Preservation Stagnation on the Jersey Shore

Article from the proceedings from Are We There Yet? Preserving Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation YouTube.

Stymied by Success: Preservation Stagnation on the Jersey Shore

Stephanie M. Hoagland, Jablonski Building Conservation, Inc

Weathered neon sign with text Beach Holiday Motel Office. An arrow points left.
Neon sign for the Beach Holiday Motel

Stephanie M. Hoagland,


Grassroots efforts can be a powerful tool in preserving the architectural history of a community. But is it always enough?

At the turn of the 21st century, the motels of The Wildwoods were an exceptional architectural resource that helped to tell the story of how working-class Americans vacationed in the mid-20th century. With over 300 motels situated along a six-mile long barrier island near the southern tip of New Jersey, The Wildwoods were finally being recognized as the largest collection of 1950s-60s motels in the country. Beginning in the summer of 2001, the Doo Wop Preservation League, a non-profit organization created to foster awareness and appreciation of the unique architecture of The Wildwoods, began working towards a National Register Historic District nomination. With a large number of “Mom and Pop” motels, no chain stores, and its beachside location, The Wildwoods had a distinct sense of place and an authentic identity. Its unique character quickly attracted developers eager to cash-in on the island’s new-found popularity. Something had to give way to make room for new development and unfortunately, that something was the very thing required to create a cohesive Historic District.

Poised for preservation success, why and how did this grassroots movement fail?

The History of the Wildwoods

The Wildwoods are comprised of three municipalities, North Wildwood, Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest, located on a six-mile-long barrier island at the southern tip of New Jersey. Their histories mirror that of many American seaside resort towns. They were founded between 1880 and 1905, primarily by land developers who saw the island as a great location for a summer resort and “Cottage Colony.” The name “Wildwood” was given to the communities by Philip Pontius Baker in honor of the dense twisted forest growth that covered the island at the time of their founding. An early real estate brochure lists Wildwood Beach as “a veritable forest by the sea.” [1]

The growth of The Wildwoods was slow until the introduction of reliable railroad service in 1889. These trains brought visitors from the nearby urban areas of Philadelphia, but also areas further afield such as Connecticut and New York City. In an attempt to compete with other New Jersey resorts such as Atlantic City, each town built their own boardwalks and amusement pavilions. To house these visitors, hotels began to pop up along the length of the island ranging in size from small boarding house with a few rooms to large luxury hotels. Although some of these hotels catered to a higher class of customer, the majority of visitors were middle and working class patrons from Philadelphia, drawn in by the “moderate terms” and “special rates” that these establishments offered. [2]

Like many entertainment industries, The Wildwoods were severely impacted by the Great Depression in the 1930s. Hotels struggled due to a lack of convention business and resort travelers. In an effort to attract customers, The Wildwoods focused on offering special events and attractions to boost business, including finishing contests, regattas, boat races, and baby parades. The Miss America Beauty Pageant was even held in Wildwood in 1932 after it was halted in Atlantic City for being too “immoral.” [3] By the late 1930s, the hotel business was again booming in The Wildwoods and 85% of all visitors to the resort were arriving in automobiles. [4]

At the end of World War II, a combination of the end of wartime austerity with an increase in leisure time and disposable income allowed families more time for vacations. After the war, Wildwood’s publicity department began an aggressive campaign to promote the resort, which brought in a greater number of visitors. The years between the end of World War II and the end of the Eisenhower Administration were the heyday of The Wildwoods, bringing an explosion in visitors, record crowds, and unequaled growth. [5]

Although attendance records for the early 1950s placed The Wildwoods in third place behind Atlantic City and Asbury Park for New Jersey destinations, the number of visitors to The Wildwoods increased nearly every season. Crowds of more than 150,000 on holiday weekends were not uncommon and during the July 4th holiday in 1952, officials counted 50,000 automobiles and estimated the crowds to number 300,000. [6]

Motels in the Wildwoods

This increase in automobile traffic to The Wildwoods required a change in how visitors were housed. In an effort to keep up with the need for accommodations, the resort saw a boom of new construction. The switch from hotels to motels was more than just the difference between a door opening to a hall versus a door opening to the exterior. Part of the attraction of the motel was the casual atmosphere and “park at the door convenience” not found in stuffy hotels. There was also the liberation from the requirement of tipping bellboys and desk clerks, easy access, free parking, no reservations, the home-like ambience, and personal privacy.

