This photo is Wildwood, B.C. (before children). The image depicts (L-R) Aunt Liz, Uncle Ed and my mom on the porch of the cottage Uncle Ed and cousin Eddie built in the 1940s. Mom looks like a newlywed, so I’m assuming it’s from 1953-54. Dad probably took the photo. The cottage was located on what is now Shawcrest and Lavender roads, southwest of the Rio Grande drawbridge. Too bad about the unfortunate broom placement; Uncle Ed looks like a British punk rocker.
BY MARK C. PEYKO | Metro Monthly Editor
For two weeks every summer, my family made the journey from northeastern Ohio to the Jersey Shore. Our family vacation was something my brothers and sister anticipated – even expected – each year. My dad managed this annual feat on a teacher’s salary and without complaint or much variance in routine. When young, you don’t truly appreciate the sacrifices that are necessary to pull off such a hat trick, but time and the economics of adulthood have made me further appreciate my father’s discipline and generosity.
My Uncle Ed – actually a great uncle – and cousin Eddie built the cottage in Wildwood, N.J. where my family stayed every summer for almost three decades. Constructed some time in the 1940s, the cottage was located near the inlet area off Rio Grande Avenue. Vacation homes of similar scale and vintage lined the street and raw beach grass filled scattered lots. The cottage faced east, so we could see the fishing boats returning to dock at day’s end and the distant glow of the boardwalk at night.
The cottage was a two-story frame building set back on a sandy lot. A low, open porch ran the width of the cottage and wrapped around the side and part of the back. Since it was a summer building, the cottage had no central heating system, nor did it need one. Dormers on the east and west sides of the building ventilated the entire second floor and brought the cool, ocean air into the sleeping areas. A low-rise, U-shaped enclosure for the central staircase afforded everyone a measure of privacy.
The first floor consisted of a large living room, kitchen and small bathroom. The cottage was a mix of old furniture: Art Deco lamps, mission oak dressers, and even a few console radios from the 1930s. The kitchen had blue, yellow, and gray sheet linoleum in a sort-of Mondrian pattern. Although it seemed equal parts museum and storage shed, the cottage was a fascinating, multi-decade time capsule.
The bathroom was tiny, the hot water tank smaller yet. After a day at the beach, you’d want to be first or second in the shower, but colder water sometimes was just the thing for sunburned skin. After our first day at the beach – and every day afterward – the bathroom floor was gritty with sand.
Uncle Ed lived in Gloucester Heights (outside Camden), worked at RCA, and could fix anything mechanical. He and my great aunt visited at least once while we were at the cottage and stayed the entire day. They always joined us for dinner, but left before dark. Aunt Liz always brought along exotic treats we never had at home, things like Ritz crackers, boxes of Hostess doughnuts, or regional snacks not found in Ohio.
I think my mom really enjoyed seeing her aunt, because she and Aunt Liz never seemed to leave the kitchen table during the visit. My dad genuinely liked them, too. Uncle Ed and Aunt Liz were good-natured and fun to be around. My dad paid them for use of the cottage, even though they never asked for anything.
The cottage was pretty far from the boardwalk and motel district, so my family’s vacation experience may have been different than most on the island. The usual drill was breakfast, beach all day, then pick up some fish or steaks and jelly doughnuts from the Marine Italian Bakery.
There was a distinct compartmentalization of activity due to our distance from the beach and entertainment districts. When we went to the beach, we stayed. (A rainy day usually meant a trip to Cape May to look at the ruin of the U.S.S. Atlantus in the deep water off Sunset Beach.) There were shopping trips, of course, but the late afternoon meant relaxing at the cottage, reading the Philadelphia Inquirer and waiting for dinner. There’s a peculiar hunger you have after being on the beach all day, so we were always ravenous.
Family vacations meant a temporary reversal of parental roles and I think it was truly a nice respite for my mother. She was freed from the daily grind of feeding and caring for her family and my dad did all the cooking. Consequently, everything tasted different – the steaks, the home fries, even the way my dad chopped the ingredients for the salad.
