WILDWOOD, N.J. — The motel room looked like a place where Rob and Laura Petrie would have come for a weekend escape, assuming Millie would be able to watch little Ritchie. The table lamps were straight out of the Atomic Age, and the bathroom was tiled in green and outfitted with salmon pink fixtures.
But the best part of this time capsule room at the Caribbean Motel — aside from the lime green ceiling — was the nondescript knob on the wood-paneled wall. I had no idea what the knob did, so naturally I turned it. Like magic, Dionne Warwick’s voice descended from a speaker in the green ceiling, inquiring if I knew the way to San Jose. Sweet Barbara Eden in a bottle! I had found midcentury paradise.
The Wildwoods, a collection of five boroughs and cities at the southern tip of the Jersey shore, draws families with its wide beaches, 2-mile boardwalk, and amusement park. It came to life as a post-war, family friendly destination courtesy of a new highway called the Garden State Parkway. Bobby Rydell even had a hit with a song called “Wildwood Days” in 1963. But now it also draws another crowd: those who drool over the fanciful architecture of 1950s-era motels with neon signs that were once used to attract road-weary families. Miami has its art deco hotels, Martha’s Vineyard has the gingerbread cottages, Cape May has its grand Victorian homes, and Wildwood has a style that the locals call Doo Wop.
Technically, these motels fall under an architectural category called Googie. But here that hifalutin term doesn’t stick. According to Dan MacElrevey, one of the founders of the Doo Wop Preservation League, the term Doo Wop came from the prominent role that Wildwood played during the infancy of the rock era.
“I came off the boardwalk one night when I was working at the bowling alley setting pins,” MacElrevey said. “It was 1955, so I was 14 years old. I walked over to Atlantic Avenue and the clubs were full. So were the streets. You couldn’t drive. People were doing this new dance in the streets. This rock ’n’ roll dance.”
Legend has it that Bill Haley & His Comets debuted “Rock Around the Clock,” in Wildwood. There’s a mural loosely depicting the event near the town square. Another legend has Chubby Checker debuting “The Twist” in Wildwood, and — this one can be verified — the first national broadcast of “American Bandstand” took place at the Starlight Ballroom here in 1957.
There is something delightful about seeing the high concentration of old hotels. There’s optimism and creativity in the bold, playful architecture. The motel names suggest that they will whisk vacationers to far off lands (the Royal Hawaiian, the Singapore, the Caribbean), provide adventure (the Astronaut, the Jolly Roger, the Crusader), and, perhaps, a sip of romance (the Pink Champagne).
Wildwood is not a ghost town, and these vintage hotels are still very much in use. During my late August visit there were plenty of “no vacancy” signs blazing in red neon. You can still find these midcentury hotels around the country in various states of repair, but Wildwood has the largest concentration of post-WWII resort architecture in the United States. Many remain virtually unchanged since their original construction. It is a throwback to a time when families drove to motels, shared a room with two queen beds, and hung their beach towels on the railing to dry overnight.
As I stood in the tub/shower at Caribbean Motel, I wondered how many children had bathed in the pink bathtub over the past 63 years, their hair stiff from sand, sun, and saltwater. Or how many teenagers showered here in preparation for a night of epic summer flirting on the boardwalk. The Caribbean Motel is one of the most important in Wildwood. Built in 1957 and saved from demolition in 2004, it’s now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
While the Caribbean was saved, many other midcentury motels in the Wildwood area have not been so lucky. Since the late 1990s, hundreds of these jewels have been demolished to make way for mostly generic condominiums. From a historical standpoint, it’s hard to fathom flattening something that is not only a representation of how we used to live, but also part of a collection of buildings in a recognized historic district that have been studied multiple times by academics. Wildwood is more than kitsch and plastic palm trees. However, it’s tempting for owners to abandon ship when a developer comes along and offers a hefty sum for a 60-year-old hotel that doesn’t yield high profits.
“What happens in a lot of cases is that the next generation isn’t interested in taking over the family business,” said John Donio, owner of the Daytona Inn & Suites. “The kids went to college, they’re professionals. Or they’re working at the motel and they’re just burnt out. It’s a tough business. If you don’t love it, it’s not fun.”
The Doo Wop Preservation League works with the old hotels (there are still more than 100 in operation), but it also works with developers to try and convince them that incorporating Doo Wop flourishes into their designs is good for business. Sadly, the league can only do so much to save the old properties from the wrecking ball.
That’s one of the reasons why Mark Havens produced the gorgeous coffee table book “Out of Season, the Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods” in 2006. He wanted to preserve memories of the disappearing pink and aqua buildings, their zigzagging rooflines, and those plentiful neon signs. Wildwood (or the Wildwoods, take your pick) has been drawing historians and photographers who see the beauty and value of the place.
New Haven-based photographer and New Jersey native Tyler Haughey also turned his camera to Wildwood after falling in love with the architecture. He produced a book of photography, called “Everything Is Regional,” that focuses heavily on Wildwood.
“It hearkens back to a previous time in the country when there was great optimism, creativity, and care put into buildings,” Haughey said. “Within a 10- or 12-year span, 300 or so of these motels sprang up out of nowhere within a 5-mile radius. And so in order to separate themselves from one another, they needed to really use different themes and different color schemes, and distinctive signage. All of those aspects of roadside Americana were fascinating to me.”
I realize I’ve just spent 1,000 words or so excitedly skipping down a nostalgia-filled, neon-lit path. But there is more to Wildwood than the hotels. The beach is impressively wide, like nothing I had previously seen. A deep shelf of sand leads to the waves. The massive boardwalk may not be everybody’s cone of ice cream. It’s as if Old Orchard Beach and Hampton Beach had a baby, bottle fed it steroids, and then dropped it in Jersey to toughen it up. But you could fill your time here in a more low-key manner.
The beauty of Wildwood (warning, more nostalgia ahead) is the escape it provides, something I found was needed more than ever this year. People were wearing masks, restaurants were following safety protocols, and hotels, yes, even these 60-plus-year-old jewels, had upped their cleaning and sanitation game. But all of those thoughts seemed to slip away while walking on lovely estival evenings alongside Polynesian-themed hotels and other playful escapes built at a time when the future was something to be embraced, rather than something to be feared.