Wildwood's doo-wop architecture: When motels went wild

One touch of doo-wop kitsch is actually misleading. The Caribbean Motel added a fake palm tree to its landscape in 1958, but most plastic palms you see today date from the late 1980s.
One touch of doo-wop kitsch is actually misleading. The Caribbean Motel added a fake palm tree to its landscape in 1958, but most plastic palms you see today date from the late 1980s. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 19, 2013

I half expect Frankie and Annette to walk out of the Lollipop Motel. If you know who they are, you will know what I mean. But whether you are too young to remember them or old enough to recall them fondly, you owe yourself a ride on a Doo-Wop Back to the '50s tour, centered in the nation's capital of doo-wop architecture, Wildwood.

In the late '50s and early '60s, about 300 futuristic mom-and-pop motels existed in this beach town, which was going through a tourism explosion. Today, there are about 100. In terms of pop culture, those were happy days, the early innocence of rock-and-roll. It was the era of Elvis and the Philadelphia sounds of Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker. Rydell even had a modest hit in 1963 titled "Wildwood Days," based on this resort. Teens at the beach listened to the Top 40 songs of the week, mostly about teenage love, on state-of-the-art transistor radios. The term doo-wop stems from the background choruses of so many pop tunes of the time.

In terms of movies, this period was somewhere between Blackboard Jungle and The Graduate. Cinema for the doo-wop days starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, usually partying on the sand and in the surf.

The future looked bright and the Beach Blanket Bingo architecture summed it all up. Our tour guide, Tony Eisele (nom de tour guide: Arthur Fonzarelli), explained its genesis as we rode past the doo-wop motels that line Atlantic, Pacific, and Ocean Avenues and various side roads. World War II was over and families had disposable income for leisure vacations. In previous decades, most transients were men traveling on business and most lodging was in the form of big-city downtown hotels or boarding and rooming houses, none really conducive to families planning to spend a week tossing beach balls and swimming in the Atlantic.

Wildwood entrepreneurs such as Wilbert Morey had an idea. Why not make it convenient for recreation seekers to stay overnight near the beach? Motels, short for "motor hotels," already existed throughout the country, but Morey and others wanted to inundate the Wildwoods (there are four separate towns: Wildwood, West Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and North Wildwood, collectively known as the Wildwoods by the Sea) with motels. And they wanted their motels to architecturally reflect the happy times and the sparkling future.

Exterior colors of the motels are exotic; straight lines are avoided, replaced by space-age curves and off-kilter angles. Even the balcony railings of many motels are undulating, resembling the grilles of automobiles of the day. The motels were given names of glamorous places, such as the Tahiti and the Kona Kai, or futuristic names like the Satellite Motel and the Astronaut Motel, or names that evoked fun in the sun: the Sandcastle Motel and the Beach Waves Motel. The Casa Bahama Motel went so far as to boast fake tiki huts. Motel signs are bright, cheerful neon, the more glaring and gaudy the better. Some roofs are evocative of rocket ships or, in the case of the Hawaiian Motel, a flying saucer. Some motels, like the Lollipop, are just plain silly. And just about every motel has a pool, usually kidney- or horseshoe-shaped.

As we cruised the beachfront area, Tony (also known as Fonzie) pointed out subtleties that we might not have noticed. Motels are deliberately angled to face the ocean, and some sidewalks are painted to resemble ocean waves. Tony pointed out idiosyncrasies such as the Attaché Motel, with a roof line that abstractly resembles the rolling sea.

As with the Attaché, not all the motel names evoke spacecraft or the water. Tony showed us the Suitcase Motel, whose sign is in the shape of a man and woman sitting in an open suitcase. Years of exposure to sun, wind, and sand, Tony noted, have faded the top halves of the couple, giving them a sort of reverse suntan. The Bristol Plaza Motor Inn was named for the Dovells' 1961 hit "Bristol Stomp." Tony sang a few verses, then announced, "I can remember this song but I can't remember my cellphone number." "Bristol Stomp" was named for a Philadelphia suburb, not unusual considering the number of vacationers who came here from the Philly area.

Tony told us the wave of motels brought in visitors and their money but did not sit well with permanent residents who had lived here for years. Their biggest complaint was that the ocean views they had enjoyed for decades were blocked by the new motels. When the Pan American Motel opened in 1964, it featured a spinning Sputnik atop its roof. That distraction raised one's eyebrows, but also the ire of longtime locals. After a couple more motels with spinning orbs opened, longtime Wildwooders had had enough. That practice was stopped.

One touch of doo-wop kitsch is actually misleading. The Caribbean Motel added a fake palm tree to its landscape in 1958. More were added to different motels over the next few years, but most plastic palms you see today were driven into motel courtyards long after the doo-wop years ended. In 1984, Bristol Plaza Motor Inn's Robert Belansen stuck a few fake palms on his property, and in the late Reagan era, there was a sudden sprouting of ersatz palm trees alongside many motels. They still stand.

Around the same time, real estate developers seeing dollar signs were showing up as well. Unlike places such as Santa Fe, N.M.; Charleston, S.C.; the South Beach section of Miami Beach; and even Cape May, just to the Wildwoods' south, the Wildwoods have few ordinances regulating vintage architecture. Two thirds of the original doo-wop motels have been torn down, many to make room for big-box condominiums. So while riders on the tour bus cruise down Atlantic Avenue, they might see two classic doo-wop motels separated by three blocks of a hodgepodge of later-period architecture.

That change caused the Doo Wop Preservation League to panic. But longtime doo-wop motel owner Jack Morey, son of Wilbert Morey, renovated one of the less-colorful old motels into a neo-doo-wop Starlux Motel with an obligatory share of plastic, neon, and aluminum. The new Starlux opened July 15, 2000. More neo-doo-wop structures have opened since. But so have more condos. Tony said, "Maybe we'll have a condo doo-wop tour in 60 years."

Until then, you can step back into the 1950s and '60s when you visit the Wildwoods.

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