Many builders looked south for style. “My dad, Will Morey, built several of the early motels here, like the Fantasy and the Satellite,” says Morey, whose family operates four Wildwood amusement piers. “He’d take ideas from Florida and other places and ‘Wildwoodize’ them, that’s the term he used.” If angled windows and wall cutouts looked classy on a Miami Beach hotel, he’d scale them down and try them on a Wildwoods motel. Beneath their surface pizzazz, of course, the motels were cinder block Ls and Is overlooking asphalt parking lots. Just as Detroit used tail fins to make overweight cars look fast, builders like Will Morey used angles and asymmetry to make motels look stylish and, above all, modern.
By the ’70s and ’80s, however, the motels began to show their age. They continued to draw customers, but there were fewer families and more boisterous young singles. “Bars were open until 5 a.m.,” says neon sign maker Fedele Musso, 51, who in the ’70s owned an arcade and a food stand on the boardwalk. “All these beer joints were selling seven beers for a dollar, which didn’t help much.” Seedy eyesores marred the motel strip. But because the local economy was in the doldrums, there was little incentive to knock down motels and put up something bigger.
Moreover, the Wildwoods, unlike warm-weather resorts Miami and Las Vegas, suffer a short tourist season, which limits profits and, in turn, the improvements motel owners can afford. “In the off-season, the parking meters are removed and the traffic signals change to flashing yellow,” says Philadelphia architect Richard Stokes. “They even take the fronds off the palm trees.” For preservationists, the short season is a blessing: it has deterred hotel chains from swooping in and putting up high-rises.
The Wildwoods’ discovery as an improbable design mecca began in 1997. That year, the late Steven Izenour, a champion of vernacular architecture who was part of the Philadelphia architectural firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, helped lead design workshops he called “Learning from the Wildwoods” with architectural students from the University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Kent State. “It can be a counter-Disney,” Izenour told a New York Times reporter in 1998, referring to the Wildwoods’ cluster of motel kitsch. “The more you have Disney, the more you need Wildwood.”
That same year, a handful of local motel-ophiles banded together to form the Doo Wop Preservation League, aimed at boosting appreciation for the resort’s architectural heritage. The name Doo Wop, known as Googie or Populuxe in Los Angeles, South Florida and other pockets of flamboyant mid-century architecture, alludes to the Wildwoods’ heyday as an early rock ’n’ roll venue. (It was Wildwood’s own Starlight Ballroom that hosted the first nationwide broadcast of “American Bandstand” in 1957.) Doo Wop Preservation League volunteers lead the trolley tours, and charter member Musso oversees the group’s funky warehouse-cum-museum.