This presentation is part of Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions Symposium, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 10-12, 2018.
By Stephanie M. Hoagland
Grassroots efforts can be a powerful tool in preserving the architectural history of a community. But is it always enough?
At the turn of the 21st century, the future for Wildwood was looking rosy. With over 300 mid-century modern motels situated along a six-mile long barrier island near the southern tip of New Jersey, the Wildwoods were finally being recognized as the largest collection of Doo Wop motels in the country. In an effort to stand out from the competition, the owners of these motels had evolved a unique style that incorporated angular elements, space-age imagery, tropical themes, and amazing neon signage. The name was borrowed from the 1950s vocal style and owners used it in a bid to get families to choose their motel on streets lined with choices on both sides.
After almost thirty years of preservation by neglect caused by the loss of tourists to polluted beaches, an economic downturn, and years of bad press, the Wildwoods were finally experiencing a renaissance and resurgence of popularity. Wildwood’s collection of 1950s and 60s architecture had even attracted academic and media attention from many different sources including covers on national magazines.
With the large number of historic motels as a foundation, Wildwood staked its economic development on a Doo Wop flavor. Beginning in the summer of 2001, the Doo Wop Preservation League, a non-profit organization created to foster awareness and appreciation of the unique architecture of the Wildwoods, began working towards a National Register Historic District nomination for the island. Local support was garnered though community discussions and presentations to motel owners regarding the benefits of historic preservation. The town even put out a book of guidelines entitled “How to Doo Wop” in an effort to assist business and motel owners in redesigning their signage, structures, and even furnishings to fit into the theme of the town.
In short order the Wildwoods became a victim of their own success. With a large number of “Mom and Pop” motels, no chain stores, and its beachside location, the Wildwoods had a distinct “sense of place” and an authentic identity. Its unique character quickly attracted developers eager to cash-in on the island’s new-found popularity. Modern, innocuous condos, clad in vinyl siding, began popping up all over the island. At three to six stories high, many of these new condos dwarfed the motels they surrounded. With faux-Victorian features and contemporary designs, they didn’t fit in with the architectural style of the motels and, stylistically, they could be anywhere. Perhaps their biggest impact was the large number of motels lost to the wrecking ball to make room for new development. Between the years 2001 and 2006 almost 100 motels had been demolished. Unfortunately, this wholesale demolition has stalled the acceptance of the Wildwood Historic District Nomination as the boundaries have had to be repeatedly re-drawn as the number of contributing buildings was reduced.
Poised for preservation success, this presentation will examine the reasons why and how this grassroots movement failed.
Stephanie M. Hoagland is a Principal with Jablonski Building Conservation Inc. where she has been employed since 2003. She has a Master of Science in Historic Preservation from Columbia University. She has worked on a variety of preservation and conservation projects throughout the United States and Canada including surveying approximately 200 1950s/1960 motels in Wildwood, New Jersey and assisted in the completion of the nomination form for the Wildwood Shore Resort Historic District. Stephanie is a member of several preservation professional groups including the Association of Preservation Technology and the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.