Preservation NJ: Wildwoods Are Endangered

An 1890s Victorian house is demolished in the fall of 2018.

WILDWOOD - Four municipalities - Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and West Wildwood - were collectively listed as one of advocacy nonprofit Preservation New Jersey's 10 Most Endangered Historic Places of 2019.

The four seaside resorts that form Five Mile Beach were founded between 1885 and 1920 by investors from Philadelphia and Vineland.

Working- and upper-class settlers arrived by train or ship and built cottages, businesses, and hotels in the Victorian style that characterized the era.

Later, during the rise of the automobile in the 1950s and 1960s, neon-colored motels adorned with plastic palm trees earned the Wildwoods the nickname “Doo Wop Capital of the World.”

These vintage motels became the study of students from various architecture schools in the 1990s, according to an article by architecture conservator Stephanie Hoagland.

Meanwhile, the antique Victorian buildings were documented and photographed by architects who argued that residential historic districts were possible, according to Wildwood Historical Society archives. A preservation commission soon formed to protect the districts.

Yet, Hoagland said, misinformation about the function of historic districts postponed their formation, and soon the building boom in the mid-2000s destroyed much of what would have made up the districts.

“While it seemed like many motel owners were excited at the idea of Doo Wop, when the developer showed up, offering twice what the owners thought their properties were worth, they were still ready to sell,” Hoagland wrote.

Now, another recession and subsequent building boom later, the Wildwoods’ architectural history is again threatened, according to Preservation New Jersey.

“The Wildwoods’ neighborhoods are threatened by the ever-present pressure of development along the Jersey shore,” the listing reads. The towns “have been experiencing a growing trend of tear-downs, where one-family houses are demolished in favor of multi-family condos built out to the set-back lines. Developers can convert single units to double or more, and municipalities can increase tax ratables.”

According to the listing, the Wildwoods were targeted by buyers who discovered the island was more affordable than other Jersey shore towns.

“A building boom has begun to transform the island from Doo Wop motels and older single-family homes into condos and McMansions,” the listing continues.

Another hurdle to historic protection in the Wildwoods, according to the listing, is Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) post-Hurricane Sandy regulations which “make it difficult to renovate or restore an older building.”

If a building is renovated, it says, regulations require that it be lifted above the base flood elevation, “which can add thousands of dollars to a project and be a prohibitive obstacle to working-class homeowners.

“This can lead to a downward spiral where the building is not maintained to the point where it is no longer salvageable, and because it has become a blight, the local community supports its demolition,” the listing reads.

In addition, the listing states, there are no historic commissions on the island. The Wildwood commission that formed in the 1990s is no longer active. According to the commission’s ordinance, it merely served as an advisory board to the zoning and planning department, therefore it did not have the power to prevent demolitions.

The 10 Most Endangered list is compiled annually by Preservation New Jersey with the goal of spotlighting “irreplaceable historic, architectural, cultural, and archaeological resources in New Jersey that are in imminent danger of being lost” to demolition, neglect or environmental factors, their website reads.

“The list, generated from nominations by the public, aims to attract new perspectives and ideas to sites in desperate need of creative solutions,” said Preservation New Jersey Executive Director Courtenay Mercer. “Selections to the 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list are based on the likelihood that historic buildings and places can be brought back to useful and productive life.”

The Wildwoods are the only Cape May County nomination this year. The nomination was submitted by concerned citizen group Preserving the Wildwoods, which formed this year.

In 2006, the Doo Wop motel district had been nominated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The district is recognized as a National Register District, an honorific designation that does not prevent private property owners from altering or demolishing their buildings.

According to the 2019 nomination, an estimated 300 Doo Wop buildings were demolished in the last 20 years.

“Less well-known are the large numbers of surviving late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings dating from the early years of the resort,” the 2019 nomination reads. “Classic American vernacular styles such as Folk Victorian, bungalow, and foursquare residences and small shops make up neighborhoods still unspoiled by the presence of national chain stores.”

Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano said it was “good to be nominated,” but a “building-by-building assessment” would be necessary to determine what can be saved in the city.

“Some of these properties are past repair because the owners are looking for excuses for not fixing them,” he said. “It’s good to preserve ones that can be preserved.”

North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said, “Strict residential zoning in our single-family home district” - which stretches from New Jersey Avenue to Surf Avenue and includes most of the city’s century-old homes - is “one of the strongest tools we have to preserve our past.”

“Just recently we have seen a renewed interest in the rehabilitation of many stately older homes in town and the trend seems to be continuing,” he said.

Rosenello also cited the North Wildwood Historic Commission, which oversees Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, as “dedicated to preserving and remembering the history of North Wildwood.” 

Wildwood Crest Mayor Don Cabrera said the borough “had opted not to legislate what owners can do with their properties in terms of a historical zone,” but it “continues to tweak architectural details to allow for better design.”

“Crest property owners can decide on what is best for themselves and their property as long as it meets zoning and planning requirements,” he said. “Demolitions are mainly due to age and condition of property after considering costs to renovate and preserve an existing structure as well as the value of real estate on a barrier island.

"Some opt to sell the property for development as it may be cheaper to build new and to meet new construction code requirements. The vacation market currently calls for modern larger floor plans that can accommodate larger families.

“That said, in Wildwood Crest, there are many hotels and motels including multi-family properties that still exist in the ‘Doo Wop’ architecture along the oceanfront despite not having a specific historical zone,” he continued. “There also exist many older single family homes as well. Owners have made the decision to preserve history and take advantage of the boutique benefits of same.

“The Crest itself has preserved the iconic fishing pier and the Fox library to maintain a historical aspect in the community and also pondering a new downtown where the 1956 train station used to be,” Cabrera concluded.

West Wildwood Christopher Fox did not respond to a request for comment.

The 2019 listing states that a solution to protect the island’s historic properties would involve citizens “convincing neighbors and elected officials that local historic districts with strong anti-demolition ordinances will benefit the Wildwoods by preserving historic homes and neighborhoods.

“These are the elements that define the Wildwoods and set the area apart from the rest of the Jersey shore, which is rapidly becoming a homogeneous region without character, where one municipality is indistinguishable from the rest,” the listing concludes.

To contact Taylor Henry, email thenry@cmcherald.com.

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