“We call this the Pupu Platter style of architecture,” says Joan Husband, pointing to the Waikiki motel on Ocean Avenue in Wildwood Crest, New Jersey. As our sight-seeing trolley rolls along on a steamy summer evening, local preservationist Husband, 56, keeps up a running patter at the microphone: “It has the thatched roof over the canopy, the Diamond Head mural on the side and lava rocks built into the walls.” We swivel in our seats for a better view. The motel-packed strip before us suggests an exotic, if confused, paradise far, far from New Jersey: we pass the jutting Polynesian roofline of the Tahiti; the angled glass walls and levitating ramp of the Caribbean; and the neon sputnik and stars, sparkling in the twilight, of the Satellite motel. Oddly perfect palm trees fringe motel swimming pools; Husband helpfully identifies the species—Palmus plasticus wildwoodii. “It grows right out of concrete.”
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The people who built the nearly 300 motels along this five-mile section of the JerseyShore in the 1950s and ’60s could not have foreseen that their properties would one day warrant architectural tours, however tongue-in-cheek the spiel. The garish establishments crowd three shore towns known as the Wildwoods (North Wildwood, Wildwood proper and Wildwood Crest), occupying a stretch of barrier beach south of Atlantic City and just north of the restored Victorian resort town, Cape May. Most of the buildings sprang up when the Wildwoods were in their glory days as a beach resort. With so much competition, the motels here had to scream for attention—it was survival of the loudest.
Today, the buildings constitute an unplanned time capsule of mid-century American resort architecture, worthy, say architects and historians, of study and preservation. The towns’ gaudy motel districts, in fact, are considered a shoo-in for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in the next year or two. To Philadelphia architectural historian George Thomas, 58, the Wildwoods’ motels are “a collision between the techy modern and tacky Art Deco. This isn’t the awful high architecture that has bored us to tears and given us places that no one wants to be,” he says. “This is the energy of American culture at its most useful and exuberant.” Unfortunately, the brash spirit of the Wildwoods’ venerable mom-and-pop motels is now threatened by the onrush of 21st-century development. With the value of ocean-view land soaring, vintage motels are starting to disappear as their owners sell to condo builders. “An awful lot of demolitions have taken place recently,” says local businessman Jack Morey, 42. “If the big guys eat the little guys, then the Wildwoods lose their character and might as well be anyplace.”
Well, not anyplace. In the summer, people queue up for monster-truck rides on the beach, and the switchboard operator at city hall works in bare feet and a T-shirt. The communities’ true Main Street is a broad wooden boardwalk—about two miles of amusement piers, high-decibel music and fried-dough stands. In July and August, it’s jammed with sunburned people, many wearing tattoos and talking loudly. The eye-catching motels, with their beckoning neon signs, are a stylistic extension of the boardwalk. There are cantilevered roofs and thrusting pylons, and colors like aqua and shocking pink. “Whoever has the concession for turquoise motel curtains in the Wildwoods is really making money,” says Husband, a retired nurse who worked in a boardwalk gift shop as a teenager. Unlike drab way-station motels on the outskirts of cities, these places were built to be destinations worth spending a vacation in.
In 1956, J. B. Jackson, editor of Landscape magazine, defended this style of over-the-top design, then under attack by city-beautification types. In “all those flamboyant entrances and deliberately bizarre decorative effects, those cheerfully self-assertive masses of color and light and movement that clash so roughly with the old and traditional,” Jackson wrote, he discerned not a roadside blight “but a kind of folk art in mid-20th-century garb.”