Taking Tacky to New Heights

Preserving the Wildwoods’ doo-wop treasures.

Faux Tropics: The plastic palm trees are just one of the Caribbean Motel’s classic doo-wop features. At night, the colorful hostelry is a symphony of neon.
Photo by Marc Steiner

The garish pink flamingos, giant plastic palm trees, weather-worn neon signs and faux Hawaiian kitsch—all of it was showing its age. Jack Morey figured it was time for a change.

It was summer 1996. The Wildwoods’ storied motels of the 1950s and 1960s, many of which were built by Morey’s father, Will Morey Sr., and his uncle, Lou Morey, were dying. A few attempts had been made to reinvigorate them, but most ended in failure. A trolley tour designed to show off the aging attractions fizzled.

And the motel owners weren’t getting any younger.

Morey enlisted respected Philadelphia architect Steve Izenour, of the famed Venturi Scott Brown & Associates, to renovate some of his family’s motels and spruce up the boardwalk amusement piers he owns and operates with his brother, Will Jr.

Morey had big plans to turn Wildwood into a theme park, and they didn’t include flamingos. “Quite frankly,” Morey admits, “I wanted to Disney-fy the motels.”

Izenour, a guy who appreciated the fast-food joints and coffee shops that others dismissed as downscale, was appalled by Morey’s concept.

He faxed a letter to Morey.

Dear Jack:
You can’t and shouldn’t try to make Wildwood into something that it isn’t, a Disney, a theme park, etc. You can’t do this for a whole lot of reasons…. What Wildwood is, is one of the last really down and dirty, TACKY with a capital T, beach resorts. What you need to do is take tacky to new heights. In an increasingly homogenized commercial world it’s the perfect counter punch strategy, and given the years of ad hoc evolution it took to make it what it is, nobody, not even Disney could beat you at your game.

Morey read the plea. A switch flipped. “The answer was under our nose,” he admits. “And we just couldn’t see it.”

When the sun sets and the neon signs pulsate, a certain magic bewitches the Wildwoods. A tacky magic.

After getting off at exit 4B of the Garden State Parkway, a quick drive down Rio Grande Avenue into the heart of the Wildwoods reveals an endearing jumble of eye-catching old motels, a virtual museum of mid-century architectural kitsch.

Some, like the Bel Air, sport awkwardly jutting facades and towering plastic palm trees. Others flaunt Polynesian-style thatched roofs, tiki torches and kidney-shaped swimming pools. There’s the Caribbean, with its Jetsons-style ramp and horseshoe-shaped pool, and the Sandpiper, with its Astroturf pavilion. You can’t miss the gleeful sign for the Lollipop Motel: two giant, smiling kiddie faces under what is surely the largest neon lollipop in New Jersey—perhaps the world.

There are dozens more, all built in the late 1950s and 1960s. Most of the historic gems—about 60—are concentrated in the state-designated Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District, a two-mile stretch between Atlantic and Ocean avenues primarily in the town of Wildwood Crest. The designation gives no legal protection to the buildings, but local zoning laws provide guidelines for renovation, and there are tax incentives for historically preserved properties.

Sadly, until early in the last decade, this district boasted nearly 100 motels. Then, as real estate values boomed, the wrecking ball claimed dozens here and elsewhere in the Wildwoods. Those that were spared seem frozen in time, together comprising the largest concentration of mid-century-modern motels in the country.

On the West Coast, the style is known as Googie architecture, stemming from an old West Hollywood coffee shop of that name. On the East Coast, the Wildwood style has become known as doo-wop—a name derived from the a cappella R&B music that emerged in the 1950s from the street corners of places like New York City, Philadelphia and Newark.

“It’s really about a place in time,” says Richard Stokes, the architect behind the renovation of Morey’s Starlux Hotel (formerly the Wingate Motel), a preserved gem on Rio Grande Avenue in Wildwood. “In the postwar period, Americans were more mobile. The Garden State Parkway was built and basically helped invent the Wildwoods. The original hotels were not built for cars. But the new form, the motel, was built for the car. Wildwood kind of fulfilled that need. You just parked your car right in front of your unit.”

Outlandish-looking, bearing exotic names like Shalimar or Waikiki, the new motels offered fantasy and escapism to vacationing families who, after a generation of economic hardship and war, finally had the means for a little harmless indulgence.

