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
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).