This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Stephanie Hoagland: Good afternoon, so we spent most of today in Oklahoma, and so now we’re going to veer East and head over to the Jersey Shore. Alright, perfect. In the early 2000s, the Wildwoods were home to an amazing collection of 1950s and 60s motels. The New Jersey Historic Preservation Office had issued their opinion and stressed their excitement at having the prospect of having this collection listed on the state and national register. This push for the designation was being led by several motel owners and all of it seemed to be in the bag.
But today, there is no doo wop historic district. So, after appearing poised for preservation success, today we’re going to take a look at how and why this grassroots movement failed.
Collectively known as the Wildwoods, the resort is comprised of three separate municipalities, North Wildwood, Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest. They’re located on a 6 mile long barrier island at the southern tip of the state at exit four on the Garden State Parkway.
The history of these cities mirrors those of many American seaside resort towns. They were founded between 1880 and 1905 by land developers who saw this as a great location for a summer resort. The name Wildwood was given to the communities by one of the developers in honor of the dense, twisted forest growth that, at the time, covered the island at the time of their founding.
The growth of the Wildwoods was slow until the introduction of a reliable railroad service in 1889. These trains brought visitors from nearby Philadelphia, but also from areas further afield, such as Connecticut and New York City. In an attempt to compete with other New Jersey resorts, such as Atlantic City, each town built their own boardwalks and amusement pavilions.
To house these visitors, hotels began to spring up along the length of the island, ranging in size from boarding houses with a few rooms to the larger luxury hotels, as seen here. Although some of these hotels catered to a higher class of customers, the majority of visitors were middle and working class patrons from Philadelphia who were drawn in by the specials and affordable rates that these establishments offered.
Like many resort communities, the Wildwoods struggled through the Depression, and in an effort to attract customers, the resort focused on offering special events, such as baby parades and fishing regattas. The Miss America beauty pageant was even held in Wildwood in 1932, after it was deemed too immoral for Atlantic City.
The end of World War II brought with it the end of rationing, which combined with increased in leisure time and disposable income, allowed families more time for vacations. The Wildwoods publicity department began an aggressive campaign to promote the resort, which brought an increase in the number of visitors to the island nearly every season. During the July 4th holiday in 1952, officials counted almost 300 visitors, who arrived in about 50,000 cars.
This increase in automobile traffic to the Wildwoods required a change in how visitors were housed. In an effort to keep up with the need for accommodations, the resort saw a boom of new motel construction. Part of the attraction of the motel was the casual atmosphere and park at the door convenience, which wasn’t found in a stuffy hotel. There’s also the liberation from the requirements of tipping bellboys and desk clerks. Easy access, free parking, no reservations required and personal privacy.
Motel construction in the Wildwoods began in earnest in the late 1940s. The first motels, such as the Sundeck and the Ship Ahoy, seen here, were designed like apartment units. These motels were primarily two story rectangular structures, and lacked many of the amenities that would be seen later, such as swimming pools and onsite parking.
The early 50s saw the rise of the linear court style of motel, such as these four seen here. These motels tended to be a single story with clean, modern lines, and were almost always painted white.
Perhaps the greatest boost to the resort was the opening of the Garden State Parkway in 1955, which ran vertically along the length of the state. Upon its completion, it was estimated that the parkway would bring an additional 349000 cars to the Wildwoods each season.
The mid- to late 50s saw not only an increase in the number of motels being built on the island, but also a change in style. These new motels were attracting families by offering amenities such as playgrounds, ping pong tables, kitchenettes and miniature golf. They were often two stories in height, L-shape in plan, and set back into the property line. The always present pool was tucked into the crook of the L, with pull in parking, one for each unit, along the street.
Many of these new motels were modeled after designs seen in Florida. They were inspired by the glamorous post-war resort hotels designed by Morris Lapidus, who worked to combine the images of luxury and opulence with the strict budget guidelines set by the owners.
The Wildwoods motels were built relatively inexpensively and then heavily embellished. The owners worked to bring the high style architecture seen in Florida down to an every man’s level. These motels were truly vernacular structures, in that they took progressive designs and constructed them in traditional materials.
Many of the most fantastical motels, such as the Tahiti, the Chateau Blue and the Ebb Tide, were constructed of simple concrete block and then used wood framing to create the modern appendages, such as butterfly rubes, angled walls, and porte cocheres that matched the stylistic designs conjured up by the exotic names of the motels.
Between 1956 and 1964, over 200 motels were built in the island. Much of what made these motels so visually stimulating were the embellishments. The superfluous decoration that gave each individual motel a sense of place on an island filled with hundreds of other hotels identical in body and plan. The embellishments could include wonderful neon signs often perched on the roof to be clearly seen from the street, colorful lighting around the pool, decorated sockets under the balconies, and even the plaques displaying the room numbers on the doors, which matched the theme of the motel. It was this ornamentation that attracted a visitor and his family, and made them want to return to the same motel year after year.