Motel construction in The Wildwoods began in earnest in the late 1940s. The first motels, such as the Ship Ahoy (heavily altered but standing today), the Sun Deck (demolished), and the Sun Dial (demolished), were designed like apartment units. These motels were primarily two-story rectangular boxes with prominent balconies lacking many of the amenities that would later be seen such as swimming pools and on-site parking.

The term “motel” did not come into popular use until the 1950s. The earliest motels had names such as cottages, courts, lodges, and apartments. E.H. Lightfoot, an architect with the Tourist Court Journal, recommended motel owners shun the whimsy of windmills and miniature missions in favor of a more modern aesthetic. “Regardless of where a court is erected it should be built of stucco with a sand finish using modern architecture with its attractive simplicity, simple lines, and be painted pure white.” [6] Many of the early-1950s motels in Wildwood stayed true to these rules. One-story, linear designs could be seen in motels such as the Jay Motel (the first motel to call itself a “motel,” demolished), the Breezy Corner Motel (demolished), Holly Court (partially demolished), and Lantern Lane (converted to condos).

Perhaps the greatest boost to the resort was the opening of the Garden State Parkway in 1955, which ran vertically across the state from the New York state line in the north, down to Cape May at the south. Upon its completion, it was estimated that the Parkway would bring an additional 349,000 automobiles to The Wildwoods each season.

The mid-to-late 1950s saw not only an increase in the number of motels being built on the island, but also a change in style. These new motels were attracting families by offering amenities such as playgrounds, Ping-Pong tables, kitchenettes, and miniature golf. They were often two-stories, L-shaped in plan, set back into the property line, and with the office located at an end closest to the street. The always-present pool was tucked into the crook of the “L” with pull-in parking, one for each unit, along the street.

Many of these motels were modeled after designs seen in Florida and especially Miami Beach. Will Morey, one of the first and most prolific builders of motels in The Wildwoods, spent his winters in Florida and brought back design ideas that he implemented in his own motels. Working as The Morey Brothers with his brother Bill, they specialized in the construction of “modern and attractive” buildings such as the Fantasy (demolished), the Capri (demolished), the Sans Souci (demolished), Knoll’s Motel (demolished), and the Castaway (demolished). Many of their motels were inspired by the glamorous postwar resort hotels designed by Morris Lapidus, who worked to combine the images of luxury and opulence with the strict budget guidelines set by the motel owners. The structures were built relatively cheaply and then heavily embellished. The Morey Brothers and other motel owners on the island worked to bring that high-style architecture of Florida down to an “everyman’s” level. These motels are truly vernacular structures in that they took progressive designs and constructed them in traditional materials. Motels that appeared to be constructed of reinforced concrete, upon closer inspection, were found to be made of concrete block, or even wood-frame, covered in cement-based stucco. Simple rectangular beams were built-out with wood, again covered in stucco, to give the impression of streamlined fins. Many of the most fantastical motels, such as the Tahiti (demolished), the Chateau Bleu, and the Ebb Tide (demolished), were constructed of simple concrete block walls and then used wood framing to create the modern appendages such as butterfly roofs, angled walls, and porte-cochères that matched the stylistic designs conjured by the exotic names of the motels.

Between 1956 and 1964, over 200 motels were built on the island. [8] Much of what made these motels so visually stimulating were their embellishments, the superfluous decorations that were added to the plain concrete block walls to differentiate one motel from the next. It was this ornamentation that attracted the visitor and his family when they had literally hundreds of motels to choose from and made them want to return year after year. It was what gave that specific motel a sense of place on an island filled with hundreds of other motels identical in body and plan. The embellishments could include wonderful neon signage in front, or in some cases perched upon the roof to be clearly seen from the street; colorful lighting around the pool; decorated soffits under the balconies; colors used to paint and trim the motel; tall plastic palm trees rustling in the ocean breeze; and even the plaques displaying the room number on the doors matched the theme of the motel. Each of these details worked to support the evocative theme, which enabled the visitor to go to places they would not normally have been able to afford. The lava rocks, tikis, and grass thatch umbrellas at the Waikiki transported you to a tropical paradise. The five-story pagoda and Asian-inspired garden walkway at the Singapore could whisk a family to the Orient. The hut-shaped office and dangerous looking spears at the Tangiers warned one to watch out for the “natives.”

