Oh, won’t you staaaaaaaaay? Just a little bit longerrrrrrr?
“It’s Sirius radio,” 32-year-old Adamo Pipitone Jr. says of the Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ hit pumping out of the speakers at his motel in Wildwood Crest.
With its white, convex railings, fresh cobalt paint, 1964 opening date and recently restored mural of a super-sized gondolier, Pipitone’s property, The Gondolier, qualifies as doo-wop. The 1960s music coming from the satellite radio station is a fitting backdrop as the Wildwoods market themselves in the 21st Century with this yesteryear look.
The doo-wop building style has its roots in the motels and diners of the mid-20th century. Locally, some haven’t changed their appearance much since they opened; the 100 or so remaining constitute what the Wildwoods tout as the largest doo-wop collection in the U.S. Once night falls, their glow of neon against the darkness is ubiquitous on the five-mile island: the Bel Air, Eden Roc, Caribbean and other local motels have stood since the brightly evocative signs first came into vogue during the 1950s and 1960s, a time when the motel debuted as a relatively utilitarian alternative to the posh hotels middle-class families couldn’t afford.
How doo-wop plays into the running of motels today varies from borderline incidental to a major factor in determining investment, marketing, policies and other aspects of motel ownership. Yet proprietors — the local ones, anyway — cite tradition and free personal time in the offseason (or both) as reasons for being in the business.
The timing and logic of the throwback doo-wop marketing scheme makes sense: In the same financial straits as the rest of the recession-weakened tourism industry, sticking with what they’ve got here seems savvy. Particularly when many of their guests associate the style with simpler times, times when they didn’t worry about losing their jobs, their homes or points on their credit scores.
When the doo-wop era began, the nation’s last good time had been the Roaring Twenties, a party that ended — before the revelers were ready to go home — when the stock market crashed. The Great Depression that followed was not quite over when World War II began. The scenario sounds very similar to more recent times: boom years, recession, wars and pop music lyrics that address the lightest of subjects.
Except that now, young women — at least the kind pop princess Ke$ha sings about — are brushing their teeth with whiskey before partying all night, instead of being the “little girlfriend” singers sweetly wailed about back in the doo-wop era, when Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs were asking us to stay just a little bit longer.
They still do, at The Gondolier and the Wildwoods’ other doo-wop motels.
Naked in the office
“I’ve had to break into people’s rooms at times. People try to barricade themselves in … (for) anything. It could be something illegal. Smoking something ... or having a dog in the room or extra people, kids trying to smuggle them in. Fights, you name it.”
Pipitone picks up a plastic, neon clipboard from behind the counter.
“I’ve actually started jotting things down.”
He goes through the lined paper underneath the metal clip. The notes are for a book he says he “should’ve started 10 years ago.”
“Like kids climbing staircases onto the third floor, you name it. Like people getting naked — I’ve had a lady get naked in the office.”
But it’s fall now. The lengthening slow spells mean Pipitone has more time to, say, watch a Phillies-Mets TV broadcast. Or joke with Jerry, the affection between the two men apparent in the multiple nicknames they have assigned each other over the past months.
Pipitone and his parents are rare: Their partnership is one of four that has expanded holdings or entered the doo-wop motel market within the past three years. They paid $3.9 million in 2008 for The Gondolier, which remains assessed at $2.7 million.
His father Adamo Pipitone Sr., 57, bought the Aztec in 2001. The $1.4-million assessed corner property went for $2.95 million. Two years later, they paid $1.5 million for the adjacent American Safari, assessed at $1.1 million. Drawn to the seasonality that could afford him a partial retirement of sorts, Pipitone Sr. said he had never considered an alternative to his deli business. He has since sold the six-store chain and two gas stations he also operated near their native Bridgeton, 50 miles west of Wildwood.
Pipitone Jr. and his parents spend each winter at their second homes in Florida for a much-needed rest. During the peak of their seven-month season, they work 17-hour days, with emergency calls often interrupting their nights.
“It’s been hell on relationships and stuff like that, but the upside is that when we close … I make my own hours,” Pipitone Jr. says. “During the summer, you just gotta buckle down and realize that your life is over and it’s time to work.”