Each of these details worked to support the theme of the motel, and enable the visitor to imagine they were visiting places that they would not normally have been able to afford. The lava rocks, tikis, and grass thatch umbrellas at the Waikiki’s transported you to a tropical paradise, or the five story Bagoda, and Asian-inspired garden walkways at the Singapore could whisk a family away to the Orient.
Throughout the 1960s, the number of visitors to the island continued to grow, and it was estimated that they were entertaining as many as 2 million people a year. Even though new motels were continuously being built, virtually every motel on the island had its no vacancy sign switched on daily.
Starting in the mid-1960s, taller motel structures, generally three to four stories high, began to appear. Although these motels were taller, at a block long, they still utilized the horizontality seen in the smaller motels, which was emphasized by the decorative railing at each balcony and the expanse of large picture windows at each floor.
The late 1960s saw an increase in crime rates and rowdy behavior. Robberies, assaults, fights, and even murder were giving the resort a bad name. It was also haunted by competition from larger amusement parks, such as Disneyland and Six Flags. The legalization of gambling in Atlantic City brought with it the construction of large, showy casinos that attracted both the big name entertainers and crowds who flocked to see their shows. Additionally, media coverage of ocean pollution and water contamination caused many visitors to search for vacation spots that didn’t involve the Jersey Shore.
The gas crisis and economic downturn of the 1970s further injured the resort, and by 1990, the city of Wildwood had an unemployment rate of 19%, the highest on the Jersey Shore. 27% of the island’s permanent residents were living below the poverty level. As a summer resort, the island never developed an industrial base, and was dependent upon the tourist economy that only lasted from May to September. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s through to the mid-90s, business on the Wildwoods remained slow, and this commercial inactivity led to preservation by neglect of the motels.
Starting in the late 1990s, the Wildwoods saw resurgence in popularity. It’s collection of 1950s and 60s architecture was unlike that found anywhere else in America, and it began to attract academic and media attention from a number of sources. Part of this newfound popularity was due to the creation of the Doo Wop preservation league, which was founded in 1997, and whose mission was to foster awareness, appreciation, and education of the popular culture and imagery of the 1950s and 60s, and to promote the preservation of the largest collection of mid-century resort architecture found in the United States.
Bringing attention to the island’s collection of mid-century modern architecture was just one part of a multi-pronged effort to attract visitors, extend the annual tourist season, beginning on September, and revitalize the local economy. Extensive redevelopment of the island’s boardwalks and piers, including the construction of a new convention center to attract programming and visitors in the off season. Wildwood was staking its economic future on the success of Doo Wop. City planners continued to work to promote the islands unique architectural resource, and extended the doo wop theme to other new design elements, such as pedestrian boulevards, street lights, and signage.
In an effort to get new development to follow the doo wop theme, architects developed a handbook of design guidelines, entitled How to Doo Wop, which laid out the doo wop vision and provided instructions on rehabilitating existing structures and how to incorporate new construction into the context of existing architecture. The city of Wildwood adopted this guidebook in its development ordinance to enhance the community in much the same way as Miami beach had adopted at deco as the theme for its community.
The turn of the 21st century brought the beginnings of a real estate bubble, and developers began taking an interest in properties on the island, with the aim of demolishing the motels and constructing modern condominiums and townhouses. Jack Morry, a motel owner and a co-founder, and then president, of the Doo Wop Preservation League was concerned about the recent demolitions, and began working with the cultural resource management company Arch 2 about the issue of historic preservation, and to see if the motels would be eligible for protection. They understood that the first step would be an inventory of the relevant properties.
And this is where I come in. Over the summer of 2001, I was hired as an intern to survey over 300 commercial structures on the island. Arch 2 redesigned the survey forms to include criteria specific to the motels, such as lobby, location, and description, swimming pool location and shape, decorative motifs, signage and balcony design, including documenting of the shape of the eves, edges, and railings. After graduation, I was hired by Arch 2 and over the course of the next year and a half, we researched the histories of both the island and the evolution of the motel, completed the nomination forms, and defined the historic district boundaries.
With a large number of mom-and-pop motels, no chain stores, and its beach side location, the Wildwoods had a distinct sense of place and an authentic identity. Being there was like being nowhere else in America, as the motels on the island essentially formed a time capsule of mid-century resort architecture. All those involved in the creation of the nomination felt that, that would be a slam dunk.
Unfortunately, its unique character continued to attract developers eager to cash in on the island’s newfound popularity. While the architects and historians were frantically researching and writing, more motels were being lost. Modern innocuous condos with faux Victorian details and clad and vinyl siding continued to pop up all over the island. At the lower right, you can see how a three to six stories high, many of these new condos dwarfed the motels they were surrounding.
