Today, this folk art is more apt to charm than shock. Cruising down Ocean Avenue at night, I’m struck by how oddly harmonious the motels are. The multicolored neon signs pass by like so many colored gems, uninterrupted by the blinding white fluorescent tubing typical of gas stations and chain stores in 2003. “When it’s all lit up at night,” says waiter Chris Sce, 19, as he clears dishes at the Admiral’s Quarters Restaurant, “you feel like you’re on vacation, even if you’re working.” At the Hi-Lili Motel a few blocks away, Carmelo and Beverly Melilli, both 54, say they’ve been coming to the Wildwoods for 30 years. They love the lights, the colors. “It’s like time stood still,” Carmelo says. “Everything’s like it was 30 years ago. It’s perfect.”
That pleasant time-warp feeling comes in part from the motels’ names, which summon up popular American fixations of the ’50s and ’60s. The Hi-Lili, for example, is named after the hit song “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” from the 1953 film Lili. Others evoke classic movies (the Brigadoon, the Camelot, the Showboat) and popular cars (the Thunderbird, the Bel Air). Hawaii’s 1959 statehood inspired the motel builders who put up the Ala Moana, the Aloha and the Ala Kai.
Local historian Bob Bright, Sr., remembers the Wildwoods in the days before neon. Still enthusiastic at 93, Bright holds court at a little historical museum on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood. When he was a boy, he says, the towns accommodated its visitors in large hotels and rooming houses. “They were made of wood from our own trees,” he says. “Wildwood was named because the whole town was nothing but trees!” He hands me a photo album of rambling three and four-story Victorian hotels. “Those old buildings were beautiful with their spires and towers, just like Cape May.”
Postwar affluence and mobility brought change to the Wildwoods, as it did everywhere. In summer, working-class Philadelphians and New Jerseyites with growing incomes hopped into their cars and cruised down the brand-new Garden State Parkway to the Jersey Shore. In the Wildwoods, days at the beach and on the boardwalk were followed by nights at the music clubs that crowded downtown Wildwood, known in the ’50s as Little Las Vegas. Motels offered vacationers advantages that hotels couldn’t match: you could park the new family car right outside your room and you didn’t have to shush the kids.
In the Wildwoods, the beach’s steady eastward migration—ocean currents have helped add an average of about 15 feet of sand per year—aided the motel boom. Surf Avenue, for example, which is now three blocks from the ocean, was indeed surf early in the 20th century. By the ’50s, the old wooden buildings were landlocked, and the motel developers could build on virgin oceanfront property. This accounts for the pleasing architectural rhythm of the Wildwoods’ low-rise motel districts, great swaths of which are uninterrupted by out-of-scale anachronisms.