Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The photographer Mark Havens spent a decade photographing mid-century architecture along the New Jersey coast.
Driving along the Garden State Parkway a few years ago, Mark Havens raced to pull ahead of vans or trucks with ladders on them—anything that could convey a construction crew. He’d push to beat them to Wildwood, a barrier island on the coast of New Jersey. “I was convinced they were going down there to demolish a motel,” he says.
He realized that the hamlet’s mid-century motels could disappear without much notice, giving way to a rubble-strewn lot or retooled as unrecognizable condos, clad in vinyl siding and a shingled roof. So Havens spent a decade crafting a photographic eulogy for the beach town’s mid-century structures—often, two squat floors arranged in an L-shape and hiked up on stilts. More than 100 of those images have been compiled into a book, Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods (Booth-Clibborn, $55).
The project spun out of an impulse to preserve a spot, Havens says, that “had been the backdrop of my summer for so long.” Havens was 11 months old when he first went to the shore; four generations of his family would gather for a week each summer. “It was the definition of summer to me,” he says. His family cruised around to take in the motels’ neon signs, he says, “the way other families drove around to look at Christmas lights.”
Havens’s fervor to document the sites drummed louder as the paced of demolition quickened. First, he enlisted a photographer to come shoot what he pointed at; eventually, he became a photographer himself, realizing his vision with a succession of 13,000 frames.
The book strolls along in chronological order, Havens says, in an effort to recreate the experience of walking along the town’s thoroughfare “on a day in the off-season.” The book opens with day breaking across a plastic lollipop, and etching the shadows of slatted lawn chairs onto a building’s squat walls. By midday, the light razors across tidy hedges; it’s deflected by shutters winked shut and curtains pulled closed. Some signs are short a letter, or their wiring’s exposed.
The hotels look like time capsules. But the buildings’ immaculate preservation, Havens says, is “not necessarily out of some inherent sense of nostalgia, but because a new coat of paint was all that could be afforded.” The beach town’s tourism season spans June, July, and August; come fall, the tide of visitors washed out until the following year. When they prepared to close, motel owners would hold sales to offload their décor; other owners would come by to replenish their fleet of beach chairs or stock up on extra mattresses.
To highlight the architectural elements, Havens waited until foot traffic dwindled. He photographed the buildings at the beginning or end of the season, when artificial palm trees still bent over the decks, and the pools were still full of water.
Capturing the buildings at rest could be a slippery proposition. Once, at the close of the season, Havens photographed the Satellite Motel. He’d saved some rolls of film for the end of the day, so he could document the neon sign after dark. “I popped off maybe a couple of frames of film, and poof! Off goes the sign,” he says. He stood there with his mouth hanging open, he says, “looking around like it was a practical joke.” Many motels put their signs on timers during seasons with high vacancies; there weren’t many passersby to welcome. Havens scanned the street. There were no cars or lit windows as far as he could see. The shoot was over. The sign never buzzed to life again, he says—the motel was demolished the following week.
Out of Season: The Vanishing Architecture of the Wildwoods, $55 at Amazon.