"The key to the Wildwoods' continuing development and success is a flexible conservation and development strategy that celebrates the Wildwoods' vivid '50s imagery, rich palette of color, decoration, lights, plastic and glitz, while not freeze-drying the past. To paraphrase "The Graduate", "the future is in plastics - palm trees." - Steve Izenour 1940 - 2001
What is Popular Culture?
In what ways are the Wildwoods a creation and an expression of popular taste? Popular culture, as we know it, is a product of the 20th century and is made possible by the growth of a middle class and a working class with enough income and leisure to indulge their personal pursuit of the "good life". Popular culture is driven by a vast reservoir of consumers trying to satisfy their demand for leisure and culture. These consumers are searching for something new (not like at home or at work), something they can afford, and something which they can relate to or understand. The Wildwoods dispense all of the above to its visitors irrespective of their class or social status - the ocean and the beach for health and relaxation, the boardwalk for recreation, the piers for pleasure and fantasy.
The Evolution of a Tourist Attraction
Almost all resorts start with a natural attraction like the ocean, the mountains, or a lake, but more often than not this initial attraction is not sufficient to bring the tourists back year after year, so we see the development of man-made attractions like the boardwalk, rides and amusements. When these attractions are massed together, as along the boardwalk or on a pier, all the people using them become an attraction in themselves. Competition to attract tourists back, year after year, is fierce. Attractions often require frequent and systematic change in order to remain competitive with each other and other resort areas from Great Adventure to Disneyworld.
Because of its constant need to change, most resort architecture is transitory and eclectic; i.e., next year's ride, snack shop, t-shirt are built and/or sold next to or in place of last year's version of the same. A second characteristic of resorts is that the symbolism and representation used in their architecture and signs are not necessarily place specific - many shore amusements and names are borrowed from high profile resorts like Miami Beach and Las Vegas and exotic locales like the South Pacific; thus names like the Tahiti, The Palm Beach Motel, and plastic palm trees by the truckload became the Wildwoods' standard.
Change and Permanence in the Wildwoods' Continuing Evolution
Having noted some of the underlying principles of the evolution of resorts and resort architecture and symbolism, it is interesting to consider possible strategies for the Wildwoods' continuing evolution as it passes the millennium. The Wildwoods now have the opportunity to promote a primary national attraction - one of the best beaches on the East Coast, and manmade attractions - the boardwalk, the piers and a wonderful collection of '50s motels, which while they are currently a support facility, have the potential to come to the fore as an attraction in their own right.
In the last 20 years, there are two "success" stories along the Jersey Shore. On the one hand, you have Atlantic City, which fueled an economic turnaround with gambling. But since gambling is the ultimate inward directed activity (no windows and no connection to the outside world), the actual boardwalk and city have lost most of their charm and visual pizzazz as a traditional seaside resort. The other paradigm is Cape May, where by shrewd marketing they have been able to make a virtue and attraction out of their Victorian past. It is our assumption that the appropriate model for the Wildwoods lies closer to Cape May than Atlantic City, ergo we don't want to destroy the Wildwoods in order to save them.
Architecturally, the Wildwoods have a collection of '50s era motels which are as extraordinary in their own way as Cape May's "painted ladies." Also, we should not forget the Wildwoods have the last really great, honky tonk boardwalk on the shore. The goal is to develop these major assets, the boardwalk and the piers, and the motels in a way that allows for moderate growth, but responds to changing times and tastes while preserving and cultivating what works from the Wildwoods' rich seashore traditions of bright lights, great rides and flamboyant motels.
The Wildwoods' Motels: "Viva the Fifties"
The Wildwoods' motels sprang up like weeds in the '50s as a result of the auto vacation boom. After World War II, all that pent-up demand for homes, cars and vacations had to go someplace and where it went was to the suburbs, Detroit and the shore. These pragmatic two to three story buildings were the most efficient way to get a family into a room, their car parked right outside, on a city block, with a pool and a lounge deck. Since all these buildings were based on the same basic prototype, differentiation of the product was achieved by the use of flamboyant decoration in railings, signs, porte-cocheres, plastic palms and exotic names borrowed from far away resorts: the Caribbean, the Palm Beach, the Tropicana, etc...
Since these motels were primarily built and are still owned by individual entrepreneurs, they have always been very individual in their expression, much like Atlantic City's architecture before gambling and the recent renaissance of Miami's South Beach where the smaller deco hotels have been restored to great effect. This fact is key to the Wildwoods' image since while a "motel is a motel is a motel," a standardized, national chain image (while appropriate for the convention trade) would destroy the Wildwoods' wonderfully idiosyncratic imagery and make the Wildwoods look too much like home rather than a resort away from home.
Some Preliminary Thoughts on Guidelines for the Wildwoods' Future Development
The Wildwoods already have a strong image in the Delaware Valley for their traditional summer residents and visitors. Like Disney and Cape May, the Wildwoods' heritage can appeal to both the sophisticated user who appreciates an "American Original", as well as less sophisticated users, meaning kids and families will love it. To expand this market, there is a need to both expand the Wildwoods' regional Delaware Valley market into a larger East Coast and national market and to extend the season into the spring and fall. Some possible strategies to accomplish these goals are:
- Events scheduled for the convention facilities off-peak should facilitate the development of a spring and fall season, which will in turn require motel and hotel facilities to serve it, i.e., meeting rooms and a potential for a year round destination.
- Make a virtue of the Wildwoods' funky '50s image in the same way that Cape May uses its Victorian image, as an effective marketing tool to attract on the one hand, a middle-aged clientele that actually remembers the '50s, and a younger audience to whom the '50s has a romantic image learned at the movies and on TV, of cars, clothes and early rock & roll.
Proposals for Wildwood's Tropicana Motel include a Doo Wop style cocktail bar with an oversized, olive-topped toothpick protruding from its roof...
- Create a resort development zone, which includes the boardwalk, piers, motel and commercial areas. This zone should have ample parking, public transportation and "design guidelines" that foster the conservation of the '50s imagery, while at the same time encouraging bright lights, sign minimums rather than maximums, and idiosyncratic resort imagery. In other words, turning the visual volume up on what is already there, while not overplanning or regulating what is a vital and hoc resort environment.
A composite rendering of Wildwood's 1950s-era commercial landscape.
- Keep the scale of development relatively small, so as to preserve the rich mix of activities, visual competition and excitement. Smaller scale development fits the reality of what smaller individual owners can actually accomplish.
In conclusion, the key to the Wildwoods' continuing development and success is a flexible conservation and development strategy that celebrates the Wildwoods' vivid '50s imagery, rich palette of color, decoration, lights, plastic and glitz, while not freeze-drying the past. To paraphrase "The Graduate", "the future is in plastics - palm trees."
Steve Izenour, Architect
University of Pennsylvania
Kent State University