The 1950s and 60s motels tended to be clustered with other motels of a similar size, which allowed clean sight lines to the neon signage on the roof. In the lower two images, you can see how these taller condos now obscure the rooftop signage, making them difficult to read.
Additionally, plans were put forward proposing the construction of several high rise condo hotels. At 25 stories, these buildings would have knocked the Ferris wheel off the list as the tallest structure on the island.
On April 8, 2003, the draft nominations were submitted to the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, which included a multiple property listing entitled “Motels of the Wildwoods” and a submission for the Wildwood Shore Resort Historic District, which encompassed 43 blocks in Wildwood Crest and the city of Wildwood.
The proposed demolition of the Captain’s Table, a beach side restaurant from the early 1960s to make way for a proposed mid-rise condominium brought the urgency for a proposed historic district to the forefront. On July 23, 2003, the New Jersey SHPO issued their opinion that the historic district was eligible for listing on the New Jersey and national register of historic places. They also determined that the Captain’s Table was a contributing resource to the historic district, and that replacing the one story restaurant with a seven story condominium would have an adverse effect on the district.
Representatives from the Doo Wop Preservation League and Arch 2 continued to meet with motel owners and other members of the community to express the importance of the collection of the motels, to explain the process of designation, and to clarify what the creation of a historic district meant for the motel owners in terms of what they could and could not do on their property. As a lack of continued maintenance meant that a number of the motels were a bit worse for wear, the availability of tax credits to assist in upgrades and restoration were also emphasized.
The economic benefits of heritage tourism were also discussed using Cape May and their collection of Victorian Era homes as an example of a neighboring blighted community that had been made vibrant through the use of historic preservation. And while it seemed like many motel owners were excited at the idea of Doo Wop, when the developers showed up offering twice what the motel owner often though they were ever going to get for their money, they were still ready to sell.
Between 2003 and 2006, an additional 50 Doo Wop motels were demolished to make way for generic condo development. Losses included some of the most iconic motels on the island, including the Ebb Tide, the Satellite and the Rio Motel, seen here. This continued demolition put the Doo Wop motels on the national trust list of America’s 11 most endangered places for 2006. The loss of the motels required updates to the inventory, reevaluations of the boundaries for the historic district, and the resubmittal of the nomination forms to the historic preservation office, who actually had even created a notated map of the island observing each demolition and unsympathetic alteration.
The last push for a historic district came between 2005 and 2006, with revised boundaries, which reduced the size of the district by an additional 20 blocks. The minutes from a Wildwood Crest town hall meeting regarding the designation showed a contentious assembly. Even after multiple attempts to educate motel owners regarding regulation, multiple statements made indicated a lack of understanding of what it meant to be listed on the state and national register. The owner of the Hialeah motel, seen here, even went so far as to say, “I think I’m being raped of what I deserve.” Needless to say, the Hialeah met the fate of the wrecking ball later that year.
By the end of 2006, economic downturn slowed the rate of demolition, and many hoped that it would preserve some of the remaining motels by allowing time to educate the public on the importance of preservation. Unfortunately, by this time, the historic preservation office felt that the integrity of the area had fallen below the point of creating a cohesive historic district. Time moved forward and the idea of creating a historic district had essentially been put to bed.
Over the years, I’ve gone back to Wildwood, and each visit revealed the loss of additional authentic structures. The recent uptick in the economy has brought about the revival of additional demolition, and when I went back last February for this paper, I found that of the 319 structures originally surveyed, 121 had been demolished. Of the 198 that remained 43 had been converted to condos. These condo conversions can be just as destructive as demolition, with heavy alterations including replacing the railings, doors, and windows, the addition of a story or two, the elimination of mid-century modern decorative details, the addition of vinyl siding, property name changes and the removal of signage. Here, you can see what used to be the Flying Dutchman. As originally constructed, it was a two story, flat-roofed motel as seen in the upper left. Today, it’s a three story, peak roof structure, which looks nothing like the building it used to be. The bones may remain, but the skin has been removed.
While this wholesale elimination of entire blocks of historic motels is painful to anyone who appreciates their kitschy atmosphere and connection to the past, the question remains: has the loss of these motels had an effect on the economy of the Wildlands? The answer is a resounding no. Since 2010, the number of tourists to the island and visitor spending has continued to grow. A very unscientific query by me onto what preservation forums found that the majority of people lamented the loss of the motels, they were still drawn to the island. The free beach, the boardwalk, amusement piers and just the general atmosphere would continue to bring them back every season.
So what happened and where did this historic preservation effort go wrong? While the loss of the culture resource which made up the historic district through the continued demolition and condo conversion of the hotels was the main reason, the failure to achieve a Wildwood Shore Resort Historic District was due to a culmination of multiple factors.