Other things were different, too. We didn’t have television for two weeks and busied ourselves with making our own fun while waiting for dinner. As children, we would run upstairs when a boat’s horn signaled the Rio Grande drawbridge to open. We’d stand on the edge of the bed and look out a northern window to watch the vessel pass. From the upstairs, we could see fishing and tour boats from two directions. It never seemed to get old.
After dinner, we’d feed our table scraps to the sea gulls then relax before getting ready for the boardwalk. When we returned for the night, it was common for us to eat Italian hoagies and large bowls of ice cream after 11 p.m. The hours of walking the boardwalk made it all balance out, I guess.
I want to thank dad for giving my mom and all his children this experience.
Happy Father’s Day!
© 2010, The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.
By Mark C. Peyko
I know very little about the Doris Vernon. She could be a silent film star, a character in a Stephen King novel or someone who lost it all in The Crash. But no, this fallen woman is actually a turn-of-the-century hotel in Wildwood, N.J.
Not one of those Sputnik-with-tiki-torch motels from the 1950s. Much earlier. Before air conditioners puffed and struggled throughout summer. Before muscle cars, rock ‘n’ roll, and exposed belly buttons on the beach.
The Doris Vernon dates from a time when people took the train from Philadelphia to the Jersey Shore. The railroads are long gone, but Doris Vernon now sits on the wrong side of the tracks.
It stands forlorn and empty after a Jan. 4 fire ripped through building. Details were sketchy, but the Cape May Herald said the building was vacant and no one was injured. But smoke-darkened windows may foreshadow the building’s future. It sits in a cluster of condominiums built in the past decade.
Trip Advisor and other peer-to-peer vacation guides list the Doris Vernon, but no one has fessed up. Not yet. But there are plenty of opinions among the locals. Some say they feel uncomfortable passing by on foot. Others call into question a person’s moral character for showing interest in the hotel.
O.K., I like the Doris Vernon. It’s a restrained Colonial Revival building, clad in diamond-pattern asbestos shingles. Like a lot of post-Victorian architecture, the Doris Vernon is stripped down, perhaps hinting at the modern age ahead. There’s a pleasant simplicity to structures of this type that made it appropriate – even desirable – for larger resort buildings of the time.
The Doris Vernon has nice bay windows, good proportions (not counting those bulky, oversized columns) and an interesting rhythm to its window placement. Because it predates air conditioning, the hotel is oriented to capture the morning sun and ocean breezes.
Buildings like the Doris Vernon are part of the resort’s past. I remember street after street filled with this stuff – farther away from the shore’s most-desirable areas but that’s probably why they survived.
If you squint your eyes when you look at the hotel, its overall shape is a lot like a contemporary condominium building. And I suspect many condos of the past decade were referencing buildings much like the Doris Vernon.
If I were imagining a Seaside, Fla.-style community in Wildwood, it would definitely have some buildings that looked like the Doris Vernon. To me, it says Wildwood as much as motels of the 1950s.
By Mark C. Peyko
Why are music and food memories so potent? Recollections of both will stir up things that conjure almost complete environments. The weather, the time of year, what other people were wearing. Although the memory may be just a flicker, food and music can transport you back to a time and place.
Look at those people on the Doo-Wop specials on PBS. You can see it in their faces – they’re transported back to their teen-age years. No other information is necessary.
I still remember where I was the first time I heard Prince’s “When Doves Cry” or the hordes of teen-age girls on the boardwalk emulating Madonna’s look when she broke with “Borderline.”
With food, the memories are sometimes attached to special occasions or special environments. I have very potent memories of the jelly doughnuts my dad would get at the Marine Bakery in Wildwood after a day at the beach. The doughnuts were the genuine article. Light and airy and obviously homemade. Raspberry was a favorite of mine. (The filling wasn’t that overly sweet, gelatinous red crap that everyone seems to use nowadays.) That memory is probably 40 years old, but it spurs recollections of many other things: How clean the bakery was, the color of the floor tile, the side screen door that ventilated the shop.
I think most of my food memories are attached to special experiences and people, and, sometimes, mishaps. French toast reminds me of going home for lunch in grade school. Mom, the crunchy egg-dipped white bread, and lots of Mrs. Butterworth’s. Whenever I see a tomato-based vegetable soup, it reminds me of when I dropped my Thermos on the way to school. I still can hear how the broken glass sounded swishing around the canister. Glass and cubed vegetables.
