Wildwood's Doo Wop Beach Hotels Are Desperate for Your Love

By A.M. Brune And Raphaelle Guillon

JANUARY 26, 2016

The “Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District” of New Jersey—known as the “Doo Wop Motel District” to locals—lies primarily along a two-mile stretch of beach in Wildwood, New Jersey. Visitors to the town will find the largest concentration of mid-20th-century commercial motels, called Doo Wops, in the nation, each featuring its own fantasy theme, eye-catching sign, vivid color palette and kitschy ornaments.

Up until the late 1990s, nearly 100 motels stood within this district alone, virtually untouched since their original construction in the 1950s and 60s. From 2003 to 2006, unchecked real estate development in the area led to the demolition of several notable motels, including the Satellite, Kona Kai, Fantasy and Rio. Now many of those same tourists stay in new Mediterranean-style compounds from Memorial Day to Labor Day, as the Doo Wops have lost a bit of luster. 

But the situation worsens after Labor Day for at least seven months; the once bustling streets, restaurants and boardwalk give way to utter desolation. It’s been said that visitors can “shoot a canon down New Jersey Avenue without hitting anyone.”

 

A passer-by ponders the lights at Laura’s Fudge Shop in Wildwood, New Jersey. One of the first stores near the boardwalk, Laura’s opened in 1926 and sells online in the off-season. (All photos: Raphaelle Guillon)

A passer-by ponders the lights at Laura’s Fudge Shop in Wildwood, New Jersey. One of the first stores near the boardwalk, Laura’s opened in 1926 and sells online in the off-season. (All photos: Raphaelle Guillon)

The “Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District” of New Jersey—known as the “Doo Wop Motel District” to locals—lies primarily along a two-mile stretch of beach in Wildwood, New Jersey. Visitors to the town will find the largest concentration of mid-20th-century commercial motels, called Doo Wops, in the nation, each featuring its own fantasy theme, eye-catching sign, vivid color palette and kitschy ornaments.

Up until the late 1990s, nearly 100 motels stood within this district alone, virtually untouched since their original construction in the 1950s and 60s. From 2003 to 2006, unchecked real estate development in the area led to the demolition of several notable motels, including the Satellite, Kona Kai, Fantasy and Rio. Now many of those same tourists stay in new Mediterranean-style compounds from Memorial Day to Labor Day, as the Doo Wops have lost a bit of luster. 

But the situation worsens after Labor Day for at least seven months; the once bustling streets, restaurants and boardwalk give way to utter desolation. It’s been said that visitors can “shoot a canon down New Jersey Avenue without hitting anyone.”

A few years ago, Wildwood undertook three initiatives to bring vacationers to the town all year round, but aside from the fall Boardwalk Classic Car Show, the Irish Festival and Seafarers Weekend, they have so far been met with scant attention and even sparser turnout. While the economy may roar through the summer, in the winter, it sleeps. In January 2015, the unemployment rate hit 17.9 percent before it fell to 6.4 percent by August, although the county’s tourism industry drew $5.8 billion in spending last year—New Jersey's second-highest county total.

Still, as year-round tourism wanes and the baby-boomers age, jobs become more elusive and historic buildings become more difficult to maintain. The Doo Wop way of life dies a little bit every year. The following photos, shot by Raphaelle Guillon in the height of the 2015 summer season and over Thanksgiving weekend that same year, illustrate Wildwood’s spectacular rise in the years after World War II—and its gradually diminishing glory.  

During the summer, Romeo’s Pizzeria on Pacific Avenue, serves pizza from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., specializing in slices for the sauced since 1975. Last September, Wildwood’s tourism board dedicated the 12-by-40-foot “Twist Again” mural in Romeo’s parking lot to Chubby Checker, who first performed his iconic dance at the Rainbow Club in 1960. 

During the summer, Romeo’s Pizzeria on Pacific Avenue, serves pizza from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., specializing in slices for the sauced since 1975. Last September, Wildwood’s tourism board dedicated the 12-by-40-foot “Twist Again” mural in Romeo’s parking lot to Chubby Checker, who first performed his iconic dance at the Rainbow Club in 1960. 

A mélange of restored and reassembled neon signs from demolished Wildwood motels outside the Doo Wop Experience museum. Inside the museum is a “neon sign garden” that celebrates the “architecture, design, music and pop culture… that made Wildwood famous in its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.”

A mélange of restored and reassembled neon signs from demolished Wildwood motels outside the Doo Wop Experience museum. Inside the museum is a “neon sign garden” that celebrates the “architecture, design, music and pop culture… that made Wildwood famous in its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s.”

A classic example of mid-1950s “open-view, DooWop” architecture, the Bel-Air motel features “real and fake palm trees” that “sway in the ocean breeze and cast shade on the hand-built Tiki Hut and poolside lounge chairs.” During the winter, its pink-flamingo sign offsets the Caribbean Motel, built in 1957 by Lou Morey—of boardwalk attraction fame. Among the signature features of the once ultra-modern motel are a curving “Jetson Ramp” that winds its way from ground level to the second-floor sundeck and crescent-shaped pool.  

A classic example of mid-1950s “open-view, DooWop” architecture, the Bel-Air motel features “real and fake palm trees” that “sway in the ocean breeze and cast shade on the hand-built Tiki Hut and poolside lounge chairs.”

During the winter, its pink-flamingo sign offsets the Caribbean Motel, built in 1957 by Lou Morey—of boardwalk attraction fame. Among the signature features of the once ultra-modern motel are a curving “Jetson Ramp” that winds its way from ground level to the second-floor sundeck and crescent-shaped pool.  

An Asian elephant stands waiting for passengers outside the drained pool of the Singapore Motel on the Wildwood shore. Designed to look like a 1960s South Asian pagoda, the Singapore has a mixed reputation, despite the laughing Buddha near the beach entrance.

An Asian elephant stands waiting for passengers outside the drained pool of the Singapore Motel on the Wildwood shore. Designed to look like a 1960s South Asian pagoda, the Singapore has a mixed reputation, despite the laughing Buddha near the beach entrance.

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands guard over the recently renovated Blue Marlin motel. A staple of the area for nearly 50 years, the Marlin suffered from noisy guests and outdated amenities until Mary came along with new ownership. 

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands guard over the recently renovated Blue Marlin motel. A staple of the area for nearly 50 years, the Marlin suffered from noisy guests and outdated amenities until Mary came along with new ownership. 

A plastic owl watches sun-bathers at a motel near the beach in Wildwood New Jersey, September 2015. 

A plastic owl watches sun-bathers at a motel near the beach in Wildwood New Jersey, September 2015. 

A closed Beach Taxi stand off the boardwalk of Wildwood, New Jersey. In the summer, John Deere gators take tourists and their things to any shore spot, including Morey’s Pier Waterfront Park, for $3 one way. Wildwood's beach is estimated to be as wide as 2,000 feet in spots. 

A closed Beach Taxi stand off the boardwalk of Wildwood, New Jersey. In the summer, John Deere gators take tourists and their things to any shore spot, including Morey’s Pier Waterfront Park, for $3 one way. Wildwood's beach is estimated to be as wide as 2,000 feet in spots.