The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwood Motels in New Jersey

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Through a rare combination of economics, geography and chance, the island of Wildwood contains a national treasure: the highest concentration of mid-century modern hospitality architecture in the United States.
In a new photobook published by Booth Clibborn-Editions this June, Havens, a professor in industrial design at Philadelphia University, photographs the kitsch and nostalgic aesthetic of Wildwood’s unique modernist architecture.
Built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wildwood’s motels were developed in anticipation of the arrival of the Garden State Parkway, a four-lane toll road that would ultimately run the length of New Jersey, bringing with it a flurry of tourists from the surrounding states.
Talking to The New York Times, Havens said: “The hotels were the backdrop of my summer. We would always pile in the car and drive around and look at all the hotels in the same way families drive around and look at Christmas lights at holiday season. Once they started to disappear, I realised just how much I took them for granted.”
Entitled Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods, Havens presents his work in a linear sequence, from morning to night, as if to echo the fading nature of a once vibrant destination.
The architecture of this popular Jersey Shore resort was heavily influenced by the modernist styles that populated Florida at the time.
Modeled on American middle-class ideals, the buildings were imbued with the culture of the generation: space travel, cars, nascent rock‘n roll, exotic Polynesian locale and neon signs spelling out names like Satellite, Astronaut, Bel Air, Kona Kai, and Waikiki.
“Unlike anything else on the Jersey Shore before them, the motels of Wildwood transformed the socialist mission of European Modernism, built for the proletariat, into a vehicle of social fantasy” writes architecture author Joseph Giovannini in an introduction to the book.
Until recently, a short three-month tourist season, combined with a working-class veneer, meant the motels remained immaculately preserved – frozen in time – for over four decades.
Now, more than half of some 200 motels have been demolished. For those still standing, the future is distinctly uncertain.
‘The visual quietude of Havens’ work invites us to linger a bit longer on elements of the architecture that we might otherwise have ignored. And their strong cinematic quality — their emptiness — never lets us forget that these were dreamscapes for millions of visitors,” writes Jamer Hunt, in Fabricating Wildwood.
“By presenting us with these striking images of motels that remain in Wildwood, alongside those that were photographed at the end of their last season, just before demolition, Out of Season celebrates the vanishing architecture of a bygone era.”
Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods is published by Booth-Clibborn Editions on 7 June 2016. RRP £30. More information here, and see more of Havens’ photography here.