Whenever Aretha Franklin is asked about favorite memories, she invariably mentions food. In one newspaper article, she recalled the turkey dinners at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Detroit. I guess food is a universal comfort – along with music.
By Mark C. Peyko
My Aunt Irma recently showed me a multi-decade datebook that she had kept from 1957 until a few years ago. The book listed significant events (birthdays, weddings, graduations, etc.) and the dates and years they occurred. To my surprise, she also listed most of my family’s vacations to Wildwood from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s. I’m inclined to think it’s an incomplete record, because I remember going every year except in 1972 when my parents were building their new house. But I could be wrong.
Our family trips to Wildwood (from my aunt’s datebook) appear below. My notations/additions appear in brackets.
1964: June 13 (in Wildwood) [mom, dad, older brother and me].
1965: June 5 (in Wildwood) [mom, dad, older brother, baby brother! and me].
1966: June 9-16 (in Wildwood) [mom, dad, older brother, younger brother and me].
1967: Aug. 15 (P.M. to Wildwood) [We left late and dad drove all night. Crew: mom, dad, older brother, younger brother, new baby sister! and me.].
1968: July 28 (to Wildwood) [same as 1967: the nuclear six].
1973: June 12 (to Wildwood) [same as 1967: the nuclear six].
1974: July 16 (to Maryland, later to Wildwood) [same as 1967: the nuclear six].
1975: July 10 to Maryland, later to Wildwood. [same as 1967: the nuclear six].
1978: July 31 (to Wildwood) [Sketchy details here. The kids are getting older and would now begin driving separately or missing a year now and then. My older brother didn’t go with us in 1978.].
1983: Aug. 31 (to Wildwood).
1986: June 29 [to Wildwood for 2 weeks].
1990: Ella and Biff [mom and dad] to Wildwood on Sept. 17.
1991: Sept. 2-9 Wildwood [The last trip with my nuclear family. Mom died later that year.].
[2007: Labor Day weekend. I went for the first time since mom died. Other family members had gone to Wildwood in the ensuing years, introducing spouses, children and in-laws to the Jersey Shore. Cool.]
By Mark C. Peyko
I’m a lifelong visitor to the Wildwoods. I was born in 1961 and first came to the Jersey Shore in diapers. There are four kids in my family, plus mom and dad.
I have an interest in architecture (in part due to the Wildwoods) and a master’s degree in historic preservation planning from Eastern Michigan University. My architectural interests range from classical, industrial and Arts and Crafts to regional folk, Mid-Century Modern and beyond.
I hadn’t been to Wildwood since 1991. I knew about the motel demolitions, but hadn’t seen what was lost first-hand. I visited on Labor Day in 2007 and stayed for about four days. At first, I saw many of the familiar motels. But as we drove and walked around, I began noticing what was lost. And it was more than just 50s and 60s motels. Some of the older hotels, rooming houses and apartments were gone, too. The streets west of the boardwalk used to have a soft glow from porch lights and the illuminated swimming pools. Some of the blocks were now entirely dark because they had unoccupied or vacant condos.
The mortgage crisis will probably slow down the demolitions, but plans for super hotels – the 25ers – make me wonder about the direction the city is pursuing. Does Wildwood want an upper-tier hotel district? Is the next logical step a casino or two? And what will this glut of unsold condos mean for the motel district? Personally, I doubt the condos will hold their value. Will some become rentals during this tough patch in real estate? The irony might be a future condo ghetto: beat up and lacking anything redeeming other than their proximity to the beach.
During my visit, I saw the marketing message in print and TV ads for Wildwood real estate. This isn’t a criticism as much as it is an observation, but the values expressed in the ads (gated community, etc.) seem to work against commerce on the boardwalk or mixing with everyday people on the beach. The marketing message, of course, indicated who the Realtors intend to attract. It also indicates the values of the target market and the aspirations of the buyer. Exclusion and filtration seemed to be the most consistent message. It was in print ads and on cable TV. It made me wonder how the owners of mid-century motels could effectively counter that message and lure customers.
My 2007 trip to Wildwood rekindled my interest in Wildwood (and, now, its issues).