Fall begins Friday, so to celebrate the very last days of summer, claass HAUS is taking a look at the Doo Wop motels of the New Jersey coast.
Located near the southern tip of New Jersey, a barrier island with a string of similarly named towns- Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest (aka The Wildwoods)- is home to one of the largest concentrations of midcentury resort architecture in the United States. And we're not talking just any midcentury architecture. These modern motels with their sweeping angles, bright colors, and unmistakable geometry are Space-Age architecture at its most outrageous and novel. Called Doo Wop in New Jersey (Googie on the West Coast, MiMo in Miami, or more generically Populuxe), the striking and flamboyant design aesthetic is an expressive brand of modernism with its brash color schemes, angular shapes, and playful themes symbolic of the optimism and prosperity of post-World War II America. Using images and names associated with popular culture of the era, the Doo Wop motels of The Wildwoods captured the attention of the newly mobile middle class and created an architectural phenomenon that favored fantasy, freedom, and fun above all else.
Development of the area began in the late nineteenth century, when summer visitors flocked to the wide sandy beaches and lively resort amusements. Following a period of steady growth, the construction of the Garden State Parkway in 1954 and the rise of the ubiquitous automobile brought about a boom in development during the next two decades. Enthusiastic motorists from Baltimore, Washington D.C., and New York traveled the new parkway to the beaches of southern New Jersey to find modern, automobile-friendly motels waiting for them. Neon signs flashed, elaborate pools splashed, and plastic palm trees greeted travelers and their tailfin cars to the sandy shore.
In an era full of optimism, promise, and excitement, the developers of The Wildwoods looked to an engaging modern aesthetic for their new auto-oriented motels. Turning pop culture into advertising, developers created memorable stage sets by adding eye-catching design details and attention-grabbing names to simple and modest lodging. Typically, the Doo Wop motels consisted of U- or L-shaped plans that utilized asymmetry, strong angles, and cantilevered overhangs to promote their modern purpose. In most cases, the simple motel blocks, constructed of reinforced concrete, stood only one room deep to maximize views and minimize the distance between a vehicle and its owner. Angular walls, flat roofs, sun decks, and elaborate poolscapes ornamented each motel property, while vivid colors, boomerangs, starbursts, and neon accents added flash wherever appropriate.
Central to the Doo Wop style, each motel maintained a distinctive theme that directed the building's overall look and feel. Capturing the energy and hopefulness of the moment, themes were based on exotic locales (Tangiers, Pyramid), a sense of luxury (Imperial 500), space travel (The Astronaut), historical interpretations (Carriage Stop, The Crusader), or associations with the ocean (Blue Marlin, The Ebb Tide). More than anything, these fantastical themes made each property unique and were reflected in every neon sign, building material, and thoughtful detail.
For decades, tourists flocked to the Doo Wop drive-in motels of The Wildwoods, and up until the beginning of the twenty-first century, most of the brightly colored, futuristic structures remained intact. But the cycle of seaside development continued, and in the early 2000s, many of the motels (some already deteriorating) were demolished to make room for new condominiums. Losses like The Ebb Tide Motel (one of the first Doo Wop accommodations in the area) and the Satellite Motel (a signature Doo Wop landmark), prompted historians, preservationists, and lovers of the Doo Wop landscape to take action, and in 2004, many of the existing properties became part of New Jersey's Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District. Today, with many owners making strides to restore and preserve their motels, the midcentury monuments to beachside leisure and kitsch have experienced renewed interest. And once again, visitors are seeking shade under the wide fronds of those plastic palms.
To learn more about the history of the Doo Wop motels see Kirk Hastings' Doo Wop Motels: Architectural Treasures of The Wildwoods (2007).
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Colorful Historic Motel, Wildwood, New Jersey, 2006. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2010630067.
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