Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Wildwood: The East Coast Capital of Googie... uh, I mean Doo-Wop

jolly roger
The Jolly Roger. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Wildwood, on Cape May in New Jersey, is the undisputed capital of Googie modernist architecture on the East Coast. In fact, there's probably a higher concentration of architecture of this type here than anywhere else in the world. But it's also disappearing at an alarming rate. 

sea gull
The Sea Gull. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Wildwoods, as the combined communities are known (it's frankly impossible to tell where one city starts and the other ends), has always been a vacation resort. It got its start at the end of the 19th century, and gained a lot of momentum in the early 50s through the 1960s. 

yankee clipper
The Yankee Clipper. Photo ©Darren Bradley

While I don't know the architects for most of these, quite a few were designed and built by the Morey family. The Moreys have been a prominent family in Wildwood since at least the 50s. They were inspired to create googie modern motels in Wildwood while visiting Miami Beach and seeing hotels like the Fontainebleau, and other designs by Morris Lapidus. Many of the hotels are still owned by the Morey family, who also run local attractions like Morey's Piers and water parks. 

wildwood pier
Vintage postcard view of the Fun Pier. 

The boardwalk and piers, with their souvenir shops, arcade games, ferris wheel, and such continue to offer the classic vintage Jersey Shore experience. Back in the day, there was even a sky ride and a monorail! 

Why can't we have cool stuff like this today? Vintage photo from WildwoodNostalgia.com.  

The buildings are mostly modest, low-slung "motor inns" or "motels". They were clearly built to cater to America's burgeoning middle class at the time. A pool, a mini-golf, and a sun deck are the standard amenities.

The Panoramic. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Many haven't really been touched since they were built in the 1950s and 60s. That, alone, makes them extraordinary. But what makes them even more special is their unique architecture and signage. 

beach colony
The Beach Colony. How long before it gets swallowed up by big, boxy, boring condos like the ones behind it? Photo ©Darren Bradley
beach colony2
Detail of the Beach Colony. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Many vacation resort destinations of the period (Palm Springs, CA, Niagara Falls, NY and Ontario, or Lake George, NY) built little motels with themes of the day to appeal to the popular imagination. For example, Hawaiiana / Tiki is a popular one: 

The Waikiki. Photo ©Darren Bradley
ala kai
The Ala Kai. Photo ©Darren Bradley
ala moana sign
The Ala Moana. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Tangiers evokes more of a Tiki vibe than a North African one to me. Photo ©Darren Bradley

... or space-age futurism... 
The Astronaut. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Starlux. Photo ©Darren Bradley
An apocalyptic view of  the Starlux hotel before the storm. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Starlux before the storm. Photo ©Darren Bradley

...or even a combination of both... 

royal hawaiian
The Royal Hawaiian combines both Hawaiian/Tiki themes and Space-Age themes, with a flying saucer on top similar to some of the towers in Honolulu. The person at the front desk told me it was a private apartment. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Predating Las Vegas by a few decades, at least, there are motels that evoke Camelot...

Am I in the minority in saying I'd rather stay here than at Excalibur in Vegas? Photo ©Darren Bradley

... or the Southeast Asia... 

The Singapore used to be far more interesting. Recent renovations have rendered it a shadow of its former pagoda self. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
or even Vikings... 

The Viking. Photo ©Darren Bradley
I really liked the naiveté of the artwork and some of the designs, as well. For example, the mural on the side of the Waikiki Hotel was meant to depict that famous view of the beach and Diamond Head beyond. But the end result is something a bit... uh... different. 

waikiki comparison
Nailed it. Actual view of Waikiki on the left, from a vintage postcard and, on the right,
an artist's rendition of the same view on the Waikiki Hotel. Photo ©Darren Bradley (for the right). 

