Note: This story was originally published in 2016, and has been updated with the most recent information.
“You’ve never been to Wildwood?” exclaimed a fellow design writer, when I told her I was heading to this particular sliver of the Jersey Shore for a family vacation. “Oh my god, it’s so you.” She was right: I was charmed from the moment I arrived at the cluster of towns on the southern tip of the state known for their impeccably themed technicolor motels that date back to the 1950s.
Ignoring the celebrated white sand beaches, I hit the humid streets every morning, excitedly snapping images of the sorbet-painted breeze blocks and tangled neon signage, all of it seemingly blissfully untouched by the 21st century.
As someone who lives in Los Angeles—where Googie was supposedly invented, yet we still manage to tear some of the best examples down—I was quite impressed that a motel like Tangiers, with its Polynesian-inspired A-frame, might still be standing. Someone, somewhere had surely made a conscious decision to keep the vibe intact, right?
But I quickly started to realize that it wasn’t really that Wildwood had been preserved. It had just been forgotten.
Wildwood was a resort town built for the working class at the dawn of the Automobile Age, the opposite of the precious Victoriana of Cape May, just a few miles south and a world away. The completion of the Garden State Parkway meant that families could easily zip down to the Shore and park their station wagons right out front of the exotic-sounding resorts like the Bal Harbour. Relaxing under the silhouettes of convincing faux palm trees would transport them directly to the South Pacific. Or, the Caribbean.
From its inception, Wildwood delivered as a quirky destination, but it only really began to captivate architecture enthusiasts a few decades later, when the camp became cool, and a preservationist society cheekily published a design guide.
The Doo Wop Preservation League claims that the 50-ish (out of over 250) still-standing motels in the state-designated historic district constitute the “largest concentration of commercial midcentury architecture in America,” which feels both overly specific and potentially exaggerated. But once you get there, it’s undoubtedly stunning.
Developers of Wildwood were apparently inspired by the midcentury motels that were popping up on Miami Beach, but to me the whole thing felt more like vintage Vegas. Not just with all the geographically diverse themes, but because it felt as if it was precipitously close to being completely consumed by changing consumer preferences.
Which is what started to happen in the early 2000s, when the old Wildwood began to disappear. A new wave of developers started to clear some of the older motels in favor of condo buildings with bigger rooms and updated amenities. In most cases they didn’t even try to adhere to the Doo Wop vibe. You can quickly spot the new developments because they’re almost uniformly a cheap, aluminum siding-y version of New England Shingle Style, with no signs to speak of, neon or otherwise.
The loss of some of these motels inspired photographer Mark Havens to publish Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods, a book of photos that came out in 2016. Havens has been vacationing in Wildwood for 45 years, and estimates that about a third of the structures in the book are already gone.
As he told Curbed Philly, when he was a kid the family would drive around at night, taking in the themed signage, but he only thought of the motels as a quirky backdrop to his vacations. “I don’t think it was until they started getting demolished in favor of condominiums that I started to realize that they’re not as removable as the landscape—that they may not be there in the future," he said. "So that’s what set me on the road to start documenting them."
Right around the time some of the motels started to disappear, Wildwood began to receive unprecedented attention from the design press. In an essay published as part of “Pentagram Papers 30: Doo-Wop Commercial Architecture,” writer Jonathan van Meter talks about how architecture schools started to bring their students to study the area—including a studio entitled “Learning from Wildwood” and taught by Steve Izenour, an architect who had worked with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown on their celebrated book of Las Vegas vernacular architecture, Learning from Las Vegas.
“Most local business owners think of their ‘pickled’ motels as tacky dinosaurs and they’re, at best, befuddled by the very thing that the outsiders—the academics and hipsters and preservationists—have come to study, document, and celebrate,” writes van Meter. But the problem is that there are not enough academics and hipsters and preservationists to keep Wildwood’s motels in business. The last day as I walked, I realized I was part of that—I was staying in a condo, not the time capsule-esque Jolly Roger that I could see out my window.
Hopefully there will be people who continue to come to Wildwood and stay in the 1950s-era motels because they are affordable, and the owners can perform the necessary upgrades to keep them standing—and profitable. But not too profitable, right? It’s the classic concern. We want the motel to stay the way it is, even if we don’t particularly want to stay there.
Yet, if you asked me what I thought needed to be preserved, that would be a tough question to answer. A neon expert could probably highlight some exceptional signs. But there is no singularly beautiful motel, one building that’s “worth” saving. Instead, it’s the fact at they’re all clustered here together, sharing some commonalities, a sum of their parts.
Which is what makes saving them all even tougher. The Ace Hotel might swoop in and restore one, preserving the structure and signage while offering a gentle, Instagram-friendly update to the property. But what then? One plan put forth several years ago would allow motel owners to add taller contemporary towers for guests or additional uses as long as they preserved the original buildings.
Sadly, there is not a good precedent here. As much as it was celebrated by architects and urban planners (and academics and hipsters and preservationists) Learning from Las Vegas didn’t do anything to help save the kitschy motels—those “decorated sheds”—it featured. Most of those midcentury motels in Vegas are gone, replaced by the bombastic megaresorts that are, against all our aesthetically based pleas and protests, What Tourists Want.