Two images motel parking areas, swimming pools, and two-story buildings. Text reads Tahiti Motel, Casa Bahama motel.
The Tahiti and Casa Bahama Motels (both demolished) used exotic themes to attract guests

Postcards from Stephanie M. Hoagland's collection

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s The Wildwoods continued to attract “big name” entertainers and some entertainment booking agents had even begun to refer to the City of Wildwood as “Little Las Vegas.”[9] Wildwood saw many rock ‘n roll firsts. “Rock Around the Clock” was first performed on Memorial Day weekend in 1954 at the HofBrau Hotel in Wildwood by Bill Haley & His Comets. The song's status as one of the first rock and roll hits has given rise to the city's claim as "the birthplace of rock and roll." During the summer of 1957, Dick Clark held record hops in Wildwood and the first national broadcast of “Dick Clark’s American Bandstand” was aired live on ABC-TV from Wildwood’s Starlight Ballroom on August 5, 1957. Chubby Checkers dance craze “The Twist” was introduced at Wildwood’s Rainbow Supper Club in July 1960, weeks before he performed it on Dick Clark's nationally televised Saturday evening program and launched a national craze.

Two motel signs on buildings with bright colored trim Bel Air in front and Caribbean in back.
Rooftop signage in Wildwood Crest

Stephanie M. Hoagland

Through the 1960s, the number of visitors to the island continued to grow. In 1960 it was estimated that The Wildwoods entertained as many as 2-million people a year. The number of visitors for the July 4th weekend in 1966 alone numbered 400,000. Even though new motels were continually being built, virtually every motel and hotel in The Wildwoods had its “No Vacancy” sign switched on daily. [10]

Starting in the mid-1960s, taller motel structures, generally three to four stories, began to appear, primarily along the newly opened beaches of Wildwood Crest. Although these motels were taller, at a block long they still utilized the horizontality seen in the smaller motels. This horizontality was emphasized by the decorative railing at each balcony level and the expanse of large picture windows at each floor.

The late-1960s saw an increase in crime rates and “rowdy behavior” on the island. Robberies, assaults, fights, drunk and disorderly behavior, and even murder were giving the resort a bad reputation. It was also haunted by competition from larger amusement parks, such as Disneyworld and Six Flags. The legalization of gambling in Atlantic City brought with it the construction of large showy casinos that attracted both the big-name entertainers and the crowds who flocked to see their shows. Additionally, media coverage of ocean pollution and water contamination caused many visitors to search for vacation spots that did not involve the Jersey Shore.

The gas crisis and accompanying economic downturn in the early 1970s further injured the resort and by 1990 the City of Wildwood had an unemployment rate of 19%, the highest on the South Jersey Shore. A per capita income of $10,079 left 27% of the cities permanent residents living below the poverty level. As a summer resort, the island never developed an industrial base, and was dependent on a tourist economy that only lasted from May to September. Through the remainder of the 1970s to the mid-90s, business in the Wildwoods remained slow. This commercial inactivity led to “preservation by neglect” of the motels.

Saving Doo Wop

Starting in the late 1990s, The Wildwoods saw a resurgence in popularity. Its collection of 1950s and 60s architecture was unlike that found anywhere else in America and began to attract academic and media attention from many different sources. Part of this new-found popularity was due to the creation of the Doo Wop Preservation League (DWPL), which was founded in 1997 as a not-for-profit organization whose mission was to “foster awareness, appreciation, and education of the popular culture and imagery of the 1950s and 1960s, and to promote the preservation of the largest collection of mid-century resort architecture found in the United States.” [11] They were able to get national magazines such as Preservation Magazine and the Smithsonian Magazine to include cover articles on the architecture of The Wildwoods. The island was also host to several architecture, planning, and preservation studios from the University of Pennsylvania, Kent State University, and Yale University.

Bringing attention to the island’s collection of Mid-century Modern architecture was just one part of a multi-prong effort to attract visitors, extend the annual tourist season beyond September, and revitalize the local economy. Extensive redevelopment of the island’s boardwalks and piers was completed and a new $70-million convention center was opened which would attract programing and visitors in the off-season. It didn’t take long before The Wildwoods had moved to the top of the list of Jersey Shore summer resorts.