And the Jolly Roger statue on top of this one is just funny... I love it.  

jolly roger2
The Jolly Roger. Photo ©Darren Bradley

One thing they all seem to have in common is a modernist, Googie design aesthetic, regardless of the chosen theme. 

ala moana 1
The Ala Moana. Photo ©Darren Bradley
oceanview motel
The Oceanview. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Like most resort towns, Wildwood is practically a ghost town in the off season (I visited during a cold-rainy day, as you can tell from my photos). It was completely empty. The population balloons from about 5,000 permanent residents in the winter to over 250,000 during the summer. That's nuts. I've never been there in the summer, but all of the signs regulating traffic, parking and crowds hint at absolute chaos during the peak season.

The VIP is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It's been in the same family for generations, since the beginning. The owner invited me to come back for a party to celebrate. Photo ©Darren Bradley

That said, the locals all seem to take the crowds in stride. Nearly everyone I met in town was extremely friendly and I can't say enough about their hospitality (The one exception to this rule - who was working front desk of a hotel I photographed - will remain nameless but you know who you are!). Despite most places being closed and the owners and employees busy trying to get ready for the coming tourist season, many people who were there were willing to set up chairs, open parasols, move trash cans, and otherwise go out of their way to help out and let me take photos. It's just too bad the sun didn't make an appearance... I shot all of these from under a towel, and was wiping drops off the lens between every frame. 

Despite some rather unfortunate additions (that canopy and the stuff I cropped out of the right side), the Pan American with its rotating globe sign still evokes a fascination with the jet age. Photo ©Darren Bradley

panamerican postcard
Vintage postcard view of how this place used to look. Check out that crescent-shaped entry, and all that glass! 
© Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     

Rear view of the Pan American today. Those elevated sun decks are a common feature of most of the hotels in the area. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
You can tell that covered trellis thing on the roof probably isn't original. The Pan American. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Wildwood's residents don't call the prevailing style of architecture "Googie" or even "Mid-century Modernist". They call it Doo-Wop. I personally HATE that name. It sounds cheesy and reminds me of all of the cliches you find in badly recreated "50s-themed diners" you find in suburban malls. I'd never heard of doo-wop architecture. I read that the term was first coined by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts in the 90s, and is used specifically (exclusively?) for Wildwood. 

sand castle
The Sand Castle. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Still, I can understand why they would invent that name. It's evocative of early Rock n' Roll, and something that most people can easily understand and relate to (probably more than the term "Googie", which is named for the first diner of that style, "Googie's", in Los Angeles by John Lautner). And Wildwood has a deep historical connection to Rock 'n Roll, as its the location where Bill Haley & the Comets performed the first Rock 'n Roll song, Rock Around the Clock, for the very first time back in 1954. 

bill haley comets
Bill Haley & the Comets

But personally, I think that calling the architecture "Doo-Wop" cheapens it. And a lot of the locals do refer to it as "kitschy", almost apologetically, which is a shame. Be proud, Wildwoodians! Love your heritage! So much of this architecture - often by unknown architects - deserves a lot of credit and respect. In fact, several of the motels here are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The Caribbean, with its spiral ramp and elevated Cabana, is one of the more celebrated classics left in Wildwood. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been meticulously restored. This is right before I got drenched with freezing rain. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Caribbean's trademark ramp to the elevated Cabana. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Cabana at the Caribbean. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The crescent-shaped pool at the Caribbean. This was also the first hotel to feature plastic palm trees, back in 1958. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley
chateau bleu
The Chateau Bleu is also on the National Register of Historic Places. That terrible Home Depot vinyl pool fencing is everywhere, on most of these hotels, unfortunately. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Of course, there's a bad news part of this story (and you knew this was coming). Since the early 2000s, Wildwood has undergone a bit of an economic renaissance, of sorts, which has led to a lot of new development. But that development has meant bland, boxy, boring condos. And it has come at the expense of many of the Googie modern hotels in the community, which are being destroyed. It was worse during the boom of 2005-2007 but I don't believe the problem has gone away. And it'll likely happen again at the next boom. 

new houses
Example of the cheap, boxy new homes being built today on lots where once stood beautiful modernist architecture motels and other businesses. Photo ©Darren Bradley

