August 21, 2014

Wildwood Motels: Midcentury Modern for Everybody

The exterior of the Lolipop Motel.

photo by: Beth Lennon

The brightly colored doors of the Lollipop Motel.

The seaside stretch of the New Jersey shore known collectively as The Wildwoods boasts the highest concentration of Midcentury Modern motels in the world.

Located just north of the Victorian Cape May, these fun and futuristic buildings of the 1950s-1960s reflect an important era in our nation’s histor—the post-WWII decades when family vacations meant piling into the station wagon and heading to the shore on the newly constructed interstate highway system.

While this eye-catching enclave has a great many admirers—from families who have vacationed here for decades to international travelers looking to experience the authentic history of America—the threat of development still casts a shadow over the future of these boutique motels, despite their resurgence in popularity.

Though the style of these motels is called by many names—Space Age, Populuxe, Midcentury Modern, Googie—in Wildwood it’s known as Doo Wop. This label is a playful tribute to the music popular in the 1950s and evokes the fun of that era. But no matter what they may be called, they still need to be preserved for future generations to enjoy, like their ancestors before them.

The Bel Air Motel's neon sign as seen by day.

photo by: Beth Lennon

Vintage signage at the Bel Air Motel.

Post-WWII Resort Boom

The post-war baby boom and new highway system (including the Garden State Parkway, completed in 1957) enabled more people than ever to escape to the beach. These newly built beachside motels not only allowed families to have an affordable place to stay, but enabled them to park their car within reach of their room, unlike the more formal hotels of previous eras.

Because of the increasing demand for this new informal way of vacationing, motel owners knew they had to distinguish themselves visually to entice visitors to pick their property.

What better way to do this than to use bold architecture, dynamic lines, and bright neon signs that would catch the eye of the children in the back seat and appeal to the adults who wanted to stay in the most up-to-date place?

The architecture reflected the optimism and exuberance of the era. Plastic palm trees, swimming pools, and exotic names such as the Gondolier, Pink Champagne, Astronaut, and Shalimar added a layer of fantasy to the otherwise traditional family beach vacation.

The Bel Air Motel's neon sign as seen by night.

photo by: Beth Lennon

As dusk falls, the Pink Champagne Motel’s striking neon sign entices weary travelers.

It’s a Family Affair

Vacationing families were not the only ones making memories in Wildwood beginning in the 1950s. So were the the innovative builders of these fantastical destinations. The Morey family has left their lasting mark on the Wildwoods starting with brothers Lou and Will, who developed a number of the distinctive midcentury properties still seen in Wildwood. Current generation Jack Morey continues the legacy, both as the owner of the Pan American Motel and as a founder of the Doo Wop Preservation League.

The designs of many of the original Morey designed motels were inspired by their own family vacations to Miami Beach. There they saw the newly built modern hotels designed by Morris Lapidus, such as the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc. Taking sketches of what they liked, they brought this inspiration north to New Jersey and interpreted those ideas on a smaller motel scale.

“My dad would say he’d ‘Wildwood-ize’ them,” Jack Morey fondly recalls.

The Caribbean Motel at night.

photo by: Beth Lennon

The landmark Caribbean is one of only two Wildwood Motels on the National Register.

Probably the most recognizable and most photographed of these properties is the Caribbean Motel, (a Historic Hotel of America). Built by Lou Morey and opened in 1957, the swooping walkway is reminiscent of the grand floating “Staircase to Nowhere” of the Fontainebleau, and the recessed jewel-tone lights embedded in the soffits are seen in his designs as well.

In a case of reverse influence, the motels of the Wildwoods that were inspired by the hotels of Florida are now cited as inspirational for the Sunshine State. The recently constructed Cabana Bay Beach Resort in Orlando reinterprets the iconic Wildwood-style motel architecture to evoke fond memories of the vintage family vacations that originated in New Jersey.

"This is America To Us"

The Wildwood motels also have an ever-growing international fan base. George Miller and Carolyn Emigh, owners of the Caribbean Motel, report that travelers from China, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and beyond make Wildwood a destination when hitting the U.S., often roadtripping down from New York City in just two and a half hours.

“This is America to us,” proclaims a Caribbean Motel guest visiting from England. “We don’t have motels like this at home. These ‘50s and ‘60s buildings are what we think of when we think of the States.”

The interior of the Doo Wop Preservation League.

photo by: Beth Lennon

Vacationers from every corner of the globe enjoy the 1950s-era nostalgia that Wildwood is famous for.

Much like the returning local families who have made Wildwood their traditional vacation spot for decades, when international travelers have the opportunity to return to the shore they bring their friends with them. Miller reports that a couple who visited from the UK one summer returned the following season, and brought six additional couples with them.

Doo Wop Preservation

While the Wildwood motels have their fans and admirers, their small scale and aging ownership make them easy prey for developers looking to maximize the return on investment and land value, with history as an afterthought.

Even with the growing awareness of the importance of these motels as part of the nation’s history, from 2003 to 2006 over 50 of these distinctive properties were demolished to make way for generic condominium development.

This rapid demolition put the Doo Wop Motels on the National Trust’s list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2006. The State of New Jersey also named the epicenter of these motels as the Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District.

The exterior of the Doo Wop Preservation League.

photo by: Beth Lennon

Housed in the former Surfside Restaurant building, the Doo Wop Preservation League collects signs of demolished motels in their sign garden.

To that end, the Doo Wop Preservation League was created by local business owners and fans of the threatened architecture. According to president and former motel owner Dan MacElrevey, “our mission is to publicize what we have here, not only to visitors but to owners” who might not see the immediate value in maintaining their historic property, especially when the lure of a payout from a developer is at hand.

The fun of Doo Wop is key to its connection to preservation, and folks of all ages enjoy visiting the Doo Wop Experience, a museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Wildwood motels as well as artifacts from the 1950s and 1960s. Housed in the building that was once a Doo Wop restaurant (complete with soda fountain), the all-volunteer DWPL also runs bus tours to highlight many of the remaining vintage motels on the island.

While the historic designations are important for preserving these unique hotels, the most fun and easy way to ensure their legacy is simply to stay in them and enjoy a week or more at the shore. Not only will you be retracing the steps of the folks that put Wildwood on the map as a vacation destination, but you’ll enjoy stepping back in time, too.

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