Motels

The loss of the Doo Wop motels in Wildwood is a deeper mystery than previously thought


A vintage postcard from the Tahiti Motel in the Wild Woods. Kitsch neon signs and Polynesian-themed decor are two of the hallmarks of Doo Wop architecture.

Two decades ago, there was a sudden rediscovery of the “Doo Wop” motels in the Wildwoods. These futuristic, island-themed accommodations were frozen in time at a time when singers like Chubby Checkers, Frankie Valli and the Supremes sang in local clubs.

But just as tourists fell in love with these kitsch designs again, came a real estate boom that put them in jeopardy with the demolition. A a wave of teardowns wiped out around 200 of these motels, and conservationists had all but given up on creating a historic district dedicated to this original decade of architecture. Now, a new generation of historians is determined to save what is left.

“We’re trying to pick up the pieces and find a preservation strategy that works,” said Taylor Henry, president of Preserving the Wildwoods.

His plan is to establish a historic district, but this time to expand the range of architectural styles to include older Victorian homes and artisan-style bungalows which can also be seen on the five-mile-long Barrier Island. It wouldn’t be the first such attempt. In 1993, the late architect John Olivieri completed a study of the town of Wildwood. His report, in fact, led to the formation of three eclectic historic neighborhoods that have been, for some strange reason, overlooked for most, if not all, of their existence. Most confusingly, these neighborhoods existed during the condominium craze of the early 2000s and could have saved a number of landmarks had local laws been enforced.

Queen Anne style house North Wildwood Nj
The Wildwoods are also home to Victorian architecture, like this Queen Anne-style beach house in North Wildwood. Photo courtesy of Preserving the Wildwoods.
Bills Corner Deli Wildwood Nj Artisan Style Bungalow
Bill’s Corner Deli is set in a converted artisan-style bungalow. Doo Wop isn’t the only architectural style curators are trying to protect. Photo courtesy of Preserving the Wildwoods.

“Before the construction boom, a Wildwood Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) was formed in 1997 in response to Olivieri’s study,” Taylor wrote in his book “Wildwood Houses Through Time”. “The HPC did not last, possibly due to a lack of means to enforce preservation, combined with the hostility of landowners to municipal influence over the aesthetics of their properties.

Henry said that during her research for her book, she confronted city hall officials about these ghost districts and why they weren’t enforced. “It’s really confusing,” Henry told Jersey Digs. “I asked people who were there at the time or who were involved, but not many people seem to want to talk about it.”

The Wildwoods, as we know them today, began after World War II, when more working-class families had cars and disposable income. The Garden State Parkway had just opened and the Doo Wop music craze was in full swing. It was dawn for the motel – usually a two story L-shaped hotel that wrapped around a swimming pool.

“Much of what made these hotels so visually stimulating were the embellishments – the superfluous decor that gave each motel a sense of place on an island filled with hundreds of other motels identical in body and layout.” architectural historian Stephanie Hoagland told a recent panel hosted by Preservation New Jersey.

Hoagland, who worked for the Doo Wop Preservation League in their attempt to establish a historic Doo Wop district, completed an architectural study of hundreds of motels. Yet it was a race against time. In just two years, the historic district she proposed had grown from 43 blocks to 23 blocks due to a wave of demolitions.

“Although it seemed like many hotel owners were excited about the idea of ​​Doo Wop, when the developers came forward to offer double the value of their property, they were still willing to sell,” said Hoagland. “Unfortunately, at that time, the historic preservation office felt that the integrity of the area had fallen short of creating a cohesive historic district.”

The failed attempt to establish a Doo Wop neighborhood has become a caveat in the preservation world. One of the things to remember is the need to offer better incentives for homeowners to compete with developer offerings. Fortunately, Downtown Wildwood was chosen this year for the statewide neighborhood preservation program, which will provide the city with $ 125,000 in grants.

In the meantime, most Doo Wop motels have been listed separately on the state register. A number of mid-century landmarks, like the Lollipop Motel, have also been saved through sensible condominium conversions, but those scenarios rely on the good graces of owners who understand the value of preservation. Establishing historic neighborhoods is another layer of protection, Henry said, as long as the city enforces them this time around.

Doo Wop Lollipop Motel Wildwood Nj
The Lollipop Motel is a classic Doo Woo motel and has recently been converted to condos. Photo courtesy of Lollipop Condo Motel.

“I know Stephanie said the integrity of the district has been destroyed – and she’s probably right,” said Henry, who this year received the Young Preservationist Award from Preservation New Jersey. “But I also wonder, maybe there is still a way.”