Wildwood: the blue-collar riviera

The beachfront borough’s mid-century ‘Doo-Wop’ motels are a treat for design fans — but the developers are circling

First published in the Financial Times, August 2018. Photography by Mark Havens, from his book Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods.

Wildwood’s boardwalk fun train has been running the two miles up and down the beach since 1949 — and a few of the people riding it on a Saturday morning earlier this summer looked like they could just about have been on that first run.

In the carriage in front of me were a group of older men and women in grey suits and military caps on their way to an American Legion convention; in the carriage behind were two guys with beards and tattoos in vintage Harley-Davidson racing jerseys, heading towards The Race of Gentlemen, a gas-soaked amalgam of drag race and history lesson in which pre-1935 roadsters and pre-1947 tank shifter bikes race on the squirrelly sand of Wildwood’s wide beach.

A good selection of the other passengers were twenty-somethings in luminous vests, presumably on their way to play the arcades, enjoy the amusement park rides, and gorge on boardwalk hot dogs and Kohr’s soft-serve ice cream. The Wildwoods—five beachfront boroughs near the southern tip of the Jersey Shore, with Wildwood in the centre—could well be America’s capital of retro boardwalk kitsch. This is a place of mini-golf courses, plastic palm trees and neon, where the best restaurant in town is widely considered to be the Surfside West, a friendly chrome diner that has been serving beige food since 1963.

But, as I discovered over a few days here, the quirks of the Wildwoods have been the result of a two-decade battle between preservation and the forces of modernisation and profit. There are still more mid-century motels and hotels here than anywhere else in America, close to 140 at the last count — even if there were once more than 600. Tired but evocative places like the Pink Champagne, the Waikiki and the Astronaut are still hanging on along Ocean and Atlantic Avenues, each with their own faded pastel colour scheme and kitsch ornamentation, from the fibreglass pirate atop the Jolly Roger to the elephant by the pool at the Singapore.

Since the condominium boom of the 1990s, these so-called Doo-Wop motels have been under near-constant threat from developers, who have wondered why Wildwood property prices don’t match the affluent nearby towns of Stone Harbor, Avalon and Cape May, the latter home to America’s best-preserved collection of Victorian buildings.

“There was a time, back in the 1990s, when people were saying we should bulldoze the whole town and rebuild it as a Victorian town like Cape May,” says Jack Morey, who runs Wildwood’s most prominent family business with his brother Will. The Morey empire includes Morey’s Piers, the series of amusement parks and water parks jutting out from the boardwalk, as well as four Doo-Wop-themed hotels and a condo building.

There was a time, back in the 1990s, when people were saying we should bulldoze the whole town and rebuild it as a Victorian town.

The Morey family business started in 1953, when Morey’s father, Wilbert, built the Fantasy, a utilitarian L-shaped motel with a space-aged neon sign. An uneducated builder/carpenter, he had seen the influx of visitors from Philadelphia, who could now drive here in under 90 minutes on Eisenhower’s new Garden State Parkway. They would spend days on the beach and boardwalk, and evenings watching clean-cut rockers like Bobby Rydell and Bill Haley, who first played “Rock Around the Clock” at Wildwood’s HofBrau Hotel in 1954.

“Wildwood quickly became the ‘Blue-Collar Riviera’,” says Jack. “Dad saw it happening, and figured out what these new visitors wanted.” Inspired by trips to Miami Beach and Acapulco, Wilbert and his brother William would go on to build close to 30 ever-grander motels in the Wildwoods, and in 1968 installed a fibreglass waterslide called The Wipe Out on one of the piers. Jack and Will Jr grew up in the penthouse of the Pan-American — a beachfront behemoth built by their father, which they still own — and learned the amusement business running fairground games as teenagers.

So it was personal when developers began ripping down Wildwood’s 1950s and 1960s buildings, often smashing up their neon signs. “Every time one of these buildings was demolished, it was like a knife in my back,” says Jack. “I lost friends over it.”

Every time one of these buildings was demolished, it was like a knife in my back. I lost friends over it.

Luckily for Jack, he had support. Steven Izenour was an architect and urban theorist who had published Learning from Las Vegas in 1972, a then-radical tome in which, for the first time, an academic celebrated the crass symbolism of the Vegas Strip. And in the 1990s, he started bringing students to the Wildwoods, where they would gaze at the motels and neon signs, earnestly pondering which architectural subdivision they might fit into, be it Vroom, Pu-Pu Platter or Phony Colonee.