Plenty of doo-wop motels — also known as belonging to the Googie or populuxe architectural genres — remain nationwide. Few sit as close together or to the ocean as those in Wildwood. In other seaside cities, new structures have long since replaced them, according to Joe McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
Architect and University of Pennsylvania professor Steven Izenour determined the 150 such structures standing in the Wildwoods during the late 1990’s constituted the biggest collection in the country. Subsequent redevelopment halved the local stock, but it’s still the largest nationwide, Doo-Wop Preservation League President Dan MacAlrevy said.
Local preservationist Diane Wells brought in Izenour, whom she knew from her involvement with the Society for Commercial Architecture. Izenour spearheaded a study of the resort’s motels that spanned multiple summers and involved students and faculty from Penn, Yale and Kent State in Ohio. Wells encouraged the efforts, as did local stakeholders, including the Cape May-based Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts and amusement moguls Jack and Will Morey, whose fathers founded their tourism empire during doo-wop’s heyday and built the first motels that embodied the era’s architecture.
In 2000, Izenour’s team suggested a throwback theme: Local businesses should play up local ties to the era that spawned the structures and the doo-wop music for which the building style is nicknamed. They also developed a 10-point checklist to guide local motel operators. A book has since been published; MacAlrevy keeps copies of “How to Doo-Wop” at the ready in the office the league shares with Ocean Realty. The property management company handles operations for out-of-town owners at multiple local motels.
Izenour, who died in 2001, lent gravitas to their work, thanks to his expertise in resort architecture. He had previously examined buildings in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere.
Local preservationist Kirk Hastings published a more comprehensive volume in 2007, chronicling doo-wop’s architectural origins and its expansion with Izenour’s work and subsequent tourism marketing campaign by Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce and other local businesses and their collective associations.
“It’s a great gimmick, to take doo-wop and go after nostalgia and go after those people who are baby boomers and looking to go back to their youth,” McInerney said.
George Miller, owner of The Caribbean motel next door to the Pipitones’ American Safari, has added his property to the National Register of Historic Places, but just one other motel — the Chateau Bleu — has followed suit, despite the tax breaks and publicity that accompany the distinction.
The Pipitones have invested in less binding ways: playing doo-wop music, restoring murals and neon signs, and employing plastic palms and other Polynesian pop elements. Also, keeping the second deadbolt on the doors of each room allows guests to request maid service or to not be disturbed with the flick of a latch knob.
The Pipitones are rare in that they recently expanded their holdings and run the properties themselves. Most owner-operated motels in the Wildwoods have been in their families for decades, with most recent purchasers hiring property management companies to handle the day-to-day running of their investments.
Such outside firms provide expertise for a price: a 10 percent to 15 percent profit share that seems impossible to afford for Adamo Pipitone Sr.
“It’s a mom-and-pop industry,” said Chamber Executive Director Tracey Dufault, whose parents owned a motel. “I can tell you that I checked in (guests) and (did chambermaid work) and cleaned the pool, and that’s what those (outside) businesses do. I highly doubt we could have done it all year-round because it’s a seven-day-a-week job and you are working so hard.”
Their winter breaks have grown shorter as weekend events have been added over the years to extend the “shoulder season” to more than double its length since 20 years ago. This year’s will end the weekend before Halloween with the long-running Anglesea fishing tournament and inaugural Wildwoods Country Music Fest. Years ago, businesses banked on summer tourists visiting for eight weeks or so, Dufault said.
The Chamber of Commerce tracks the number of motel reservations, event tickets and restaurant turnovers and compiles statistics on visitor demographics, Dufault said. She declined to share any of those numbers, but said each shoulder season event’s ever-growing draw has made local merchants happy.
But the Pipitones and other motel owners cite frustration with the ever-lengthening shoulder season’s modest weekend draw and almost nonexistent weekday boost. They would prefer adding special events during the historically stagnant weeks: one after the Fourth of July or the last in August, for example.
“Ideally, from a chamber standpoint, my answer would be that we’d like to see it go all year long, but that’s a long way and we do have members who need a break. So who knows what the future holds about Wildwood being a 12-month tourist destination, but it would be interesting to see it happen,” Dufault said. “It’s up to them: If they want to stay open, we’ll get people to come.”
The island business community has tried to attract people who can remember the 1950s and 1960s. Without children at home or in college, that population has time and money to spare, Dufault reasoned.
They also can connect with the era’s music, which has historical ties to Wildwood. Chubby Checker, for example, first performed “The Twist” in the city, Dufault said. The city hopes to set a world record for the most people doing the dance at once during the Convention’s Fabulous Fifties weekend starting Oct. 15.
