Thursday, July 18, 2019

Q&A: Preserving the Wildwoods aims to "strengthen the fabric" of the island's past, present and future connections

Photo by Taylor Henry

Over the years, many efforts have been made to preserve the colorful and varied history of the Wildwoods.

Recently, a grassroots collective named Preserving the Wildwoods has made its presence known via social media with a unique, all-inclusive approach.

We had the opportunity to chat with three founding members of this new "movement" - Taylor Henry, Dennis Pierce and Jackson Betz - to get a better sense of what Preserving the Wildwoods is all about, as well as the group's goals, moving forward...

Photo by Jackson Betz

Wildwood 365: What exactly is Preserving the Wildwoods?

Taylor Henry: Preserving the Wildwoods is a group who love the Wildwoods’ unique history, architecture and character and want to ensure it remains for future generations. The Wildwoods have historically welcomed working-class and middle-class vacationers and we work to ensure our island stays inclusive, diverse and widely accessible. 

Our group is not part of a historical society or Partners in Preservation, although many of us work together and have similar values. We are locals, vacationers and residents who organized in response to a recent increase in demolitions of historic or characteristic buildings on our island. Hundreds of the Wildwoods’ Victorian, Craftsman and Midcentury buildings have been lost through redevelopment over the years, but hundreds more remain. Therefore, we succeeded in nominating the Wildwoods as one of the Top 10 Endangered Places in New Jersey for 2019, recognizing that much is left worth preserving.

It’s not all about buildings, though. The Wildwoods make up one of the tightest-knit island-communities around, and there is nowhere else we would rather be. We have a positive outlook on our community’s future because of its rich history and its dedicated citizens. Our buildings are simply a material foundation from our past and stability for our future. As author Bill Schmickle wrote in 2007, “Long-standing features of the built environment are touchstones of civic memory, reminding us that what we do lives on after us…’This is a place to invest our lives, to raise a family, to grow a business, to retire in security.’” Preserving the Wildwoods aims to strengthen the fabric that keeps us together, as people past, present and future.

Photo by Taylor Henry

WW 365: How did this group come about and who is involved?

Dennis Pierce: We’re inspired by looking around the rest of the country and seeing many other towns implement historic preservation and design guidelines. When you visit an area with a charming Main Street or thriving downtown, chances are there are some design guidelines or historic commission working to guide the future of the town. We’ve seen historic preservation work for so many other towns, the Wildwoods deserve the same approach to help ensure their future success without sacrificing their character.

TH: People involved include Taylor Henry, author of the 2018 book Wildwoods Houses Through Time and a lifelong Wildwood resident; Dennis Pierce, lifelong visitor to the Wildwoods who is currently restoring an old home and cottage in Wildwood (one of his earliest memories is begging his parents to take him to Castle Dracula and then screaming and crying in fear after they dimmed the lights and shut the doors); Jackson Betz, who studied Wildwoods architecture and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019.

DP: And Karen Peterson, New Jersey transplant and Wildwoods vacationer for over 20 years.

TH: Lots of other people are involved, too. Many of us met one another through research projects at the Wildwood Historical Society.

Photo by Jackson Betz

WW 365: Can the public join and get involved?

TH: Anyone who loves Wildwoods history or who lives in the Wildwoods is welcome to get involved. 

DP: With each teardown of an iconic Wildwood business or building, you’ll see comments on social media saying “No more condos” and “They’re ruining what made the Wildwoods great” and sometimes “Well, what can you do?” The public can do a lot if we join together and voice our concerns. The more we email and call our leaders, the more we show up to community meetings, the more change we all can have a voice in. 

Go to to join up with our cause.

TH: As we get into the later stages of forming a nonprofit or advocacy organization, there will be more opportunities for direct involvement. All updates and opportunities will be published on our Facebook page. 

Photo by Taylor Henry

WW 365: Is there a specific type of architecture or buildings from a certain era that you are focused on? Or is this an overall effort?

TH: Architects have studied our buildings and determined many are original buildings that go back to the 1800s and 1900s. We have an incredible collection of Victorian houses and hotels (including Gothic, Queen Anne and Vernacular styles) because those were the most popular styles during the early years of the Wildwoods. But we also have a surprising number of Craftsman buildings, which are 1910s-1930s buildings characterized by their natural materials and quality handiwork. Our colorful Midcentury Doo-Wop motels and buildings are perhaps our most famous, and demolitions of many gained nationwide criticism in the last two decades.

Photo by Jackson Betz

WW 365: What are the group's immediate and long term goals?

DP: The immediate goal for the group is to work with local leaders and citizens to help with changes occurring in the Wildwoods. We want the conversation to change from tearing down buildings to “What we can do to repair and re-use a building?”

Long term, our goal is to institute historic commissions, but with a much more open approach than was attempted a few years ago. The previous historic commissions fell through because they were so rigid, which left development in the Wildwoods up to chance and the whims of outsiders. Our goal is to work with citizens and business owners to adopt realistic preservation guidelines that enhance property values and bring in more tourists.

The first question about a historic commission usually is if owners can or can’t change the exterior of their homes. We aren’t looking to emulate the Cape May approach where historic accuracy is strictly enforced. The Wildwoods history has always been about being bold, fun, and “tacky,” so we would encourage owners to express themselves with their properties. Rather than follow Cape May, a good example is found with San Francisco’s Victorian painted ladies. The bright and loud colors found on San Francisco’s famous Victorian homes aren’t actually historically accurate, but instead came out of the 1960s psychedelic and hippie culture. The two eras blended together to create something unique to the city. So if you have an old building, our concern is not how you decorate, it’s that the building is not demolished. 

If you are doing new construction, then we'd like to see zoning variances decreased so you can’t take down single family homes and replace with multiple condos. Also with new construction, we would like design guidelines to make sure new buildings fit the character of the Wildwoods. It’s important that new construction respects the history of the Wildwoods rather than being something dropped in from Anytown, USA.

TH: The Wildwoods’ character and nostalgia is a major draw for visitors. Parents bring their children because of what they remember from their own childhood. Preserving those memories is about something bigger than having photos of them in an album, it’s about being able to make new memories in the same settings. It’s actually very good for business, as Cape May proves.

Jackson Betz: When many of Cape May’s historic properties were added to the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1960s, the town’s architecture became a central selling point of its tourism industry. In the first decade of the 21st century, the Wildwoods seemed to be heading in the same direction, heavily marketing its collection of 1950s Doo Wop motels, constructing new buildings in the same style, and having 50s-themed events. However, since then, diminishing public interest in the Wildwoods’ Doo Wop architecture (as well as the demolition of many of the original buildings) have weakened the effectiveness of architecture as a selling point. A revival of this architecture-centric promotion, perhaps expanded to include more of Wildwood’s architecture from different eras, could give the town a more cohesive theme and inspire plenty of tourist interest.

Photo by Taylor Henry

WW 365: How has Preserving the Wildwoods been received thus far? Any feedback from fellow preservationists, business owners, island leaders, etc?

TH: We are very excited about the reception of Preserving the Wildwoods. Many citizens have expressed their desire to get involved through our Facebook page, and many even showed up to my (Taylor’s) book presentation at the Wildwood Crest Library last month asking how they can help. The nonprofit Preservation NJ has applauded our social media presence and teamwork. Wildwood Mayor Ernie Troiano told the Herald newspaper that it’s important to preserve buildings that can be preserved and North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello told the Herald that he has seen many families restoring the town’s beautiful old homes. We plan to work with the county freeholders and Wildwood commissioners to revive the historic and characteristic buildings of Pacific Avenue.

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