Philly Prof’s New Book Treats Wildwood Motels Like the Works of Art They Are
It all started with the Garden State Parkway.
The roadway’s construction — complemented by the postwar boom period — led to the birth of the Wildwoods. The several cities that make up the five-mile island had been around since the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it wasn’t until carloads of middle-class Philadelphians trekked down the shore that the Wildwoods became the place we think of today.
And the simple L- or U-shaped motels built around that time are more than just places to sleep. “For a clientele whose out-of-reach dream vacation was Polynesia, the Caribbean or even the exotic Far East, Wildwood willingly stood in as a surrogate,” architecture critic Joseph Giovannini writes. “Blue-collar workers from as close as Philadelphia or as far away as Montreal could still enjoy a week of vacation on the sand in an environment that evoked distant lands.”
Giovannini writes that in an introdutory essay in a new book by Philadelphia University industrial design professor Mark Havens. His Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods chronicles 10 years of Havens’ fine art photography of the famous Wildwood motel. While much Wildwood architecture hagiography focuses on kitsch, Havens’ book goes a bit deeper: The beauty of the chair placement at the Blue Marlin Motel, the wonderful doors at the Ocean Sands Motel, the hilarity of the neon sign and pirate combo at the Jolly Roger.
“These motels were very simple, built mostly from cinder block, stucco, iron railings and a few coats of paint,” New School professor Jamer Hunt writes in the book’s other essay. “Few mistook them for anything more than what they were—economical. But through the inventive and highly formalist use of decorative elements, owners, contractors, and architects were able to elevate these buildings beyond the utilitarian. They created a genuine, expressive middle-class vacation aesthetic that transcends the more saccharine pleasures of the big-budget signs and exotic names.”
I talked with Havens about his book. This conversation has been lightly edited for style and length.
How did you first become interested in Wildwood motels?
Everybody in the Delaware Valley’s got a shore town. Wildwood was ours. When I was a kid we stayed in houses that had motel signs out front. That’s what we were in quite a lot because we had so many people. I mean when I was a kid there were four generations of our family around the breakfast table down there. Even my grandmother used to come down. So it was a pretty cool time and tough to find any places that held that many people. I’ve stayed in a number of the motels that are in the book but I really grew up in the rooming houses that are down there.
The two essays that open your book are both in part about the aspirational quality of Wildwood architecture. What makes that so intriguing?
You know, you could actually go on vacation, you had a little bit of disposable income and these places — you just have to look at the titles. I mean they were so aspirational, you know what I mean? The Waikiki or the Kona Kai or the Isle of Capri. You know, any of these places where the family from South Jersey (where I’m from) or from the Philadelphia area never would have been able to afford to take the family to the real place. They could afford to spend a week on the Astroturf around the pool at the Bel Air. My family did the same thing. My grandmother had been going down there since the 1930’s. There’s something incredibly poignant and endearing about that to me.
When did you begin this project?
Well I started in 2004. And I actually wasn’t a photographer. Didn’t know how to take photos. Didn’t even own a camera at that point. But I just knew that these places that were the backdrop of so many of my summers were disappearing and I just wanted to capture them some way. I went as far as hiring a professional photographer to come down to Wildwood with me and shoot the motels that I kind of stood there and pointed at.
And the results were fine, but they weren’t really what I was thinking of. So very grudgingly, I went to Chinatown and bought a used camera, a 35mm film Nikon at a place called Happy Photo. And I started shooting. I made a lot of mistakes and I missed a lot of motels that were on the verge of being destroyed. I’d take pictures and there’d be some part of the process that I got wrong and I’d go back the next week to try and reshoot and there’d just be a dirt lot there. I said to some other people that I’ve talked to about the project that it was a little bit like trying to learn how to be a doctor by hanging out in the emergency room. There was just no room for error because you get it wrong once… This was in the early 2000’s before the housing bubble burst. They were dropping at just a really incredible rate.
Eventually, through trial and error, I learned a little bit and progressed from 35mm film to medium format film to get more detail, and then made the jump to digital and then the jump to full-frame digital and it’s been that way ever since. So really what’s in the book is a combination from 35mm film on one end to full-frame digital on the other. It’s a record of me sort of figuring out how to take photos.
Do you have any favorite photographs in the book?
Boy, that’s a tough call. I’m probably not the best person to talk to about that — a lot of my favorites come not from the subject matter but by how difficult it was to get a shot.
I started shooting in the height of the season. I was like, “Okay I go down to Wildwood in the summer time. I’m going to go down in the summer time and get some shots.” I quickly realized that your average-size SUV, when you try and shoot from ground level, it hides half the motel. I realized that it’s not going to work when people are around. So then I tried to shoot in the dead of winter when I knew I’d have the island to myself. But things were way too closed up then. It really looked completely uninhabited.
Eventually I figured out that I could shoot — and get what I wanted — roughly for about two weeks at the end of May, and maybe two-and-a-half, three weeks at the end of September, because that’s when virtually nobody was around. And the water was still in the pool, the chairs were still out, the plastic palm trees were still up and the lights were still on from time to time in the evening when I could get that fully, sort of realized idea of what the motels actually were in sort of, their glory.
I didn’t want this to be an abandonment project. That really wasn’t what it was about. But to have those forms be clarified by not having any people around. And that took a while to get. And so going back to favorites, I think some of the ones that I feel a special attraction to are the ones where it was really difficult to get a time when the weather was right and the lighting was right and the owner would turn the sign on for you. Because in the off-season they save the money. Who wants to waste their money on an electricity-gobbling neon sign when nobody’s around. And the ones that were more difficult I sort of gravitated toward. And that I think is one of the reasons that the project took a while to do. Because I had 13,000 shots at the end.
And I started editing them down, over the course of a couple of years, and I got them down to, like, I don’t know, 330-something. And I swore up and down, this is the book. There’s nothing else I can cut out of this. But nobody’s going to publish a fine art photography book with 330 pictures in it. Especially when nobody is publishing many dead-tree books anyway.
So I started working with an editor out in Washington State by the name of Barbara Cox who’s extremely talented and insightful. She administrates The New York Times photography archive and has a company called Photokunst. She’s a photography agent, and she worked alongside me for a couple years to edit the book down. And we eventually got it down to the 105 shots that are in it now — but, boy, that was really like shock therapy. I had to hear some really difficult things from her. Like, “I know what you tried to do with this photo but it just doesn’t work.” And I’m like, “Oh man, I sweated blood for that, it took me weeks to try to get everything set up and the [motel owner] was so mean.” I think it’s a better, more clarified book because of all that editing. But I think that’s where my favorites come from. And it really doesn’t have anything to do with the photos. It just has to do with, man, how back-breaking it was to get a particular shot.
Do you think Wildwood motel architecture is worth preserving?
I think so — because of what it signifies, what it represents, what it meant to us as a culture in that time. Joseph Giovannini in his essay makes a really beautiful case for Wildwood’s motels actually being… this petri dish of innovation where you can take that sort of rectangular, flat-roofed modernist style, which was beautiful and new but it was very cold, right? And Wildwood, with all it’s teeming, and the interesting and economical use of color and rhythm and just patterns throughout the motels really injected this element of humanity into modernism. And Wildwood is where it happened.
And me not being an architect or an architectural historian like him could never articulate something like that. But in reading it I’m like: Wow, yeah, absolutely. I just liked it for all the cultural reasons of people going down there and their aspirational vacations in their new cars. And being able to pull right up at the door and go right in and spend the weekend at the beach like they never were before. But I think for all those reasons it’s important that what’s down there in Wildwood, some of it anyway, is preserved.
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