County: Cape May County
The Wildwoods are a collection of four towns incorporated between 1885 and 1920 on a barrier island located at the southern end of New Jersey in Cape May County. For over 100 years, the towns have been a popular shore resort known for its beaches and boardwalk. A mid-twentieth-century building boom following the completion of the Garden State Parkway in 1955 resulted in a collection of motels that have become known for their Doo-Wop design (also known as Googie or populuxe style), and which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Motels of the Wildwoods Multiple Property Submission. Less well known are the large numbers of surviving late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings dating from the early years of the resort. Classic American vernacular styles such as Folk Victorian, bungalow, and foursquare residences and small shops make up neighborhoods still unspoiled by the presence national chain stores.
The collective population of the Wildwoods is under 15,000 year-round, but soars to over a quarter of a million during the summer season. The Wildwoods have working and middle class roots, which is reflected in the modest styles of the housing stock. The Wildwoods’ neighborhoods are threatened by the ever-present pressure of development along the Jersey shore. Neighboring towns to the north 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.
In addition, the Wildwoods are subject to FEMA’s post-Sandy regulations that make it difficult to renovate or restore an older building. The regulations require that structures receiving significant upgrades must be elevated 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 threat is immediate and growing. Neighboring Avalon, also founded in the late nineteenth century, averages about sixty demolitions a year and now only has about thirty buildings remaining that were built before the turn of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, as neighboring towns became overdeveloped and real estate prices increased, buyers discovered the Wildwoods lower prices and a building boom has begun to transform the island from Doo Wop motels and older single-family homes into condos and McMansions. By one estimate, three hundred Doo Wop buildings have been demolished in the last twenty years. The demolition rate was slowed by the 2008 recession, but has now rebounded and new development has resumed.
The threat is compounded by the lack of Historic Commissions with local ordinance power to direct design and halt demolitions in the Wildwoods. Anti-preservation zoning contributes to demolitions. Zoning changes from single-family to condos encourage tear-downs. The National Register District for the motels does not protect privately-owned property, and the residential neighborhoods are even more threatened by development pressures because of a lack of appreciation for what they contribute.
Property owners need to be educated regarding the architectural and cultural values of saving their neighborhoods from overdevelopment. In order to effectuate change, citizens need to organize to pressure the four municipalities involved to rewrite zoning ordinances so that neighborhoods with single-family residences are not zoned for two or more units per lot, and to establish Historic Commissions with enforceable ordinances to protect the integrity of the historic properties.
There are existing groups in the Wildwoods, such as the Wildwood Historical Museum, the Doo Wop Preservation League, Partners in Preservation, and the Wildwood Crest Historical Society who, today, are focused on education, preservation of artifacts, and local events. Dedication of time by these groups, or perhaps a new group, could help move the needle on necessary local policy change.
The future depends on concerned organizations and individuals 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.