WILDWOOD, N.J. - Under the cover of darkness, this seaside resort city announces itself in all its exuberant, Technicolor glory.
Motels with wacky names like the Ala Moana, StarLux, and the Lollipop light up the night sky with their dazzling neon signs, over-the-top 1950s architecture, and swimming pools lined with plastic palm trees.
Even Wildwood's few chain businesses - a Wawa convenience store, a
Once the sun rises, though, a different picture emerges. The motels, diners, honky-tonk boardwalk, and sprawling white sand beach that are Wildwood's hallmarks still dominate. But their companions increasingly are tasteful condominiums and townhouses that can be found in every upscale beach resort from Cape Cod to North Carolina.
In daylight, it's also apparent that Wildwood, located about 90 miles southeast of Philadelphia, doesn't lack for rough edges, as some mom-and-pop motels have closed and others have been razed, all in the name of development.
The Wildwoods - they are three communities: Wildwood, North Wildwood, and Wildwood Crest - are at a crossroads. Dozens of still-thriving retro motels, miles of free beaches, and a location on the Northeast corridor suggest the potential of a South Beach, Miami-style revival celebrating its period ambience. But with land values and real estate prices skyrocketing here - some new construction is priced upward of $1 million - teardowns threaten those qualities that make the area unique.
This unresolved status prompted the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year to place Wildwood's motels on its list of the nation's 11 most endangered places. The Trust, which makes a point of recognizing the importance of the recent past as well as places that are several hundred years old, singled out the community for having the nation's largest collection of mid-20th-century commercial resort architecture. The communities enjoy their status, despite losing some 100 buildings to the wrecking ball over the past decade.
"History doesn't stop just because it's newer," says Adrian Scott Fine, director of the Trust's Northeast field office in Philadelphia. "It's just a different part of our country's growth and development, and they're not building anything like Wildwood anymore.
"It's very much a time capsule - and not just the architecture, but rock 'n' roll history. It represents a very finite, very rich period in our nation's history."
At one point considered the "Las Vegas of the East," Wildwood enjoyed its share of pop music moments, notably as the place where Bill Haley and His Comets first played "Rock Around the Clock" in public, at the HofBrau Hotel in 1954; the site of the first national broadcast of Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" at the Starlight Ballroom in 1957; and the reported location of Chubby Checker's first rendition of "The Twist" at the Rainbow Club in 1960.
During my visit, I found much to recommend to enthusiasts of mid-century Americana - and a lot of potential. For a place that trades on artifice, Wildwood's prime asset is a natural one: the huge expanse of beach, which, unlike most of its counterparts in the state, doesn't require paid beach tags. The wonderfully tacky oceanfront boardwalk, with dozens of food stands, souvenir shops, arcades, and large amusement piers, still offers plenty of midway-style entertainment for families.
For fans of themed architecture, before Disney and others made it slick, the motels don't disappoint. They were constructed after World War II through the mid-1960s, amid the burgeoning car culture, when developers began slapping up dozens of accommodations to meet the growing seasonal demand for an affordable, working-class getaway from nearby Philadelphia and the growing suburbs of southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Usually two- or three-story L-shaped affairs, the motels are built around a pool, with guest rooms facing the patio area for maximum socializing and access. Some include a coffee shop, restaurant, or gift shop, but offer few other amenities such as room service, a fitness center, or an on-site salon.
Today, you can park your ride in front of any number of these fanciful motels, from the so-called vroom-style Caribbean, whose dramatic, cantilevered ramp and angled balconies make it one of the most distinctive examples, to the understated Shalimar, recently renovated with blond '50s furniture, to the space-age StarLux, a futuristic renovation of a down-on-its-heels property.
Reimagined as an upscale showplace with Jetsons-inspired decor by Jack Morey, son of one of Wildwood's longtime motel developers, StarLux reflects the inclination of some key city leaders to embrace - and not run away from - Wildwood's past.
"I've always been a fan of resort architecture, and I thought it was a good idea for the town to be known for something," says Morey, whose family owns three other motels and runs several amusement piers.
The retro good times continue at themed eateries like the Pink Cadillac and Doo Wop diners, each outfitted in gleaming stainless steel and serving requisite amounts of fried food and desserts; Cool Scoops ice cream parlor, where you can enjoy an Elvis Pretzelly cone while seated in a booth fashioned from a '57 Ford Fairlane; and Schellenger's, an old school seafood restaurant complete with lobster traps and other faux seafaring items.
Advocating for Wildwood's past-as-future is the Doo Wop Preservation League, a nonprofit group that holds regular Back to the '50s trolley tours and this spring opened the Doo Wop Experience, a memorabilia museum in a pinwheel-shaped building that housed a diner in its previous incarnation. The facility includes a retro malt shop and features vintage signs from long-gone motels.
The group also participates in themed events, including this year's fourth annual Fabulous '50s Weekend, Oct. 19-21, that reflect Wildwood's heyday as a mecca for headline entertainment.
For baby boomers like Mary Fox, a real estate appraiser and town booster, those days continue to resonate.
"There is a real emotional connection to Wildwood that makes everything come to life," says Fox, one of the organizers of the trolley tours. "I always say that's the difference between Wildwood and Cape May. On a Victorian trolley tour, no one was alive at the time or stayed at a certain house. Now, you have people who interact with you who stayed at the places."
While the Wildwoods have started to include zoning guidelines to encourage preservation, there is not yet the political will to create the kinds of preservation districts that helped save neighboring Cape May and South Beach. For now, the slow real estate market has cooled demolition fever, with no important buildings torn down in the past year.
"We go day by day," says Charles Schumann, treasurer of the Doo Wop Preservation League. "We wanted to save every building that existed. Now we want people who do own them to realize they can prosper by keeping them."
Says Fine, from his National Trust office: "There's nothing else like it."
Robert DiGiacomo, a writer based in Philadelphia, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.