, historically correctly and the right way. And all they asked for was permission to do it.
You would have thought they were proposing to convert this building into a high security prison. I’ve been around publishing this magazine for a long time. I’ve seen all this before. What about apartments for the poor? Weren’t we just in the middle of having an arts and crafts complex?
As I said, the hearings went on and on and on.
“Craig and I are optimists,” Curtis said. “You need to be one in order to push these complicated projects along.”
It didn’t pay off. They would be close to a deal, and then there would be a new election and those now elected didn’t like something else. This went on and on. I have never seen, and I have seen a lot, resort developers pursue a project like this with such patience. And then, suddenly, in 2008, the bottom fell out
of the economy.
Cape Advisors sent the village a letter. They were putting the project on hold. The time was no longer right. They’d be back.
With this, the Village realized the error of their ways. Hey, wait a minute; this building could be this eyesore for another 30 years. Why did we give them such a hard time? We shoulda, we woulda, we shoulda, but we didn’t. And now they are gone.
The Village actually appealed to Cape Advisors to come back and they would be treated much more kindly. And, in 2011, with the clouds parting, they did. And things have gone along pretty well since then.
To date, 39 of the 67 units have been sold. People are moving in. The front desk is open 24/7. The swimming pool is open. Prospective customers are looking it over too, especially for the larger units, some of which, as the last thing to do, remain unfinished.
I spoke to Craig about this time.
“We could have torn down the building and put in housing,” Craig said. “That we could have done in a year and a half. But this needed to be restored. It would take three and a half.
“It’s a luxury condominium. It reuses much of the granite we found in the building. We have a concierge staff, a live-in manager. There is a fitness pavilion, with a sauna and gym, a 64’ saltwater swimming pool, a great room, a catering hall, a private dining room. Underneath it all is an underground garage that is big enough for all the residents and their needs. It’s a beautiful property and there is a market for this now.”
Craig is running the Watchcase project. Curtis is in charge of Baron’s Cove, a 1950s motel they’ve refashioned into a major resort hotel in the town, arguably one of the best on the East End.
Curtis brought in his sister, Colleen Bashaw, to do the interior design of Baron’s Cove. “Colleen’s aesthetic is perfect for Cape Resorts. She had been working in New York City for Albert Hadley, but when she became a mom, she decided to come help us. She has done seven hotels for us. I could not have done this without her.”
Baron’s Cove Inn opened for Memorial Day this year. It has the look and feel of a magnificent old Inn from the nineteenth century. There is a sunset view over boats from the 85-seat restaurant upstairs, from the front porch rocking chairs and even from the pool. There is concierge service, shuttle bus to the beaches in the Hamptons and on Shelter Island, music and dining, a gift shop and 67 rooms, all with sleeping balconies and water views. There is even an herb and vegetable garden on the property, from which some of the produce comes to make the great accompaniments for meals, all put together by Michelin ranked chef Matty Boudreau, formerly of the Vine Street Café on Shelter Island.
These two men have brightened the look of Sag Harbor without changing it a great deal. They are very important people in the evolution of this old whaling town and I was happy to meet them.