Wildwood was staking its economic development on the success of Doo Wop. City planners continued to work to promote the island’s unique architectural resource and extending the Doo Wop theme to other new design elements such as pedestrian boulevards, street lights, and signage, especially at the entrance to the city.

In an effort to get new development to follow the Doo Wop theme, architects Michael Hirsch, Richard Stokes, and Anthony Bracali developed a handbook of design guidelines entitled “How to Doo Wop” which laid out the Doo Wop vision and provided instructions on site design, rehabilitating existing structures, and how to incorporate new construction into the context of the existing architecture. The City of Wildwood adopted this Guidebook in its development ordinances to enhance the community in much the same way as Miami Beach adopted Art Deco design as a theme for their community.

The turn of the 21st century brought the beginnings of a real estate bubble and developers began taking an interest in properties on the island with the aim of demolishing the motels and constructing modern condominiums and townhouses. Jack Morey (son of Will Morey and co-founder and then-President of the DWPL) was concerned about the recent demolitions and began talks with Nancy Zerbe, President of Arch2, a cultural resource management company, about the issue of historic preservation and if the motels of The Wildwoods would be eligible for protection. Ms. Zerbe recommended a Multiple Property Submission (MPS) through the completion of a Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF). Upon consultation with the New Jersey Office of Historic Preservation (NJHPO), they were advised that any decision about a possible MPS would require a survey of the relevant properties.

Modern gas station with turquoise trim and marron text on sign reads WAWA.
Convenience store designed following the guidelines for Neo-Doo Wop

Stephanie M. Hoagland

Arch2 wrote a pro-bono grant application for the DWPL which was accepted and the author was hired as a summer intern to survey over 300 commercial structures on the island (307 motels, 11 retail, and 1 governmental). Arch2 designed the survey form using the NJHPO base form and then adding criteria specific to the motels, such as lobby location and description, swimming pool shape and location, decorative motifs, signage, and balcony design including eaves and railings. Each structure, and the surrounding area, was documented photographically to record both the physical building and its geographical context. Over the course of the next year-and-a-half the histories of both the island and the evolution of the motel were researched, the nomination forms completed, and the historic district boundaries defined.

As the motels on the island essentially formed a time capsule of Mid-century Modern resort architecture, all of those involved in the creation of the nominations felt that they should be a “slam dunk.” Doug Stewart summed up this optimism in his article about the motels for Smithsonian Magazine where he stated, “The town’s gaudy motel districts, in fact, are considered a shoo-in for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in the next year or two.”[12]

With a large number of “Mom and Pop” motels, no chain stores, and its beach-side location, The Wildwoods had a distinct sense of place and an authentic identity. Being there was like being nowhere else in America. Unfortunately, its unique character continued to attract developers eager to cash-in on the island’s new-found popularity. While the architectural historians were frantically researching and writing, more motels were being lost. Modern innocuous condos, with faux-Victorian details and clad in vinyl siding, continued to pop up all over the island. At three to six stories high, many of these new condos dwarfed the motels they surrounded.

Two story weathered L shaped motel building in front of modern buildings with sign reading Beach Colony.
Beach Colony Motel (with For Sale signs) dwarfed by taller condominiums

Stephanie M. Hoagland

The 1950s and 60s motels tended to be clustered with other motels of a similar size which allowed clean sight lines to the neon signage often perched on the roof. These taller condos now obscured this rooftop signage, making them difficult to read. The condo-conversions often involved adding additional floors, vinyl siding, and peaked-roofs, greatly altering their original scale and appearance. Additionally, plans were put forward proposing the construction of several high-rise hotel/condos. At 25-stories, these buildings would have knocked the Ferris Wheel off the list as the tallest structure on the island.

On April 8, 2003 the draft nominations were submitted to NJHPO which included a Multiple Property Documentation Form for a Multiple Property Listing entitled the “Motels of The Wildwoods,” nominations for two individual motels, the Chateau Bleu and a second motel which had a last minute owner objection, and the submission for the “Wildwoods Shore Resort (Doo Wop) Historic District.” This proposed Historic District was bound roughly by East Topeka Avenue (south), Atlantic Avenue (west), Andrews Avenue (north), and Beach Avenue (east).