“It’s something we take ownership of and great pride in,” she said. “The Preservation League ... make(s) it very easy for the rest of us to not have to do a tremendous amount of research to get the look and feel that we want.”
The wholesomeness linked with that era is in conflict, however, with the somewhat-seedy image of the Wildwoods that, while narrow and oversimplified, often comes to outsiders’ minds.
“If you’re in your 50s and you’re looking for a quiet place by the ocean, you’re not going to Wildwood,” McInerney said.
Some motel owners, particularly those in Wildwood Crest, shy away from that image. The Pipitones, for example, won’t take reservations from people younger than 25, unless they’re a married couple.
Meanwhile, other properties appeal to that sensibility. Wildwood’s Royal Court motel, for example, advertises its availability for post-prom parties on its website.
‘This is America’
Two dozen bikers cheer in appreciation for the woman who is complying with their handwritten sign: “Let (them) breathe,” it commands.
They’re angling the posterboard at the sidewalk below the Royal Court motel’s second floor pool deck on Atlantic Avenue. It’s a prime spot to take in the thousands of motorcycles passing through for the weekend-long Roar at the Shore convention and the accompanying shenanigans at their peak on Saturday night.
Most of the Royal Court biker guests are wearing leather jackets with “Roughneck Riders” emblazoned across the back and have metallic beads around their necks. They toss a couple of strands down to the woman as she pulls her zebra-print shirt back to the waistband of her miniskirt. Then she continues on her way, her high-heeled stride wobbly from the drinks that have broadened her smile and deepened her laugh.
After seven years in the motel business in Wildwood, Steve Bhatt expects the antics that come with bikers, post-prom partiers, spring-breakers and others who mingle with families staying at the 40-year-old property. Sometimes, the lower-key guests complain.
“I tell them, this is America, this is what they do,” he says with a good-natured shrug.
The trim 68-year-old says he left his native India during the 1970s in hopes the freedoms here would afford him the chance not to party with abandon but to realize the American dream as he understood it.
“The only impression that I had was that America’s a rich country and the land of opportunity,” he said. “I found a job in New York City, got a house up there. Got a small business up there, I sold that, came over here and bought a motel, then bought this one. Little by little, we just built up, and that’s the American dream, you know?”
Bhatt retired last year from the City of New York’s engineering division. He spent six summers before that commuting from the city to his Bergen County home and to Wildwood so he could spend weekends at the motel; his wife, brother and sister-in-law ran things the rest of the time.
With his wide grin, booming laugh and heartier composition, Bhatt’s brother Dipak is his near-opposite. But despite his low voice, bashful smile and twittering snippets of laugher, Steve Bhatt describes himself as a people person.
So he likes the business for the most part, save for the occasional racist grumblings. Those patrons can leave, no questions asked, Bhatt says. He’d prefer to lose their business.
“It was shocking to me,” he says of the first time someone complained they would have to swim alongside someone of another race.
A vacation to Wildwood started Bhatt thinking about buying a motel here: He liked the beach and Boardwalk, and the industry would leave him enough time and money to prevent burning through his savings and pension while pursuing leisure interests such as travel and photography, he reasoned.
Bhatt got in during the boom time with the Casa Del Sol in 2001 for $575,000 and sold it six years later for $1.76 million, half a million more than its assessed value, according to tax records.
Bhatt’s returns came courtesy of generally rising real estate values and his personal investment in the Casa Del Sol. Specifically, he added new paint, new carpets and other improvements, all made in keeping with the doo-wop theme — although the motel’s 1972 construction means it’s too new to be genuinely doo-wop.
Bhatt was largely unfamiliar with the cultural components of the era before he came to the U.S. and wasn’t looking for a doo-wop property necessarily when he bought the first motel, or the second one in 2007, when he settled on the Royal Court for $2.475 million, relatively close to its $2.433 million assessment.
Bhatt stuck with the doo-wop motif in both cases to keep with local business marketing trends.
The Royal Court’s plastic palms, abstract-print umbrellas, teal paint and neon sign are straight off the list devised by the architectural students for local motel owners. But the paint is peeling and the sign is unlit. Taken with the rooms’ scratchy comforters, poorly ventilated bathrooms and stuffing-leaking pillows, the scene suggests the Bhatt brothers have more work to do.
The motorcycles’ rumbling quiets for a moment, and one biker can be heard encouraging another to “pee in the pool.”
