Doo Wop by the Sea

Architects and preservationists have turned a gaudy strip of New Jersey shore into a monument to mid-century architecture. But can they keep the bulldozers at bay?

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They are also in the rescue business. The greatest save to date is the Surfside Restaurant, a circular, steel-structured 1963 landmark in Wildwood Crest. This past October the restaurant’s owner wanted to tear it down to expand the hotel he also owned next door. Within two weeks, preservation league volunteers, led by the group’s cofounder, Jack Morey, raised the $20,000 needed to unbolt the structure and store it. Plans call for the Surfside to be reborn as the Crest’s new beachfront visitors’ center.


In spite of the league’s efforts, in the past two years more than two dozen old motels in the three towns have come down. Among the fallen are the Frontier Motel, with its wagon-wheel light fixtures and framed plastic six-guns, and the renovated Memory Motel, which, despite a new water slide and rock ’n’ roll murals, was flattened in 2001 to make way for a six-story condo. “If you have an old 18-unit motel you think is worth $600,000 and someone offers you a million for it, you’re going to say, ‘Good-bye! Here’s the key,’ ” says Mike Preston, the Wildwoods’ construction official and the zoning officer for Wildwood Crest.


“The Wildwoods are probably the last and the cheapest resort spaces available on the JerseyShore,” says Wildwood planning-board member Pete Holcombe, 57. If a new building boom starts here, even National Register status won’t stop the demolition. “Although we can’t prevent people from tearing down Doo Wop buildings,” says Holcombe, “we can convince them they have a valuable asset.”


Indeed, a number of old motels—such as the Pink Champagne—are undergoing face-lifts. “We restored the neon sign using the original blueprint,” says owner Andrew Calamaro, 60. “The locals use it as a landmark.” Calamaro takes his responsibilities to heart. When he replaced the wooden champagne glasses on guest room doors with newer versions (he wanted the champagne sloshing rakishly to one side), he saved the originals. “For me, it’s just a gut reaction to keep the old,” he says. Calamaro is obviously in sync with his guests; many are customers who ask for the same room year after year. Referring to a group that just checked out, he says, “This was their 33rd year.”


But the motels can’t depend solely on their old customers. “One of the problems with the Wildwoods is that the parents of the families who have been coming back to the same motel for years will be dying off,” says architect Richard Stokes, “and their kids are going to places like Florida instead.” Stokes advises owners to lure a new, younger generation of guests not only by dusting off authentic ’50s features, but adding shiny new ones such as lounges and flat-screen TVs. Preservation league member Elan Zingman-Leith, 51, who’s done preservation work in Miami’s resurrected South Beach, agrees that the Wildwoods needs to turn up the volume. “If Wildwood is going to succeed, it has to be a keyedup, brighter-than-it-really-was-in-1960 version.”



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