The “Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District” of New Jersey—known as the “Doo Wop Motel District” to locals—lies primarily along a two-mile stretch of beach in Wildwood, New Jersey. Visitors to the town will find the largest concentration of mid-20th-century commercial motels, called Doo Wops, in the nation, each featuring its own fantasy theme, eye-catching sign, vivid color palette and kitschy ornaments.
Up until the late 1990s, nearly 100 motels stood within this district alone, virtually untouched since their original construction in the 1950s and 60s. From 2003 to 2006, unchecked real estate development in the area led to the demolition of several notable motels, including the Satellite, Kona Kai, Fantasy and Rio. Now many of those same tourists stay in new Mediterranean-style compounds from Memorial Day to Labor Day, as the Doo Wops have lost a bit of luster.
But the situation worsens after Labor Day for at least seven months; the once bustling streets, restaurants and boardwalk give way to utter desolation. It’s been said that visitors can “shoot a canon down New Jersey Avenue without hitting anyone.”
A few years ago, Wildwood undertook three initiatives to bring vacationers to the town all year round, but aside from the fall Boardwalk Classic Car Show, the Irish Festival and Seafarers Weekend, they have so far been met with scant attention and even sparser turnout.
While the economy may roar through the summer, in the winter, it sleeps. In January 2015, the unemployment rate hit 17.9 percent before it fell to 6.4 percent by August, although the county’s tourism industry drew $5.8 billion in spending last year—New Jersey’s second-highest county total.
Still, as year-round tourism wanes and the baby-boomers age, jobs become more elusive and historic buildings become more difficult to maintain. The Doo Wop way of life dies a little bit every year.
The following photos, shot by Raphaelle Guillon in the height of the 2015 summer season and over Thanksgiving weekend that same year, illustrate Wildwood’s spectacular rise in the years after World War II—and its gradually diminishing glory.
Update: An earlier version of this story stated that the Lollipop, Chateau Bleu, and Panoramic Motels were no longer standing. Happily, this is not the case. We regret the error.