Saving New Jersey’s Lost Motels
"I wanted to create an ecstatic reality, a hyper-idealised version of these places, before the lights went off for good."
This article is part of our VICE Weekends summer series, presented by Weis
There's something universal about the motels of Wildwood, New Jersey. These squat midcentury buildings might have served as seaside playgrounds for working class American families for generations but their pastel facades and neon signs, which often wink to far-flung and exotic places, will be familiar to anyone who's spent summer road-tripping coastal Australia. And their demolition, in favour of luxury apartments, echoes a pattern we're seeing around the country. The fight to salvage the 50s motels and fibro bungalows that were once a fixture on the Gold Coast is a case in point.
We caught up with Mark Havens, a photographer who's spent the last decade capturing Wildwood's disappearing motels, the results of which are published in his 2016 book Out of Season, to talk about the magic of motel vacations and why these dreamy structures deserve to be saved.
VICE: When did you first start visiting Wildwood?
Mark Havens: My grandmother began going there in the early 1940s, visiting as a family for a week during the year was tradition. At one point, we had four generations of people around the breakfast table, we even had great, great grandparents down there. It was a really cool, formative experience for me as a kid. This summer was our 45th year in a row!
How has the area changed over that period?
These motels were so prevalent, at one point there were 600 of them across the five mile-long island. They seemed as immovable as the landscape and became the backdrop to my summers. During the week we spent there, we'd drive around and look at the neon signs and the crazy architecture the same way that some people look at Christmas decorations.
When did you realise you wanted to document them?
In the early 21st century they started getting demolished at an astonishing rate. When you realise that you've taken something granted for so long, change comes quickly and thoroughly. It was something I wanted to capture, in some shape or form, before they disappeared.
Mid-century motel architecture was often transplanted other places—such as Surfer's Paradise in Queensland for example. What sets Wildwood motels apart?
The density, it was block after block of these places. Each employed humble features to differentiate themselves from each other. There's a shot in the book of a motel called Surf Haven and the owner asked me, "do you see that blue on my motel? That's surf haven blue. It's bluer than any motel anywhere else on that island, I got that custom-made myself."
Architecturally, what elements drew you in?
One of the striking things was that many were flat-roofed and L-shaped, with balconies and doors that faced a central pool. They were on stilts so that you could drive straight up in a car, without a bellhop. The theming was so 1950s! They were named after popular songs and automobiles of the time. Space travel was huge—there was an Astronaut motel and the Friendship 7 motel, the name of John Lennon's space capsule.
What role did these buildings play in the lives of working-class families who couldn't afford to take more expensive holidays?
Will Morey, who invented the "shore kitsch" aesthetic, built the motels and owned some of the amusement piers on the boardwalk. He was such a showman and he realised that he was building destinations. The names of the motels were so nakedly aspirational—the Waikiki, the Aisle of Capri, the Monaco. These were places people who were staying there, my family included, could never afford to go but we could sure as heck spend a week on the Astroturf at the Caribbean.
From 2003 to 2005, more than 50 were demolished to make way for luxury apartments. Why aren't mid-century motels valued?
What's being built down there now is at the expense of what made the place unique. Now, developers purchase the motels, they take the neon sign off, remove the railing design, add a peaked shingled roof, put frosted glass on the front and sell each motel room as a small condominium. The building will be there, but it will be unrecognisable because the detail has been removed.
What can motel vacations offer in a culture drawn to niche holidays and Airbnb?
It has to do with your opinion of community. Everything about the architecture of these motels were designed to further the togetherness of the guests. The rooms faced out to the pool and the shuffleboard courts. You could walk down the street to see what was happening. There were steps, promenades and grand entrances to the pool or to the beach. Along with all that, these places advertised programs for families to come together. Now we have a desire for privacy, but there was nothing private about any of these places. If being part of a larger whole is important to you, then this kind of motel does exactly that.
I understand you had limited photography experience when you began this project?
When I started shooting these images in 2002, I didn't know how to take photographs. I hired a professional photographer to come with me but when I got the images back, they weren't what I was looking for. I grudgingly bought a 35mm camera from a little shop in Philadelphia and the first batches were terrible. I started in the summertime but the motels were obscured by cars and then thought I'd shoot in winter but all the plastic palm trees were down, the water drained from the pool, the lights off. They were non-places. After a couple of years of trial and error, I realised the only time I could shoot these motels was two weeks at the end of May and two weeks at the end of September, which is why it took me ten years.
What were your hopes for Out of Season?
There are thousand of books about ruin porn, but that path would have been too easy. And there are a lot of nostalgia-laced books too, but I didn't want that either. My shots are laid out from morning to night and I wanted it to feel like I was walking with a friend through the island. I wanted to create an ecstatic reality, a hyper-idealised version of these places, before the lights went off for good.
This article is presented by Weis