As unlikely as it might seem at first glance, the aging motel and its guests embody the American dream for Bhatt and his family. The brood includes three grown daughters: a lawyer, environmental consultant, and a philosophy Ph.D. candidate.
“They got a good education, have good jobs; I have a house, this small business and I’m retired and I’m happy,” Bhatt says. “That’s all about America. “
Bhatt profited when he sold the Casa Del Sol.
“Now it’s a different story. I sold that just in time,” he said.
Nearly all of the developers who came around during the boom looking to buy motels wanted something larger and farther from the Boardwalk than his beach block property, or didn’t offer enough money, Bhatt explains.
Bhatt wasn’t alone in his decision to turn down boom-era redevelopment offers: Pipitone also said no. In both cases, the interested parties offered too little to draw them from a relatively new endeavor they still enjoy.
But others wanted to sell back then and are still trying to do so.
Sea Shell motel owner Tom Canulli, for example, hadn’t yet closed a $3 million to $5 million deal when the economy tanked. Canulli, 51, is looking to sell the motel he bought a dozen years ago for $664,000, but hope to keep the associated ice cream parlor across the street. Now assessed at $1.25 million, the 50-year-old, 22-unit motel sits at Atlantic Avenue and Route 47, the main road onto the island. He would consider unloading the motel to an investor for whom they’d manage the property while leasing it back or selling it off entirely, manager Robert Van Eman said.
Van Eman, 46, says he has fielded calls from interested parties encouraged by banks’ willingness to lend to motel buyers who intend to continue operations. Doing that costs less than the redevelopment common a few years ago.
The real estate prices started to climb around 2001, the start of a boom that would peak in 2005. The first signs of wider economic trouble slowed development. By 2007, it was over and redevelopers had demolished one-third of the towns’ motels.
Now, motel owners generally haven’t sold because the offers are smaller still, local real estate agent Rick Spackman said.
“They can’t get the same (price) with the condo market over-saturated,” Spackman said. “Now they’re being sold for operating as a motel.”
Borrowing has picked up recently from historic lows for most property types, including lodging facilities, according to Jamie Woodwell, vice president of commercial real estate research for the National Mortgage Bankers Association.
Banks may view hotels and motels favorably now because they bounce back from economic difficulty ahead of, and more dramatically than, other sectors. The early and noticeable boost happens because the lodging sector falters first, and worst, in tough financial times that favor the stability of multi-year leases over the days-long durations of motel room rentals, Woodwell said.
Lenders also take on less risk loaning money to buyers who intend to keep running a motel instead of bulldozing it. They can’t predict outcomes for whatever might replace the demolished business as they can for the continued operation of the original enterprise based on its historic occupancy rates, revenues, expenses and other numbers, he said.
Nationally, the lodging industry has not noticed banks lending more frequently or at better rates to prospective motel buyers. But Wildwood’s relative affordability and proximity to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., would help their case, McInerney said.
“Places a short, two-to-four-hour drive from a major metropolitan area, they did well,” he said. “Americans really believe that vacation is their right, not a luxury and they were going to take a vacation. They just might not have gone as far or stayed as long.”
The super-sized gondolier mural on the north side of the motel bearing its namesake stares unblinkingly onto Ocean Avenue.
“It was a really cool block here, now it’s all condos,” Pipitone says of the SUV-flanked structures across the street that stand in place of the Carousel and the Ebb Tide, one of the first motels ever built on the island.
In its heyday, the motel didn’t have wireless Internet, 25-channel televisions or pizza delivery at 4 a.m., all now advertised on its nightstands. They also were built with less parking. That causes a problem often enough today that motels stock meter passes for guests.
A man steps into the lobby of the Gondolier and slowly jerks his thumb over his shoulder toward the filled spaces.
“I got no place to park,” he says.
“Let me check the Aztec real quick,” Pipitone says, the motorcycles’ hum muting his words as he walks outside.
He returns, problem solved, and settles in behind the front counter. Behind him, a spiral staircase leads to his clothing-strewn living quarters.
Imprisoned by the business during the summer, Pipitone is also free of the monotony that turned off the former pre-med student from his intended career.
“Sometimes I think, ‘I was a medical student — what am I doing plunging a toilet?’” he says. “But I’m learning every day.”
What is doo-wop?