In fact, more than two-thirds of Wildwood's modernist architecture has already been destroyed. I had compiled a list a few years ago of places that I wanted to see if/when I ever had the opportunity to visit. But unfortunately, I was shocked to discover that at least half of the hotels and buildings on my list had already been demolished, in just the few years since I'd started to compile that list in 2003. Here are just a few examples: 

The Ebb Tide (1957 - 2003). With its leaning walls to reflect the ebb and flow of the tide, the Ebb Tide was the first googie-style motel to be built in Wildwood. DEMOLISHED. © Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     

Casa Bahama (1959 - 2004). DEMOLISHED. Vintage Image. 
© Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     

hialeah postcard
The Hialeah (? - 2005). DEMOLISHED. © Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     

tahiti postcard
The Tahiti (1960 - 2004). DEMOLISHED. Vintage Image. 
© Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     
The Satellite (1958 - 2004). Vintage Image. DEMOLISHED. 
© Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     

I think a lot of the residents mean well, but they simply don't understand how valuable this heritage is. They seem to be trying really hard to strip these places of their unique character. 

And there are few laws in Wildwood to regulate this development. Palm Beach, Florida and Palm Springs, California are prime examples of how communities have been able to leverage historic preservation into a major economic engine for their community. They are major tourist destinations because of it. That architectural heritage is the most important asset Wildwood has to differentiate itself. Without it, Wildwood will soon become just a bland seaside community like thousands of others. 

coconut house
The owner of the Ala Moana bought the entire block where his main hotel sits, and added these homes to the back side of the lot. I met the owner - one of the nicest people I met in Wildwood. He was very proud of his main hotel, the Ala Moana... but he was also proud of these recent homes he had built. These are nice enough, but not special in the way his main hotel is.
It's a shame they couldn't keep the same modernist aesthetic as the older architecture.
Photo ©Darren Bradley

ala moana 2
Here's the main building of the Ala Moana, which shows the contrast between the original construction and the newer, more conventional buildings on the same property (previous photo). This place won Hotel of the Year in Wildwood last year, 
and I can see why. This building is glorious. 
Photo ©Darren Bradley

The former Eden Roc is still there, but is now called the Dolphin. Why change the name and get rid of that amazing sign and legendary name? I have no idea... Why replace it with an unmemorable, bland name like Dolphin and garish 1990s-style art? Even more of a mystery. I hope it was worth it for them and that they are at least getting more customers now, or something. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Here's a vintage brochure from the Eden Roc, showing its original paint scheme and signage. © Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     

The once-proud and unapologetically Asian-inspired Singapore hotel has now been neutered and stripped of its pagoda-like roof overhands and Asian red and white paint-scheme. It's now painted a uniformly bland hospital green color.
See photo at top of post for how it looks today. 
© Photograph copyright Aladdin Color. No reproduction allowed. www.retrostockpix.com.     

There's now a Doo-Wop Preservation League, which was created in the face of all this wanton destruction, in an attempt to increase awareness and appreciation for this architecture. There's now even a museum, which is housed in a saved but relocated former diner, and they have a collection of signs from demolished motels that they'd managed to save. Alas, like everything else, the center was closed when I visited so I didn't get a chance to talk to anyone or see inside the museum. 

doowop center
The Doo-wop Museum and Visitors' Center, with a collection of signs from hotels that have already been demolished. the museum itself is housed in the former Surfside Diner. This building was relocated for the museum. Photo ©Darren Bradley
But despite the demolitions, there are still more existing googie modern motels and other buildings on the island than I could count, and I look forward to visiting again someday soon, hopefully when it's sunny and not raining... 

The Bel Air & the Caribbean. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The Bel-Air. Photo ©Darren Bradley
For more information about Wildwood's unique architectural heritage, see the Doo-Wop Preservation League. 

