A New Wave
Can the economy save the Wildwoods' Doo Wop Motels?
By Laura Kiniry | Online Only | Sept. 14, 2009
On Labor Day weekend, the owners of the Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest, N.J., threw an end-of-summer bash for their loyal clientele. The motel served Jersey corn, smoked barbecued pork, and farm-fresh tomatoes to the gathering of second- and third-generation guests affectionately dubbed "The Caribbean Nation." And while it may surprise the uninitiated, there were also plenty of plastic palm trees on hand—a signature staple of Doo Wop design.
The Caribbean is one of approximately 60 remaining motels in the Doo Wop style—a mid-20th-century architectural form known for its kitschy themes, flashy neon, and yes, plastic palm trees—spread among the Jersey Shore's Five Mile Beach barrier island. Like any businesses, Doo Wop properties are susceptible to the current recession. But the current economic climate may also be protecting their future: The pressure to sell out to developers has decreased markedly.
"This economy has definitely put the developer in the back of the bus," says George Miller, co-owner of the Caribbean with since 2004. In fact, Doo Wop preservationists' say, with new legislation pending, the Wildwoods (North Wildwood, Wildwood City, and Wildwood Crest) may be looking forward to a rare winter of content.
"Traditionally, when the economy is restricted, it's good for preservationists," says Christine Madrid French, director of the National Trust's Modernism + Recent Past program. "It slows down the process long enough to be able to educate the public, and people are more willing to recycle what they already have."
The Wildwoods' motel boom began in the 1950s, when car travel boomed and, for many Americans, "bigger was better." Easily accessible lodgings catering to New Jersey's growing tourist trade were built at breakneck speed. To differentiate motels, owners added flashy neon signs, bold colors, curved balconies, and kidney-shaped pools, along with names evoking exotic and faraway locales like the Tahiti, Satellite, and Eden Roc. When the resorts' popularity began to wane during the 1970s gas crisis, their commercial architecture remained exquisitely intact. "We've always been a time capsule here," says longtime resident and business owner Chuck Schumann, "with great beaches and water quality."
Schumann was among the first to notice the importance of the Wildwoods' mid-century assets. In the 1990s, with assistance from neighboring Cape May's Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, he organized a Back to the '50s Trolley Tour, hoping to draw attention to the region's distinct architecture. A visit from the late architect Steve Izenour and his students from Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Kent State University led to formation of the Doo Wop Preservation League in 1997. Still, Doo Wop's appeal remained less obvious to longtime residents ("It's very difficult to get local people to realize that what they've grown up with is fascinating to others," says Schumann), leaving an opening for developers to devour the Wildwoods' affordable beachside property in the early 2000s.
"One reason [motel] owners were happy to sell is that Doo Wop properties need a big infusion of capital to upgrade," Miller says.
And sell they did. Between 2003 and 2006 the Wildwoods lost more than 100 Doo Wop motels, including icons like the Ebb Tide, Casa Nova, Carousel, and Rio, to developers. The threat of permanent loss became so imminent that in 2006 the National Trust named Wildwoods' Doo Wop motels to the list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
"The Doo Wop motels qualified because of the incredible collection—the sheer number of them," says French. "Fifties and Sixties architecture is such an important part of our national heritage, but it's still not receiving the notice it deserves."
Thanks in part to the current recession, however, the Wildwoods' architectural tide is now turning. No Doo Wop properties have been torn down over the last couple years, and, according to Doo Wop Preservation League President Dan MacElrevey, "The economy's given us a window to make changes in legislation and zoning, and create incentives to retain buildings for the time when that next boom comes in the real estate market."
Such incentives already include the ability to forego normal height restrictions and add two additional floors for owners who retain the Doo Wop footprint (Wildwood Crest's Shalimar is a good example of this). They may also bypass sign size restrictions, and the League is currently working with federal officials on ways to pass historic tax credits to "condotels," which include some of the island's best known Doo Wop properties, like North Wildwood's Lollipop and Wildwood Crest's Monterey Resort. "Most [Doo Wop motel] owners have no intention of selling," says MacElrevey, "as long as they can keep the motels profitable in their current design."
Doo Wop is becoming marketable. "You hear people using the term Doo Wop," MacElrevey says. "You'd never hear that 10 years ago." Wildwood's Doo Wop Experience, an interactive museum focused on Doo Wop and equipped with an eight-foot-long touch screen highlighting local properties, and a Neon Sign Garden serving as a quasi-memorial for lost motels, is benefiting from county support; and in 2009 the revived Doo Wop trolley tour finally broke even. The "Neo Doo Wop Movement," a 21st-century interpretation of classic designs that MacElrevey describes as "more Doo Wop than Doo Wop," is picking up steam: this past March, Wildwood received a $475,000 grant from New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs to improve its downtown district, including Doo Wop-ifying facades and streetlights along Pacific Avenue.
"People are starting to realize that they can continue to prosper from an older unit that has some culture involved with it now," Schumann says. "It's not just a motel anymore."
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