The first is timing. The resurgence in popularity for the Wildwoods corresponded with a real estate boom which wildly over inflated the market price for property at a time where many of the motel owners were at or near retirement age and were ready to get out of the business.
Many property owners did not fully understand the implications or lack thereof of being listed on the state and national register. Statements made during public meetings showed that many motel owners didn’t grasp that such recognitions were merely honorary, and that any real regulatory teeth would only come with local designation.
The apparent misunderstanding of what it meant to be listed suggests miscommunication between the parties involved. Whether this lack of information was due to uninformed rumors, not enough communication from the Doo Wop Preservation League and those pushing for the district, or willful ignorance is something we’ll never know.
When the island retained over 300 motels, one could make the case that it was an amazing collection of mid-century resort architecture found nowhere else in America. But as more and more motel owners sold or demolished their properties, the value of the collection as a whole began to fall, making it easier for other motel owners to follow suit and sell their properties to developers.
Although the original survey included the full length of the island, by 2005, the boundary of the historic district had been truncated to just a portion of Wildwood Crest, and this seemed to create resentment from the members of the Wildwood Crest community, who thought that some kind of backdoor deal had been made with the leaders of the city of Wildwood and North Wildwood to avoid designation.
The recent past is difficult to preserve, and many people who experienced these motels growing up didn’t see them as particularly special or historic. Some people were fixated on stereotypes, and felt that the motels were not emblematic of 1950s architecture, and that any focus for preservation should be on places like chrome-plated diners and bowling alleys. For many, their concept of what is important to the history of America includes Paul Revere’s house in Boston, but not a collection of motels that told the story of how middle class Americans spent their summer vacation.
A number of the motels that were to be included in the historic district did not meet the 50 year threshold at the time of nomination, and this lack of a distance from history was difficult to overcome.
Of the five free ocean beaches in New Jersey, three of them are Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest. Free beach admission, especially one with a boardwalk, means there’s no shortage of people wanting to vacation on the island. The Wildwoods also has multiple amusement piers and a water park, and therefore, they don’t need to rely on heritage tourism to draw people to the town.
While much of New Jersey tends to lean liberal, or at least Democrat, the Wildwoods and much of South Jersey leans more conservative, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats 2:1. Many of these Republicans tended to be against what they considered to be government regulation and overreach, and historic preservation also, surprisingly, tends to be one of those issues that is more important to those at the center and left of the political spectrum.
And finally, class. In the 1950s and 60s, South Jersey was a mecca for blue collar families and exotically themed motels, such as the Waikiki, Konakai, and the Casa Bahama allowed a family who couldn’t afford an island vacation to feel like they were going somewhere more exciting. Blue collar and vernacular history is easy to dismiss for many, even other blue collar families. To them, it’s just seen as normal life, and not as a unique experience that wasn’t enjoyed by all. They just don’t see it as having value.
Each of these motels has been demolished, and while the demolition and condo conversions may not have had an economic impact on the Wildwoods, it’s still a major loss of vernacular architecture and American history that are gone forever. In a conversation with Dan McElrey of the Doo Wop preservation league, he mentioned that he felt that we had seen the end of motel demolition in Wildwood. He felt that those that were going to leave have left, and that those that remained were in it for the long haul.
Today, about 100 Doo Wop motels remained in business, and have been refurbished and upgraded. The city of Wildwood remains committed to the idea of neo-Doo Wop as a visitor attraction. Recent projects included the unveiling of a 25 foot tall fire hydrant, which will soon be joined by a large dog sculpture constructed from a recently dismantled roller coaster, and while visually interesting, these new structures and neon signage lack the authenticity that was found in the original motels.
The importance of the Doo Wop motels both architecturally and culturally was recognized through the acceptance of the motels of the Wildwoods’ multiple property submission in 2006. Yet, as of 2018, only 2 individual motels have been listed, the Chateau Bleu, and the Caribbean. Although there’s no hope for the creation of a historic district, there remains a pathway for the designation of those remaining motels which truly embody the Doo Wop aesthetic, such as the Pink Champagne, the Bel Air, the Panoramic, and the Jolly Roger, and fingers crossed that the Doo Wop Preservation League is able to encourage the owner of these motels to work towards achieving designation for these amazing motels.
Speaker 1: Okay, we’re going to take just one question right now. Does anyone have a question? Yes?
Speaker 2: Do the rooms tend to reflect the era or did they upgrade the rooms but the outside looks 50s, 60s?
Stephanie: It really depends on the motel. The Starlux has really kind of gone to great lengths to try and mimic this faux neo-Doo Wop. A lot of the other ones still look like they did in 1982, so there’s a wide range of what they look like on the inside.