“The Wildwood motels and their signs were sort of a smaller version of what Vegas [did] in the 1960s,” says George E. Thomas, an architectural historian at Civicvisions in Philadelphia and co-director of the Critical Conservation Program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. “[The builders] were looking over their shoulder to Vegas and elsewhere.”

The Morey family found its muse in Miami Beach. Resort hotels like the opulent Fontainebleau, designed by Morris Lapidus, caught the senior Morey’s eye and became his inspiration for motels like the Fantasy, built in 1957, and the Satellite, in 1959.

“He believed in show, not in formal sophisticated architecture,” says Jack Morey. “My dad had no idea who Morris Lapidus was…but he’d come home and try to Wildwoodize that style. He’d take something far away and figure out a way to give birth to it here in Wildwood. And he did that throughout his life.” Will Morey Sr. died in 1998.

“That architecture had energy,” says Thomas. “All that other serious, high-modern architecture kind of lost the point of being modern. But these guys [in Wildwood] were out there, just sort of doing what they thought they saw.

“These were small-time builders….creating this fantastic place,” Thomas says. “The intent was to be new, original, fresh, modern. Jet airplanes and spaceships and all that stuff were all captured in it.”

The motels lured family vacationers—originally from Philadelphia and South Jersey; later, from North Jersey and beyond—summer after summer.

Daniel MacElrevey, a former owner of the Granada Resort Motel in Wildwood Crest, which opened in 1968, remembers a family who stayed every summer in room 106. When their child grew up, they came with kids of their own and stayed in room 105. When those kids grew up, they came too, staying in room 104.

“Always the last week of June—those three rooms,” MacElrevey says. “They would say ‘Will I have my rooms again next year?’ It was their place at the Shore.”

Today, MacElrevey heads the Doo Wop Preservation League, a nonprofit formed in 1997 with the Moreys and others to promote preservation of the Wildwoods’ mid-century treasures. MacElrevey eventually sold the Granada to a buyer who promised to preserve the building, turning down a developer who offered more money.

“It’s not just the buildings,” MacElrevey says. “In my mind more is the multi-generation aspect.”

For the Wildwoods today, doo-wop is more than a trip down memory lane. Doo-wop is a brand, complete with themed festivals and events that celebrate epochal moments like Chubby Checker’s debut performance of “The Twist” in July 1960 at Wildwood’s Rainbow Club, summer episodes of American Bandstand that were filmed in Wildwood, and singer Bobby Rydell’s 1963 pop hit “Wildwood Days.”

Much like Victoriana in neighboring Cape May, doo-wop in the Wildwoods helps drive the engine of tourism.

“The older elements are real, and people can visit them and stay in them, and there is history on their side as well, with Chubby Checker and American Bandstand,” says Brian Tyrrell, an associate professor of Hospitality and Tourism Management Studies at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “Those are real, authentic things that people can relate to. That doo-wop image means something more. It means fun, excitement, family friendly, all things that the Wildwoods want to latch onto.”

Even so, many more motels could go the way of the Fantasy, the Satellite and the Ebb Tide—all replaced by high-rise condos. The old buildings may be unique, but they weren’t built to withstand the decades.

“These were incredibly inexpensive,” Thomas says of the motels. “This was speculative architecture designed for a three-month season.”

“I remember talking to the owner of the Satellite,” says Stokes. “What doesn’t come out a lot…is that they weren’t built to last. At [the Satellite], all the plumbing was shot.” That was in 2004, long after the Moreys had sold the building to other owner/operators.

Many of the aging buildings that have not been renovated, have mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems that are at the end of their useful lives, Stokes says. The buildings do not meet current code standards for things like railings and are generally not wheelchair accessible. Minimal floor-to-floor heights make it difficult to install the ductwork for modern HVAC systems.

All of this complicates preservation. For the motels to be viable today, updates and additions are required, says Susan Snyder, a partner at CivicVisions and co-director of the Critical Conservation Program, who once worked with Izenour on a study of Wildwood’s doo-wop architecture.

“To simply preserve those buildings…misses the point,” Snyder says. “They needed to be transformed.”
Enter updated gems like the Starlux, renovated by Stokes, and the modernized and expanded Pan American Hotel, built 50 years ago by the senior Morey.

“What’s most important is the collection,” says Stokes. “It’s about the mass of it. Just one or two [buildings] is okay, but it’s about the whole rather than the individual. That’s what is so neat about Wildwood. There’s still enough there, even after the demolitions, to create this experience that still defines the place.”

Regina Schaffer is a former reporter for the Press of Atlantic City. She lives in Cherry Hill.

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