NORTH WILDWOOD, N.J. — Guests are coming in hot at the Jade East Motel’s lobby, hours before the official check-in time, hoping their room is ready on this Friday morning. Workers in green shirts are moving up and down the stairs, toward the rooms like honeybees, in with cleaning supplies and out with bundles of bedsheets in both arms.
“There’s some kind of yellow sunblock on this one,” Liz Short says.
Then Short, 41, tosses the bedsheet on top of Benjamin Franklin, the motel’s resident Yorkie, who barely notices while relaxing on the couch in the lobby. Upstairs, on the second floor, Short’s mother, Jane Lawrence, is checking on the motel’s choice corner unit, replete with windows and ocean views and home to a spider plant that’s been alive for as long as the family’s been in business in the Wildwoods: over 40 years.
“When we bought this place, there was nothing else here,” Jane, 74, says. “We had ocean views from almost everywhere you looked.”
Suddenly, a tall man appears on the balcony of a neighboring, modern home, across from the Jade East’s pool. He’s in green like everyone else and yelling at Steve Lawrence, who is very tall, too, and also wearing green.
“Dad. Dad!" Matthew Lawrence shouts, pointing to the lobby. “Someone’s in the office. Dad!"
This small slice of East Fourth Avenue by the ocean is loaded with Lawrences, from this hotel Steve and Jane bought in 1979, the sleek, boxy home their son Mark, an architect, designed next door in 2013, and the condo Liz and her husband are buying near the rear of the motel later this summer. At any moment, one of the Lawrences’ eight grandchildren could be en route, or scrubbing a toilet, or still asleep in one of nearly two dozen beds available.
“Let me see, there’s one-two-three-four-five, five of them here right now and two are on the way,” Jane says, counting on her fingers.
Even the dirt lot that stretches to Fifth Avenue, a space long desired by real estate developers and motorists desperate for beach parking, holds a special place in the family’s heart.
“Honestly, I wish I could be buried there when I die,” Jane says.
The Jade East is an unassuming motel as Wildwood standards go. Just 19 rooms. It has a neon sign out front, like many others, though its larger neon sign on the roof was destroyed by a storm. Its style, like most of the Wildwoods, could be categorized as “Doo Wop," an homage to post-World War II America’s love of rock-and-roll, muscle cars, and angles that went on forever. According to the island’s Doo Wop Preservation League, the Wildwoods are home to the nation’s largest collection of mid-20th-century resort architecture in the country.
Two motels, the Caribbean and the Chateau Bleu, were added to the National Register of Historic Places. Others are gone, like the sprawling Thunderbird Inn and the Swan, many of their neon facades maintained in the preservation league’s museum.
But there’s a surprising number of sub-genres to Doo Wop, also know as “Googie” style. They include Vroom, Modern, Phony Colonee, Just Plain Wacky, Polynesian and Tiki and Chinatown Revival, which the Jade East falls under. Though the Jade East lost some of its distinctly Asian look over the years — the Japanese garden was replaced by a pool — it’s still there, in operation, and that says a lot.
“When we bought the place, it had two big Buddhas sitting out front,” Jane says, “but they got stolen.”
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw real estate prices climb at the Jersey Shore and many owners of iconic Doo Wop hotels sold to developers, some were bulldozed for townhouses and duplexes, others merely converted to condominiums, saving the bones of their early life, but not the spirit.
“My parents owned the Sand Dollar at Ninth and Surf. Now it’s condos and it breaks my heart,” says Tracey DuFault, executive director of the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce. “They took down the whole hotel, and I spent my teenage life there.”
Jane and Steve, retired high school teachers from Bowie, Md., spent their teenage life in the Wildwoods too, first coming in 1964. Five years later, they returned, looking for property and bought a boarding house on East Maple Avenue, the preferred method of overnights at the Shore before motels came along. After they bought the Jade East, the Lawrences had to deflect their own fair share of investors over the decades.
“Well, they loved us because we also had a vacant lot. They said, ‘We’ll do this and we’ll do that,’ and all I ever thought was ‘No, because the Jade East would be gone,’ ” she says.
Liz will be taking over Jade East someday, but on this Friday morning, she’s in running shoes and slightly sweaty, and not because she’s been running. She’s barely got time to talk but says cleaning a motel can be about as bad as you can imagine.
“Uh, yeah,” she says.
Liz says she can turn a room around in less than 15 minutes.
“If I cleaned it before, that is,” she adds. “Otherwise, it takes a little longer.”
In the 1980s, another motel was built next to the Jade East, blocking much of the ocean view. When it was abandoned and later put up for sale, the Lawrences bought the lot and son Mark, an architect in Washington, went to work designing a house that would let the ocean and light in, somehow looking sleek and modern, while still very much Wildwood.
The kitchen is colored in ample jade green, in honor of the hotel. Guests, occasionally, pop by, and Steve and Jane may retire there soon and they’ll pop into the motel from time to time, or just look out the window..
“This morning, someone came over with leftover popsicles before she left, because there’s always kids running around,” said Matthew, 47, a surgeon.
And as quickly as they left, new guests arrive, as well as younger Lawrences, back and forth like the tides, and the “No" on the “No Vacancy” sign rarely turns off.
“Hello, Jade East,” Jane says, answering the phone clipped to her hip.
“No, no, we’re all booked until at least next weekend, I’m sorry.”