“At first, the locals were a bit bemused by Steve and his students,” recalls Jack. “For Will and me, it was a validation of sorts.” In 1997, Morey and Izenour formed the core of a group whose goal was to save and promote these old motels. In a nod to Bill Haley and his ilk, they named the local style Doo-Wop, even if it’s barely distinguishable from Googie, a genre that takes its cues from car culture, space and the atomic age. Calling themselves the Doo-Wop Preservation League, and writing cheery guides for motel owners on “How to Doo-Wop”, the group also created the Wildwoods Shore Historic District, modelled after South Beach’s Art Deco District.

Both the league and the district have survived Izenour’s death in 2001. But the destruction of the motels hasn’t stopped. Mark Havens, 47, has been coming on family holidays to Wildwood every August since he was a child in Philadelphia. “It was always the highlight of our year,” he says. “We’d spend the days on the beach, and in the evenings we’d all pile into the car and tour the neon signs.”

In the 2000s, Havens noticed what he calls the “wholesale destruction” of the Doo-Wop buildings, and decided to pick up a camera to document their passing. The result, which was published in 2016, is Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods, an elegiac series of portraits of empty, car-free motels.

“To me, there’s a humility and a humanity to these places,” he says. “Families like ours couldn’t afford to go to the real Caribbean or Hawaii, but they could come and stay at the Caribbean or Waikiki motels. It was like the Wildwood architects took sterile modernism and gave it this injection of life, energy and personality.”

It was like the Wildwood architects took sterile modernism and gave it this injection of life, energy and personality.

There have been notable preservation successes such as the lime-green Caribbean Motel, with its cantilevered walkway, which was built by the Moreys in 1957 and is now listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Havens rightly points out that it’s as period-perfect as anything you’ll see in Palm Springs.

But George Miller and Carolyn Emigh, two lawyers from Washington who bought and extensively renovated the Caribbean in 2004, admit that it’s hard to make money from a 30-room motel with such a short season. “We’ve put preservation before profit,” says Carolyn, “but not everyone has that luxury.”

Morey’s hotels, like his slick, family-friendly amusement parks, aren’t as period-accurate as the Caribbean, and he admits that business and preservation make tricky bedfellows — not least in the decision to be “real” kitsch or fake kitsch. “We don’t want the place to become Disneyland, but we don’t want it to be Dismaland either,” he says. “Usually, it doesn’t make business sense to try to keep things exactly as they were.”

Yet somehow the Wildwoods have held on to a certain spirit that you can feel on the boardwalk and at Morey’s Piers, where the staff at least seem happy to be manning the games, Ferris wheel and faux-retro wooden rollercoaster. It’s far jollier than the high-rise, post-Trump Atlantic City up the coast, or Seaside Heights, where the rollercoaster that fell into the sea following Hurricane Sandy in 2012 created an unfortunate metaphor for the town’s fortunes.

The fun is notably pre-gentrification, unlike, say, Asbury Park, the old Springsteen haunt up the Jersey Shore, where the Asbury Hotel and Asbury Lanes bowling alley are among several institutions to have had recent makeovers seemingly designed for Williamsburg escapees. In calorific, diner-heavy Wildwood, by contrast, you’ll still struggle to find a flat white or an ahi poke.

As my trip on the toy train illustrated, summer events play a big part in keeping the town from fossilising. This season has already seen the Harlem Globetrotters and World Wrestling Entertainment hit town, while punters have also been treated to boogie-board races, foam parties, the Duke of Fluke fishing tournament, a Doo-Wop music festival and Roar to the Shore, a Harley-heavy bike rally.

But few can surely match The Race of Gentlemen, which turns the beach into an evocative blur of sand, oil and leather. The race, abbreviated to “Trog”, was founded by a tattooed former punk rocker called Mel Stultz, who builds hot rods and rides old Harleys and Indians barefoot. Inspired by the postwar golden age of drag racing, he held the first race in 2012 up the coast at Allenhurst, before the beach was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy. The next year, he approached Wildwood.

“Not all towns would welcome something like Trog,” Morey says of the race, where the devotion to period accuracy means as many Instagram shots as it does headaches for city officials (two high-speed crashes at this year’s event have not helped). “Frankly, it’s a logistical nightmare, but Mel and his team are great guys, and it fits what we’re about as a town. We never want this place to be stuck-up. We’ve always been desperate for it to stay real, and to stay fun.”

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