Stokes Architecture also created a great primer on Wildwood architecture and suggested design guidelines (which, unfortunately, have largely been ignored by developers). It's a bit dated because it provides suggestions for some buildings that have since disappeared. But it's still a great reference. You can find it here. 

For more information on Googie architecture, I discuss the topic a bit in previous blog posts here and here. 


Gary S Collins said...

Wonderful photos. What a great retro trip to the shore!
I smell the salt air and the mildew.

Mod Betty / RetroRoadmap.com said...

Darren - I am with you 100% on the undervalued awesomeness of Wildwood and its treasure trove of remaining Mid Century Modern Mish Mash Motels! I've been down there shooting photos in the cold off-season myself, and it definitely gives that "land that time forgot" vibe. Though on a day like yours it can be the best way to view some of the architectural details, both on the motels and some of the boardwalk buildings, simply because they're not obscured by beach bodies getting in the way of your shots :-)

With my website Retro Roadmap I do my best to tell folks about the cool authentic vintage places like Wildwood that are still remaining and encourage people to visit them and tell folks they are there because of the authentic vintage and not the cookie cutter "anywhere USA" development of today.

We had a wicked fun Vintage Weekend - tiki style - there a few weeks ago where MCM and vintage lovers from across the country and nearby took over the Caribbean Motel for a weekend of vintage fun and everyone loved the town. We had an instagram scavenger hunt that I created to ensure that folks would get out there and see and celebrate the vintage aspect of the town, hopefully - like your awesome photos - bringing awareness of these gems to a wider audience.

Thanks for spreading the word! Every little bit helps!
xo Mod Betty

Boris said...

This Wildwood essay is, perhaps, the most emotional of all that I remember on your blog and understandably so. I often feel both upset and irritated when seeing how much is being destroyed. It seems we don’t give architecture a chance to grown on us, become familiar, become a part of our common history.

What’s left to us, photographers, is to pick up pieces and document what we can while we can.

Oh well... You did a fantastic job, as always. How many days did it take you? My guess is two, maximum three.



AlexC said...

Love this post and the pictures.

My family has been coming to Wildwood since the mid-50s, I'm glad to say we still do. I bought a 60s era condo there and am slowly backdating the look inside.

A couple of notes...

The Starlux was (re)built on the site of an older hotel, the Wingate, specifically in the DooWop style in 2000-ish. The Carribean was restored just after that as everyone realized what they had here. As you note, not everything could be/would be saved.

The Pan Am hotel was built in the very early 60s with 3 floors, the fourth and penthouse was added sometime later (but before that postcard). It's funny to see the fishing pier and ocean behind it, as today there is probably a fifteen hundred feet of sand between the hotel and the water.

The EdenRoc name change was because it was infamous as completely rundown and horrible. As cool as the name is, the new owners knew it was tainted. The Dolphin is pretty weak as you note, and given that it was done only last winter or the one before even worse.

I've walked past the Waikiki about a thousand times and never noticed the Diamond Head mural. I do enjoy the breakfast upstairs though.

DooWopper said...

Darren, the former Eden Roc (now Dolphin Inn) was one of if not the worst motel on the island with a horrific reputation on Trip Advisor. Not many thought it even possible to salvage. The current owners did a fantastic job renovating the motel and even adding brand new neon signage and murals to help reinvent the motel. They fixed all the lighting and did a fantastic job maintaining the character of the motel, especially considering much of it was literally rotting away. The original plan was to turn it into a brand named motel, so while the Dolphin name a bit cheesey, it's a mile ahead of Motel 6. They should be applauded for their effort, this may have been the biggest yet most underrated success story as far as a motel being saved in the Wildwoods.

Stephanie H said...

Thanks for a great photo essay. I performed the architectural survey of the motels during the summer of 2001 for the Doo Wop Preservation League and wrote the National Register of Historic Places nomination forms for both the multiple property nomination (which includes the Chateau Bleu and the Caribbean) and a Historic District (which I don't think ever passed due to demolitions).