The proposed demolition of the Captain’s Table Restaurant, a beach-side establishment from the early 1960s built in the shape of a stylized, heavily-prowed ship, to make way for a proposed midrise condominium complex, brought the urgency for a proposed historic district to the forefront. On July 23, 2003, Dorothy P. Guzzo, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, issued the State’s opinion that “The Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District (a.k.a. the Doo Wop Historic District) is eligible to be listed in the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places under Criteria A [those resources that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history], Criteria C [those resources that embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction] and Criteria Consideration G [those properties that have achieved significance within the past fifty years].” The NJHPO determined that the Captain’s Table Restaurant was a contributing resource in the identified historic district and replacing the one-story restaurant with a seven-story condominium would have an “Adverse Effect” on the historic district.

Turquoise sign with a palm tree on top of white building text reads Sea Scape Inn.
Rooftop neon signage made difficult to read by taller condominium behind

Stephanie M. Hoagland

White mid-century modern motel covered entry sign reads Chateau Blue Office Vacancy.
Chateau Bleu Motel listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004

Stephanie M. Hoagland

Representatives from DWPL and Arch2 continued to meet with motel owners and other members of the community to express the importance of this collection of motels, to explain the process of designation, and to clarify what the creation of a Historic District did and did not mean for the motel owners in terms of what they could do with their properties. As a lack of continued maintenance meant that a number of the motels were a bit “run-down” aesthetically, the availability of tax credits to assist in upgrades and restoration were emphasized. The economic benefits of heritage tourism were discussed using Cape May and their collection of Victorian-era homes as an example of a neighboring blighted community that had been made vibrant through the use of historic preservation. While it seemed like many motel owners were excited at the idea of Doo Wop, when the developer showed up, offering twice what the owners thought their properties were worth, they were still ready to sell.

View of vacant lot with grass sections intermixed among larger area of cement foundation.
The footprint of the Rio Motel after demolition. Note room foundations at lower right angled to face the ocean

Smithsonian Magazine

Between 2003 and 2006 over 50 Doo Wop motels had been demolished to make way for “generic condominium development,” the designs of which had nothing visually to do with Doo Wop. Losses included some of the most iconic motels on the island including the Ebb Tide (demolished 2003), the Satellite (2004), and the Rio Motel (2005). This continued and rapid demolition put the Doo Wop motels on the National Trust’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2006.[13] The loss of the motels required a “fairly regular” need to update the inventory, a re-evaluation of the boundaries for the historic district, and the re-submittal of the nomination forms to the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office.[14] The NJHPO had even created a notated map of the island observing each demolition and unsympathetic alteration garnered through Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA) applications and personnel “drive-bys.”[15]

The last push for a historic district came between 2005 and 2006 with revised boundaries consisting of Atlantic Avenue to the west, Farragut Road to the south, and Morning Glory Road to the north; a reduction of 20 blocks from the original 43 (Figure 8). Minutes from a Wildwood Crest Special Commissioners’ Meeting regarding the historic district in early 2005 showed a contentious assembly. Even after multiple attempts to educate motel owners regarding regulation, multiple statements made during the meeting indicated a lack of understanding of what it meant to be listed on the State and National Register. The owner of the Hialeah Motel even went so far as to state “I think I’m being raped of what I deserve!” Needless to say, the Hialeah met the fate of the wrecking ball later that year.

Map of Jersey shore with dark rectangle marking 21 blocks with smaller 10 block rectangles on both sides.
The boundaries for the 2003 historic district are shaded in light red with the 2006 boundaries shaded in dark red

Google Maps

By the end of 2006, the economic downturn slowed the rate of demolition and many hoped that it would help preserve some of the remaining motels; that it would “slow down the process long enough to be able to educate the public” on the importance of preservation.[16] Unfortunately, by this time the NJHPO felt that the integrity of the area had fallen below the point of creating a cohesive historic district.[16] Time moved forward and the idea of creating a historic district had essentially been put to bed.

The Wildwoods Today

The author continued to occasionally return to The Wildwoods and each visit revealed the loss of additional authentic structures. The recent uptick in the economy has brought about the revival of motel demolition. A review performed in February 2018, including both an on-site visit and Google Earth views, revealed that of the 319 structures originally surveyed, 121 had been demolished. Of the 198 remaining motels, 43 had been converted to condominiums. These condo conversions can be just as destructive as demolition, with heavy alterations including replacement of railings, doors, and windows; the addition of a story or two; the elimination of mid-century decorative details; the addition of vinyl siding; property name changes, and the removal of neon signage (Figure 9). The bones may remain, but the skin has been removed.

