Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Preserving the Doo Wop "Wildwood Days"

Preserving the Doo Wop "Wildwood Days"
Written by NJ Historian

Just north of America's first seaside resort in Cape May, New Jersey is another seaside resort which boasts the largest collection of Doo Wop architecture in the nation, taking the form of resort motels, diners, restaurants, and vintage neon signs. However, their numbers have been quickly shrinking over the past twenty years due to a variety of reasons, but mostly real estate values and new construction. Will the Wildwoods be able to hold onto their unique distinction or will those memorable "Wildwood Days" fade away, much like the memory of Bobby Reidel has with the recent generation?

The Doo Wop Experience Museum and "neon garden" in Wildwood, NJ.
But what exactly is Doo Wop architecture? This style of architecture is unique to New Jersey but can also be found in other areas of the United States under other names. In New Jersey, The Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District, or Doo Wop Motel District, is an area in that was home to over 300 motels and mid-century commercial architecture built during the era of the 1950s and 1960s. It primarily lies in the municipality of Wildwood Crest, along a two mile stretch between Atlantic and Ocean Avenues, and includes areas in Wildwood and North Wildwood. The term Doo Wop was coined by Cape May's Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in the early 1990s to describe this unique, space-age architectural style.

Life Before Doo Wop
So how did this type of architecture become so concentrated in the Wildwoods? When the Wildwoods were first developed, in the late 1800s/early 1900s, most of the land was forest. It was from this that the island got its name. In the early twentieth century, Wildwood remained a sleepy shore town, featuring a mix of Victorian residences, boarding homes, and hotels. In the late 1940s, a number of small, one-story linear motel structures were built, connected to an office in the center. They were called "motor courts," "apartments," or "cottages."

Life along the Jersey Shore changed dramatically with the opening of the Garden State Parkway in 1955. For the first time, families could travel by automobile from as far away as New York City to the shore communities with relative ease. Crowds began to flock to the Jersey Shore and more accommodations were needed to cater to these station wagon wielding families.

The Waikiki in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey.

Doo Wop is Born
Many of the early motels were designed by A.G. Ogden. In the 1952, brothers Lewis and Wilburt Morey, born in West Wildwood in the 1920s, built Wildwood's first motel to call itself by that name, the single-story Jay's Motel, at the corner of Hildreth and Atlantic Avenues. In 1955 the brothers dissolved their formal business partnership and began to work independently on motel designs. Between 1956 and 1964, over 200 motels were constructed in The Wildwoods.

The most challenging aspect of motel design was how to differentiate and make the motels, most of which were similar in size and location, stand out.

The Coral Sands Motel, circa 1955.

Doo Wop Characteristics
Doo Wop motels generally include U-shaped or L-shaped designs of two or three stories, asymmetric elements, swimming pools, adjacent parking, or second story sun decks over parking spaces, plastic palm trees, angled walls and/or windows, flat overhanging roofs, jutting balconies, prominent neon signs and railing, bright colors, and a contemporary or fantasy theme. References to popular culture or history were also common. The themes or sub-styles have been classified as:

1) Modern/Blastoff - The Blastoff style is reminiscent of the jet-age airports of the 1950s and 1960s with large walls of glass. Examples include the Caribbean Motel and the Satellite Motel.
2) Vroom - The Vroom style includes pointed and forward-thrusting building elements. Examples include The Ebb Tide and the Rio Motel.

The Ebb Tide Motel, circa 1950s.
3) Chinatown Revival - Evoking images of China, this design may feature a pagoda. curved beams, Zen gardens, and other Asian inspired designs. The most notable is the Singapore, which has been recently remodeled and has lost much of its Chinese characteristics.
4) Tiki (Polynesian Pop) - This style features thatched roofs, tiki heads and torches to evoke images of the South Seas. Examples include The Waikiki and The Royal Hawaiian.
5) Phony Colonee - Phony Colonee imitates the Colonial Revival architecture of the 1950s and 1960s with red brick veneer, lampposts, columns, and cupolas. Examples include the Saratoga and the Carriage Stop (demolished).

Bright neons signs typically graced each motel to draw in passing motorists. These signs have become part of the architectural style and as time passed, signs become more elaborate and flashy. Most of the signs were produced locally in Wildwood by Allied Sign Company, Ace Sign Company, ABS Signs, or LANZA signs.

Neon sign at the Sea Shell Motel, Wildwood, New Jersey.

The Future of Doo Wop in the Wildwoods
Today, over fifty vintage motels still stand within the Wildwoods Doo Wop Motel District. Up until the late 1990s, nearly one hundred motels stood throughout the island, virtually untouched since their original construction in the 1950s and 1960s. Between 2000 and 2005, unregulated real estate development and speculation in the area led to the demolition of several notable motels, while others were significantly remodeled. In 2004, a survey of the Doo Wop Historic District included sixty motels. Since then, at least eleven more have been demolished.

Since the establishment of the Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District in 2004, Neo-Doo Wop buildings have been constructed to reflect and honor the unique mid-century past of the resort community. A neon lit Wawa, a Neo-Doo Wop styled Acme Supermarket, and a Subway Restaurant and Walgreens Pharmacy each feature non-traditional neon signs which celebrate the wacky designs of the Doo Wop style.

Neo Doo Wop Wawa in Wildwood, New Jersey.
Owners of many of the historic hotels are also recognizing the value of restoring and honoring The Wildwoods' storied architectural past. The Chateau Bleu Motel in North Wildwood and the Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest were successfully listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 and 2005, respectively. The Buccaneer Motel in North Wildwood received a Certification of Eligibility (COE) in 2006, meaning that the site satisfies a prerequisite to apply for funds from the New Jersey Historic Trust, as well as several county preservation funding programs.

To forever preserve the legacy of the era, in 2007, the Doo Wop Preservation Experience Museum opened in Wildwood. Housed in the former 1960s Surfside Restaurant (Wildwood Crest), it was dismantled, put into storage for a few years, and eventually rebuilt in Fox Park, located across from the Wildwoods Convention Center. The building has a unique pinwheel-shaped roof with jutting angles and large glass panes all around. The restaurant remained open in its original location until 2002, when its owners wanted to demolish it for a hotel expansion project. The Doo Wop Preservation League quickly came to the rescue and raised the necessary funding to dismantle the steel structure and place it into storage until 2006, when reconstruction began in Fox Park. Outside the museum building is a "neon garden," filled with neon signs from motels that were demolished. Now that protections are in place, it is our hope that more of these icon motels do not fall into the wrong hands and that new owners of these sites appreciate and capitalize from the unique real estate and potential that these mid-century modern structures bring to Wildwood, New Jersey. It would be a travesty if more neon signs sprouted in the "neon garden"...

Additional photos of my trip to The Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District on Pinterest

For More Information
Doo Wop Preservation League

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Nice article! Brings back memories of my 'second' home during my childhood summers. :)

The K-Man!
I vacationed in Wildwood Crest every August with my family from 1981 into the early '90s. Those halcyone mid-August weeks were filled with long sunny afternoons, waves, the trolley bus that ran all the way from the Crest up to Schellenger Avenue(heart of the amusement district), the ride piers, or just hanging out in the arcade in the Bal Harbour across the street from where we stayed, dropping quarters in my favorite games while Duran Duran and Michael Jackson provided atmosphere.

When I returned 10 years ago, much of the Crest strip of old motels looked completely foreign: huuuge condos 5-6 stories high had replaced most of the neon and palms I was used to seeing(even if palms were fake!).

Glad to hear Wildwood is doing something to preserve the vibe I remembered as a child.

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