While I had never been there before that summer, it quickly became one of my favorite places. It had such a distinct sense of place and each time a hotel was demolished it broke my heart. The island really had something great and it's devastating that there were too many owners who wouldn't get on-board. I try to go back every couple of years, but it really is just depressing to see the number of giant, ugly condos, many of which are empty most of the time, which have overtaken the island.

While I too love visiting Wildwood in the off season, I would highly recommend making another trip in the summer months to get the full experience. The boardwalk filled with people, the smell of delicious fried everything, and the sounds of the rides are a great appetizer to going back to your hotel room and sitting on the balcony with a cold glass of wine.

SeeLifeMarvels said...

I live in FL where so much of our unique architecture from the golden age of travel has been demolished for as you describe, bland boring boxes. We are visiting Wildwood with my inlaws and cousins this summer for the first time. This is what I want my children to see and experience.

modarchitecture said...

Thank you, Mod Betty! It looks like you and your group had a great time! Wish I could have been there! And yes, I have seen your website many times, and do enjoy it a lot. It's a very valuable resource, and you've been everywhere! xo Darren

modarchitecture said...

Thank you, Boris. I appreciate your heartfelt words. And you are right - I had wanted to visit this place for a long time and was so sad to learn that I'd apparently waited too long to see some of the places that I most loved from the vintage photos. Alas, greed and short-sighted development seem to usually win over long-term interests, and most people don't know what they've lost until it's gone.

As for how long it took me, I was only in town for a few hours, and it rained most of the time. I took another day or so to edit the photos, and about a half day to write up the blog post. Thanks!

modarchitecture said...

Thank you, Gary! Glad you enjoyed the photos!

modarchitecture said...

Thank you for the comments and information, Alex. I didn't know the story on the Starlux, but I could tell that it was more recent - or at least that it had been remodeled recently. It was very nice, but some details clearly weren't from the period. Still, well done and glad they're embracing the style. It's a beautiful hotel and I really enjoyed my stay.

For the Eden Roc, I understand a bit better now the need to change names and rebrand. I am happy that the building remains. But I just wish they'd embraced the mid-century modernist aesthetic a bit more sensitively in their remodeling. But still, the owners should be applauded for their efforts and dedication to keeping an icon alive.

As for the Pan Am, I didn't know that about the additions, but it makes sense.

It's funny that you never noticed the Diamond Head mural, as it's very large on on the main street! Perhaps I did simply because I grew up in Honolulu and it's near and dear to my heart. Thanks, again, for the personal history!

modarchitecture said...

Thank you for your comment, DooWopper. I understand better the context now, and the need to rebrand. And I'm grateful to the owners for what they've done (Alex C also talked about that). Knowing the context, I agree completely that they should be applauded for their efforts and dedication.

As I said, I just wish they'd been a bit more sensitive to the modernist style in their remodel.

Unfortunately, for so many of these motels and hotels today, they've used building materials and fixtures that are cheapest and most readily available today, and which aren't really in keeping with the modernist design or style of the original buildings. So you end up with things like thick, bulky white vinyl window frames, as well as white vinyl decking and pool fencing (and usually with colonial style post caps), colonial style coach lights, and other elements. It's not a big deal, but it does detract from the overall style and feel of the place.

modarchitecture said...

Thank you, Stephanie H! It's an honor and privilege to hear from the person who did the historical survey. I'm so jealous as it must have been a wonderful opportunity to see all of these places when they they were still around. At the same time, as much as it was heartbreaking for me to see that so many of them have disappeared, it must be so much more difficult for you to see. It is shocking to see the proliferation of cheaply design, boxy, bland condos going up all over the place, overshadowing these classic resorts - both literally and figuratively.

But yes, I agree that I would love to come out and see the place with people (and sun!). Hopefully will have another opportunity soon! I will publish a follow up to this blog post when I do.

Boris said...

All this in less than a day? I honestly cannot believe this. You are in the league of your own.
What's your half-day charge?


Unknown said...

What a trip down memory lane!

Unknown said...

That be Hunt's pier not Fun..

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