Wildwood’s “Doo-Wop” Vibe- The Historic Populuxe Motels
Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Way back in the early 1890's, a beautiful stretch of land along the Atlantic Ocean was called “Wildwood,” by a couple of early Jersey entrepreneurs, the Baker Brothers.
They coined that fabulous name because it was at the time, more of a forest than a beach. The Baker Brothers -- successful merchants from the farm community of Vineland -- had visited the area which was formally known as Five Mile Beach and were impressed by its natural beauty and incredible expansive beaches.
Good old American ingenuity kicked in and they envisioned the area as a great place to create a resort and considered its development as a profitable business investment. The Baker Boys were right.
The Bakers had ambitiously developed that valuable piece of real estate, founding the borough of Wildwood in 1895. Soon, the development pressed south, and the first house was built in the new community of Wildwood Crest. By 1910, Wildwood Crest was already a thriving community with homes, motels and businesses. Over the decades that followed, the Wildwoods would come to be known as an iconic shore destination for so many.
Wildwood is one of the Jersey Shore's most classic destinations, with a historic boardwalk, beautiful beaches, great amusements and it is also one of the few places left at the Jersey Shore where you can still see some of the best examples of the Populuxe style of design.
Populuxe was a stylized mix of "popular" and "luxury" that was born from the design style of Streamline Moderne that dominated the American culture during the 1930's. Moderne was a more stripped down, version of Art Deco which was popular during the 1920's. Before the 1929 Great Depression, the country was riding high on the speakeasy culture, the Charleston, bathtub gin and money was plentiful. The design of the day reflected that "anything goes" attitude. Once the Great Depression ended in 1939, that opulence was stripped away and “Streamline Moderne” was born.
When the effects of the Great Depression wore off, modern roadways and turnpikes were becoming the norm and the automobile was becoming an obsession for many Americans. After World War II, things were beginning to change, and prosperity came back to America. The postwar good feelings and the car culture figured prominently in that change.
Design also began to change with the culture. Thoughts of space, the moon and the Atomic Age, caused the Moderne style to give way to "Populuxe" or “Googie” which was born in 1949 in Southern California. It was named after the Googie Coffee Shop, that was located on Sunset Boulevard, a nickname of the owner’s wife. The coffee shop was designed by John Lautner, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Along comes architecture critic Douglas Haskell. Haskell was the first to use “Googie” to describe the architectural movement, after driving by the West Hollywood coffee shop and finally feeling like he had found a name for this style that was flourishing in the postwar era. Because he was a critic, he naturally hated the style and the name "Googie" was used in a derogatory way at the time.
But the name stuck. It was postwar, post-modern, space-race, car culture design, built on exaggeration; on dramatic angles; on plastic and steel and neon and wide-eyed technological optimism. It draws inspiration from Space Age ideals and rocket ship dreams. If you have ever seen the movie “American Graffiti” then you know that its sets were classic Googie or Populuxe design.
The car culture was huge in California and becoming huge here in Jersey. With the building of the Garden State Parkway, the Jersey Shore began to explode as a destination for weary vacationers and by the late 1950's Wildwood figured prominently in those vacation dreams.
Now that America had fallen in love with the automobile, we wanted to drive, to travel, and we needed to eat and rest along the way. To catch the attention of those zooming motorists and their bursting wallets, an engaging, colorful style became a must.
The roadside eateries and motels needed to standout, the use of stylized neon signs and bright pastel colors were created to grab those tourists and their money.
Populuxe became "the" style of the 1950's and 1960's and gave us the iconic signs and roadside attractions that some of us remember from our childhoods.
A visit to Wildwood will give you a look back in time to that fabulous era and if you were lucky enough to be a kid in the 50's and 60's it will be a trip down memory lane. Growing up in the Atomic Era, when toys, signage and architecture exploded with all things molecular and spacey - atomic bursts, diagonals, boomerangs, and rockets made it a great time to be a kid.
Take the trip to Wildwood and relive or perhaps discover that Atomic Age, that Doo-Wop time.
The term “Doo-Wop Design” was created in Wildwood, to describe the unique, space-age architectural style and maybe to refer to the Doo-Wop music that was so popular at the time.
American popular culture of the 1950's and 1960's made a lasting mark on the Wildwoods. Times were good, the economy was strong, and people were ready to go on vacation and had money to spend. Visitors from all over the Northeast could just hop on to the Parkway and be in Wildwood in no time. New motels and restaurants began to spring up all over town, and as Wildwood became a favorite spot by throngs of tourists, the town became known to some as “Little Las Vegas.” Many of the newly constructed businesses carried that distinctive architectural, and so cool vibe that was Populuxe.
Colorful neon lights, sweeping angles, and space-age imagery were incorporated in these new buildings. The style is officially known as Doo-Wop architecture, but most of us simply know it as the look of the 1950's and 1960's.
Wildwood was once home to over 300 motels built during the Doo-Wop era. The motels were very stylized, with Vegas-like neon signs, plastic palm trees, and amazing architecture. You have to love the plastic palm trees… New construction in the area has resulted in the demolition of many of these classic motels, but the Wildwood Doo Wop Preservation League stands to help save and restore the remaining historic buildings. The Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest, and the Chateau Bleu Motel in North Wildwood are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wildwood really embraces its Doo-Wop vibe and has created a Doo Wop Museum to honor that colorful past. Among the museum’s collections are items from demolished motels like neon signs and furniture.
Newer buildings in Wildwood also have decided to honor that history and feature a neon-lit Wawa and a 1950's-style Acme Supermarket. You definitely have to stop at the Wawa especially at night.
The Wildwoods’ have embraced this amazing history and so has the state. The “Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District” is recognized by the State of New Jersey. Within this historic district is Doo-Wop motel heaven. Primarily within Wildwood Crest, along a two mile stretch between Atlantic and Ocean avenues.
There you'll find the largest concentration of Doo Wop, or mid-century commercial, motels in the state and the nation. Travelling through the district will transport you back in time. You can enjoy motel after motel, each with its own unique and quintessential fantasy theme, eye-catching signs, vivid pastel color palette and kitsch ornamentation.
The downtown area of Wildwood features an array of motels scattered about its Ocean, Atlantic and Pacific Avenues, as well as a newly designated high-rise hotel district that is the first of its kind in the nation to enforce "Doo Wop" design guidelines for new construction.
If you take a drive down to Wildwood you can still find some amazing examples of this style in the form of signs and architecture and in the respect for the history of such an amazing Jersey Shore town.
When in Wildwood, after the beach, the boardwalk and the amusements be sure to take a drive at night to get the full neon experience of the “Doo-Wop" motels. It’s definitely worth the trip.
Visit our “What’s Happening in Wildwood” page for more Wildwood. Oh those Wildwood Days!