White two-story building with balcony next to tan three-story building with second floor balcony; parking in front.
Former Friendship 7 (left) and Flying Dutchman (right) motels after condo conversions. In 2001 both buildings were nearly identical in appearance

Stephanie M. Hoagland

While this wholesale elimination of entire blocks of historic motels is painful for anyone who appreciated their kitschy atmosphere and connection to the past, the question remains: Has the loss of these motels had an effect on the economy of The Wildwoods? According to a 2015 Tourism Economics Study, the answer is a resounding “no.” This report found that between 2010 and 2015, visitor spending grew 4.9% to $1.5-billion; spending growth averaged 3.8% a year; the number of people employed directly with tourism was increasing; and that visitor spending on the island had increased nearly $250-million since 2010.[18] Additionally, an un-scientific query by the author on Doo Wop Preservation Forums found the majority of people, while they lament the loss of the historic motels, are still drawn in by the sun, sea, and sand available on the free beaches, along with the boardwalk, amusement piers, and a “general ambiance that shore towns above North Wildwood sorely lack.” A very small minority did say that while they still go to The Wildwoods, it’s no longer their “main destination” and instead are choosing to visit other historic sites such as Victorian Cape May several miles to the south.


Timing: the resurgence in popularity for the Wildwoods corresponded with a real estate boom which wildly over-inflated the market prices for property at a time when many property owners were at or near retirement age and ready to get out of the business.

Push back from motel owners: Many property owners did not fully understand the implications, or lack thereof, of being listed on the State and National Registers. Statements made during public meetings showed that many motel owners didn’t grasp that such recognitions are merely honorary and that any real regulatory teeth regarding what they could or could not do with their property would only come with local designation.

Communication Breakdown: The apparent misunderstanding of what it meant to be listed suggests miscommunication between the parties involved. Whether this lack of information was due to uninformed rumors, not enough communication from the DWPL and those pushing for the historic district, or willful ignorance is something we’ll never know.

Demolition as a slippery slope: When the island retained over 300 motels, one could make the case that it was an amazing collection of mid-century motels found nowhere else in America. But as more and more owners sold or demolished their properties, the value of the “collection” as a whole began to fall, making it easier for other motel owners to follow suit and sell their properties to developers.

Restricting the boundaries: Although the original survey included the full length of the island, by 2005 the boundaries of the historic district had been truncated to just a portion of Wildwood Crest as “neither of these [other] communities possessed structures of exceptional significance”[19] in the same geographic concentration. This seemed to create resentment from members of the Wildwood Crest community who thought that some kind of back-door deal had been made with the leaders of the City of Wildwood and North Wildwood to avoid designation.

Perception: The recent past is difficult to preserve and many people who experienced these motels growing up don’t see them as particularly special or historic. During a meeting of the Special Commissioners, several members of the audience stated that, in their opinion, the Wildwood Crest motels were not emblematic of 1950s architecture and that any focus for preservation should be on buildings such as “chrome-plated dinners” and “bowling alleys.” For many, their concept of what is important to the history of America includes “Paul Revere’s house in Boston,” but not a collection of motels that told the story of how middle-class Americans spent their summer vacations.

Age of motels: A number of the motels that were to be included in the Historic District did not meet the 50-year threshold at the time of the nomination. This lack of distance from “history” was difficult to overcome. But as part of a larger collection of 1950s and 60s resort architecture, there had been strong support from State personnel for the Historic District as a whole to meet the test for “exceptional significance.”[20]

Alternative attractions: Of the five free ocean beaches in New Jersey, three of them are Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest. Free beach admission, especially one with a boardwalk, means there is no shortage of people wanting to vacation on the island. The Wildwoods also has multiple amusement piers and a waterpark, and therefore, they don’t have to rely on Heritage Tourism to draw people to the town.

Political affiliation: While much of New Jersey tends to lean liberal, or at least Democrat, The Wildwoods are in South Jersey which leans more conservative. In Cape May County, Republicans outnumber Democrats almost 2 to 1. Republicans tend to be against what they consider to be government regulation and over-reach. Historic Preservation also, surprisingly, tends to be one of those issues that are more important to those at the center and left of the political spectrum.

