What is Doo-Wop Architecture?
Wildwood motels are typically about 20,000 square feet (1800 square meters) with 20-30 rooms. They are usually constructed of reinforced concrete planks in two or three stories, often with a spiral staircase connecting the floors. The motels are often L shaped in plan with a swimming pool between the two wings of the L. In front of each motel are the characteristic plastic palm trees.
Philadelphia architect Richard Stokes, who recently established his own practice after working with VSBA for many years, is involved in the restoration of Wildwood.
Stokes explains: "The most important part of the Doo-Wop style is the signage — neon signs in lollipop colors. The motels pick up the colors of the signs, and it is these signs and colors that make the buildings different. The only remotely similar place in the country is in Palm Springs, California, and that is more upscale than Wildwood."
These Doo-Wop motels were built without heat or air conditioning. The tourist season was short, lasting only between May and September, and socializing took place next to the pool.
Stokes adds: "The style shows a period in our history when there was a lot of interest in the space age so motels were given names like 'Satellite' and 'Astronaut.' Many people had recently acquired automobiles and they to wanted to be able to see their cars from their motel rooms. The 'motor hotel' was a new concept at the time; you could drive to the door of your room."
Why Preserve Doo-Wop?
"Wildwood's Doo-Wop style should be preserved," says Stokes, "because it is unique and has not changed since the 50s and 60s. The resort suffered a decline in the 1980s and became 'tacky' or 'unreal' to some because of the heavy use of plastic for everything from furniture to palm trees."
A practical reason to protect the Wildwood style, according to Izenour, is that it "offers a unique style that can be marketed to potential convention planners so they will come to Wildwood. Every convention hall is about the same architecturally, it is the surrounding town that is appealing to visitors."
In "Learning from Wildwood" Izenour advised planners and architects to "look at the area and evaluate the taste and needs of the people who use it and not to indulge in further homogenization of the culture with the architects' or design professionals' own aesthetic values."
He wrote: "Appreciate Wildwood for what is: The 'un-bored walk' of Wildwood, now vibrant with Doo-Wop color." He said the resort's strengths are: "exuberant 50s and 60s motels that need to be protected against developers of uniform faceless hotels attracted by the convention center." He warned against "robbing future generations of a page of architectural history."
Based on Izenour's recommendation, about 300 Wildwood business owners formed the Doo-Wop Preservation League and sought a historic designation as well as township-wide zoning and other controls in anticipation of the new convention center.
In August, 2001, Izenour said the Wildwood effort was receiving national recognition but care was necessary because this is a complicated issue: "how or why do you preserve things that were meant to be fleeting expressions of popular taste and craziness...how do you control designs that were created with no controls?"
In keeping with the style, Stokes's firm has designed the Starlux Motel on Wildwood's Rio Grande Avenue. The lobby is a circular glass enclosed kiosk furnished with a pink plastic bar, armless green chairs, and sofas in neon green.
The heavily plastic lounge welcomes guests for breakfast and evening entertainment. The new Starlux lobby looks like authentic 1950s architecture despite modern touches such as heat and air conditioning.
The revival of Wildwood is being taken seriously. When the Starlux motel was dedicated last spring, former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, who is now U.S. Secretary of the Environment, came to the ceremony and "planted" a plastic palm tree.
As the battle to inspire the world to appreciate the neon plastic world of Wildwood was starting to succeed, Steven Izenour, the chief soldier, died suddenly on August 22, 2001.
Izenour's partners Scott Brown and Venturi said: "He will be missed very much as a person and as a very important architect. He was great in heart, great in talent, great in kindness, and great in his enthusiasm."
Diane M. Fiske is an architecture writer in Philadelphia.