Basically: Doo-wop refers mainly to pop music of the 1950s and 1960s, but was used decades later by the Cape-May based Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts to refer to structures built during that era.
What: Bright paint, neon lights, curved walls, abstract shapes, lounge area lofted over parking lot; rooms arranged in an H
or U shape opening onto a pool (preferably kidney-shaped)
Where: Wildwood, San Jose
and Miami Beach have the
best-established districts of remaining doo-wop structures.
When: 1950s and 1960s, although structures bearing the architectural components continued to be built into the 1970s.
Why: Boomerang, amoeba and other abstract shapes highlighted aimed to capitalize on popular interest in then-novel space exploration. Bamboo, plastic leis, fake palm trees, tribal
knick-knacks, and other
tropically-themed decor known as Polynesian pop played off newly-trendy tiki bars, Hawaii becoming the 50th state and the popularity of “South Pacific.”
AKA: populuxe or Googie, after the West Coast coffee shop that debuted back then featuring
larger-than-life signage and other, attention-grabbing external elements.
Sources: How to Doo-Wop; Doo Wop Motels: Architectural Treasures of the Wildwoods; Tom Cawley, founder of www.wildwooddoowop.com
The history of doo-wop in the Wildwoods
1952: Will Morey designs what is considered the first doo-wop motel in the Wildwoods. Morey’s Fantasy at 131 W. Rio Grande was inspired by architect Morius Lapidus after seeing his Fountainbleau hotel while vacationing in Miami Beach, Fla. Developers bulldozed the structure on its 49th anniversary.
1954: Wildwoods legalize motels after 19 already have gone up and just before the opening of Beachwaves, the first one on the ocean.
1955: The opening of the Garden State Parkway makes it more convenient for tourists to drive to the Wildwoods. During the next three years, developers add more than 100 motels on the five-mile island.
1956: New motels include the Sea Gull, Skylark, Packard, Sans Souci, Morris Lapidus, Vogue, Carousel and Americana.
1957: Bel Air, Coral Sands, Catalina, Silver Beach, Knoll’s and Ebb Tide open.
1958: The Morey brothers open two motels, each with a different fate. The Satellite was bulldozed in 2004; the Caribbean’s current, D.C.-based owner George Miller landmarked his property, one of two doo-wop motels on the island to invoke the permanent protection.
1959: Chateau Bleau and Casa Bahama open, demolished in 2003 and 2005, respectively.
1960: Jolly Roger opens on Atlantic and Lotus, where it still stands.
1962: The havoc wreaked by a notable northeaster does not stop the Nomad, Flagship, All-Star, Cara Mara, Astronaut and other motels from opening.
1969: Lou Morey opens the Royal Hawaiian and Waikiki a few blocks from one another in Wildwood Crest. Both remain.
1970: The original doo-wop era ends with 317 motels standing in the Wildwoods.
1980: Neon makes comeback after a decade that favored less-expensive plastic signs.
1991: The first doo-wop tours, run on trackless trolleys, are offered. Interest fizzles within a couple years.
1993: Preservationist Diane Wells rallies to revive the tours at the behest of Disney World executives researching the Wildwoods.
1997: Wells brings in architect Steven Izenour, whom she knew via the Society for Commercial Architecture.
1998: Stakeholders who ultimately organize as the Doo-Wop Preservation League revive doo-wop trolley tours.
2001: The Ebb Tide becomes the first casualty of the redevelopment boom that ultimately wipes out about 100 motels on the island.
2003: Doo-wop-only WILW 94.3-FM begins broadcasting.
2004: The Waikiki opens the
Doo-Wop Coffee Shop on-site.
2005: The 47-year-old Rio motel’s demise provides an ocean view for the Starlux at Atlantic and Rio Grande. The restoration of the Shalimar starts. New businesses also get involved to varying degrees: banks and travel agencies dabble with neon signage, and restaurants focus their theme and design on doo-wop entirely.
2006: American Safari refurbishes its neon sign; condos are planned for the former sites of the Hileah and Kona Kai motels. Troy Cawley and Corey Murnaghan of locally-based CAM Web Design launch www.wildwooddoowop.com to provide a related database. They employ experts such as historian Michael Hersh to vet user-submitted information about the buildings.
2007: Local preservationist Kirk Hastings publishes his book “Doo Wop Motels: Architectural Treasures of the Wildwoods.”
2009: The Gondolier restores the mural on its northern external wall.
Contact Emily Previti: