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Doris Vernon, wind up the Victrola

The Doris Vernon Hotel

The Doris Vernon Hotel in Wildwood, N.J. Electronic image courtesy of Al Alven.

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.