By George Thomas
a team of Penn architecture students learn enough from the quintessential
Jersey Shore-town's pop-culture past to guarantee its future?
On a late-summer night, the red disc of a giant
Ferris wheel floats like a harvest moon over the marshes, inlets, and
cottages that form the three contiguous towns known as the Wildwoods.
From its top, 20 stories in the air, a rider can see the glittering casinos
of Atlantic City to the north and Cape May's brightly-colored Victorian
cottages to the south.
Forty years ago, the Wildwoods were the South Jersey
mecca for blue-collar workers who had enough extra dollars from the Philadelphia
industrial economy to vacation at the New Jersey shore. The opening of
the Garden State Parkway, the ever-more casual American society, and the
automobile itself led to the motel revolution that is the enduring artifact
of present-day Wildwood.
Arriving at pop architecture before pop culture was
recognized, Wildwood's motels captured the anti-historicism of the modern
age. With American Bandstand broadcast from the Arena on Market Street
and Grace Kelly, the movie actress from East Falls, marrying a crown prince,
Philadelphia was a center of pop culture. Wildwood's motels capitalized
on these images -- the Monaco, festooned with purple trim and a gold crown;
the Three Coins (from the song "Three Coins in the Fountain");
even The Packard, since in such an intensely commercial environment, trade
names could sell. In 1957, cultural historian J. B. Jackson adapted sociologist
David Riesman's terminology of self-definition to architecture, proclaiming
in his essay "Other Directed Houses" that a modern vacation
style had arrived. So successful was Wildwood that, by the 1960s, Cape
May leaders wanted to demolish their Victorian buildings to become Wildwood-south.
Yet as the twentieth century ends, Cape May's restored Victorian bed-and-breakfasts
enjoy a 10-month season, while the teen/youth-oriented, summer-vacation
focus of Wildwood limits its season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with
a modest spillover to Columbus Day. Wildwood's promoters have compared
their community to that of their neighbors and found that it lacks not
only the year-round lure of gambling offered by nearby Atlantic City but
also the gentle Victorian charm of Cape May that so appeals to middle-aged
Boomers and empty-nesters.
Wildwood faced other problems as well. High culture
has a half-life (to borrow a term from nuclear physics) measured in centuries;
we still recognize Greek temples and medieval knights. Ever-changing pop
culture, on the other hand, has a half-life measured in decades. By the
1990s, much of Wildwood's 1950s "Doowop" imagery was meaningless
to the public, while the carnival atmosphere frightened off many customers.
The resort's leaders had to ask themselves a painful question: Should
the Wildwoods be reinvented?
To inform their perspective and separate the pearls
from the oyster shells, the Morey Organization -- operator of amusement
piers and developer of Sea Pointe at the south end of the island -- turned
to a Penn architecture studio led by Steven Izenour of Venturi, Scott
Brown and Associates. Back in 1968, Izenour was a participant in the Yale
studio led by Robert Venturi, Hon'80, and Denise Scott Brown, GCP'60,
GAr'65, Hon'94, whose focus on "form analysis as design research"
led to the landmark book Learning From Las Vegas. That studio evolved
from research processes that had been pioneered by the sociologists in
Penn's architecture program -- who argued that we can learn from what
we don't like as well as from what we do like.
It was the "Learning From " methodology
of Denise Scott Brown that became the basis for "Learning From the
Wildwoods: A Research Studio," which was taught at Penn in the fall
before moving on to Yale for the spring. Of the nine Penn students chosen
to work on the project, two were from mainland China, one was from Taiwan
and one from Nepal. The Wildwoods was only the second American city (Philadelphia
being the first) that most of them had seen. The question -- and the challenge
-- was: Could they learn from the Wildwoods?
Like its predecessors, the Wildwood Studio linked design-analysis
and formal research with generous dollops of history, economics, sociology
-- and reality. The Morey family funded the necessary field trips (including
a day-long expedition to the amusement piers), the requisite outside faculty
and lectures, and the means to graphically present the studio findings.
The studio began early last September with field trips to the resort,
whose summer crowds had already disappeared. In October the participants
returned to Wildwood for the Society for Commercial Archaeology conference.
Fortunately, the "hot cars" and fire trucks of a firemen's convention
gave the resort a visual burst of Indian Summer color that belied its
end-of- season quiet. At the conference there were talks by West Coast
critics such as Alan Hess, architectural writer for the San Jose Mercury
News and author of Viva Las Vegas; Tom Hine, author of Populuxe;
and restorers and designers of neon signs who introduced their special
crafts. Local business operators presented the economic and planning issues
confronting the community. After eight weeks of analysis, the talking
stopped and the designing began.
On the morning of December 12th, the Dean's Alley gallery
in Meyerson Hall shrieked with computer-generated graphics in Wildwood-esque
neon reds and blues. A jury of Wildwood businessmen, architects, and seashore
historians listened and commented for seven hours as students presented
their analysis of the problems -- which ranged from flimsy buildings that
made it difficult to lengthen the season to beaches whose wide expanses
of sand form a barrier to ocean-goers.
Working from the premise that problems could be opportunities,
students suggested design solutions. Kate Roe introduced natural planting
and ramps and boardwalks to enliven the deep beaches; Kristin Rosebrough
showed some means by which street ends and the edge of the boardwalk could
be better defined (and raised the larger question of Wildwood's urban
form); Andy Pasonick designed mobile beach furniture that could enhance
the beach-scape, including such necessities as public toilets and lifeguard
stands; Ke Feng demonstrated that parking could be turned into part of
the show by adding an amusement deck; Yao-Chang (Dave) Huang demonstrated
ways in which the island's existing color scheme could be made obvious,
thereby orienting visitors; Angie Geist and Guy Munsch showed how contemporary
management and graphics could ameliorate problems of scale in the increasingly
dated but engaging motels, while at the same time translating the fifties
for the nineties; Karsang Sherpa proved that even the storm-water outlet
pipes could be turned into beautiful platforms. The pièce de résistance
was Xiaozhe (Larry) Lin's presentation of the linkage of two summer-oriented
motels into a single multi-season resort.
A month later, in the eerie January quiet of a closed
resort, the entire team of students and many of the faculty gathered at
the "Doowop" Preservation League to present their findings to
the larger Wildwood community. A vast crowd filled every seat and spilled
over onto the diner chairs and stools preserved from 1950s eateries. Under
the weird glow of preserved Doowop-era neon, the faculty and students
presented their findings and conclusions to the community and the press.
Now, with Labor Day a memory and the long off-season
ahead, it remains to be seen whether those Penn students will have helped
the Wildwoods find a way to reinvent themselves for the next century by
rediscovering -- and improving on -- their uniquely American past.
Dr. George E. Thomas, Gr'75, a lecturer in historic preservation
and urban studies at Penn, is the head of George E. Thomas Associates,
a Philadelphia architectural-preservation firm.
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