Class: In the 1950s and 60s South Jersey was a mecca for blue collar families and exotically themed motels, such as the Waikiki, Kona Kai, and Casa Bahama, allowed a family who couldn’t actually afford an island vacation feel like they were somewhere more exciting. Blue collar and vernacular history is easy to dismiss for many, even other blue collar families. To them it’s just seen as “normal” life and not as a unique experience that wasn’t enjoyed by all. They don’t see it as having value.

While the demolition and condo-conversion of these motels may not have had an economic impact on The Wildwoods and surrounding area, it is still a major loss of vernacular architecture and American history which are gone forever. In a conversation with Dan MacElrevey of the DWPL he mentioned that he felt that we had seen the end of motel demolition. “Those who were going to leave have left,” and those that remain are in it for the long haul.[21] As of 2016, 93 motels remained in business, having been “refurbished and upgraded.”[22] The City of Wildwood remains committed to the idea of Neo-Doo Wop as a visitor attraction. Recent projects included the unveiling of a 25-foot fire hydrant which will soon be joined by a large dog sculpture constructed from a recently dismantled roller coaster. [23] While visually interesting, these new structures lack the authenticity that was found in the original motels.

The importance of the Doo Wop motels, both architecturally and culturally, was recognized through the acceptance of the “Motels of the Wildwoods” Multiple Property Submission, yet only two individual motels have been listed, the Chateau Bleu and the Caribbean. Although there may be no hope for the creation of a historic district there remains a pathway for the designation of those remaining motels which truly embody the Doo Wop aesthetic, such as the Pink Champagne, the Bel Air, thePanoramic, and the Jolly Roger, among others. This author would love to see a push by the Doo Wop Preservation League to encourage the owners of those motels to work towards achieving designation for these amazing motels.

Read more articles from the proceedings of Are We There Yet? Preserving Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Learn more about the National Center for Preservation Techology and Training.

Two pink doors on two floors: entry to motel room from white outdoor balconies.
Detail of the Pink Champagne Motel. Note the angled eaves, hairpin rails, and champagne glass with room number on each door

Stephanie M. Hoagland


  1. David W. Francis, Diane DeMali Francis and Robert J. Scully, Sr., Wildwood-By-the-Sea (Fairview Park, OH: Amusement Park Books, Inc., 1998), 13.

  2. Ibid, 22.

  3. Ibid, 124.

  4. Ibid, 105.

  5. Ibid, 137.

  6. Ibid, 140.

  7. Chester H. Liebs, Main Street to miracle Mile: American Roadside Architecture (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1985), 179.

  8. City of Wildwood, City of Wildwood Tourism Redevelopment Plan (Wildwood, NJ: City of Wildwood, August 2000), 10.

  9. David W. Francis, Diane DeMali Francis, and Robert J. Scully, Sr., Wildwood-By-the-Sea (Fairview Park, OH: Amusement Park Books, Inc., 1998), 161.

  10. Ibid, 182.

  11. “Mission Statement,” Doo Wop Preservation League, accessed March 3, 2018,

  12. Doug Stewart, “Doo Wop by the Sea,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2003.

  13. “11 Most Endangered Historic Places,” National Trust for Historic Preservation, accessed February 24, 2018, Zerbe, E-mail correspondence with author, February 8, 2018.

  14. Andrea Tingey from NJHPO, Telephone conversation with author, March 5, 2018.

  15. Laura Kiniry, “A New Wave: Can the economy save the Wildwoods Doo Wop Motels?” Preservation Magazine September 14, 2009.

  16. Andrea Tingey, Telephone conversation with author, March 5, 2018.

  17. Oxford Economics Company, “The Economic Impact of Tourism in Greater Wildwood, NJ Calendar Year 2015,” accessed February 25, 2018,

  18. “Minutes from Wildwood Crest Special Commissioners Meeting dated January 10, 2015,” The Borough of Wildwood Crest, accessed March 3, 2018,

  19. Ibid.

  20. Dan MacElrevey, Personal conversation with author, February 9, 2018.

  21. Thomas Barlas, “Historic preservation can be economic preservation too,” Press of Atlantic City, January 9, 2016, accessed March 5, 2018,

  22. Jack Morey, Personal conversation with author, February 9, 2018.

Last updated: January 19, 2024