Heritage Tourism Down the Shore

June 7, 2021
By Taylor Henry

Heritage tourism is “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It includes cultural, historic and natural resources.” Essentially, heritage tourism allows travellers to make memories in unique places, and to reap the reward of really experiencing those places.

Heritage tourism is more than just a history exhibit. It is an immersive experience made possible by preservation efforts to save tourist locations from destruction by redevelopment. Some towns along the Jersey Shore didn’t protect their unique places from shortsighted development, and as a result, are no longer characteristic destinations.

Resort towns are always trying to draw younger crowds. Do they realize young people seek out interesting places while traveling? “When sightseeing, three-in-four (71 percent) millennials enjoy exploring the history of an area,” the National Trust recently found. The very things many towns think need to be demolished are the same things they should be embracing.

Read on to find out how South Jersey Shore towns’ unique approaches to preservation are resulting in the power of heritage tourism.

A Victorian House in Cape May

Cape May, the oldest resort town in the US, is the crown jewel of Jersey Shore heritage tourism. Most of its houses, hotels and rooming houses were built in the mid-1800s in gingerbread-clad Victorian styles. A century later, those buildings were run-down, falling apart and downright spooky. When an 1879 Stick-Style mansion designed by Frank Furness was threatened by demolition in 1970, a group called Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) formed to save it. This catalyzed MAC to start historic districts and design guidelines, marketing the newly-restored buildings for their style and history. Their efforts spurred a renaissance of appreciation for all things Victorian and made Cape May a year-round destination. In fact, Halloween and Victorian Weekends are some of the busiest times of year in Cape May because of how haunted the town is!

A Historic Building in Ocean City

Ocean City was founded as a Methodist Meeting Camp in 1879. In the heart of OCNJ is a vibrant downtown, an iconic boardwalk, and a residential historic district. Most of the 32 houses in the district were built in the 1880s under the guidance of the Methodists’ development company. Redevelopment took its toll in the 1980s, with demolitions of old buildings and construction of new duplexes. But the city acted quickly by adding a historic preservation element to its master plan in 1988, and the historic district was born. Thousands of people celebrate OCNJ’s architecture to this day, as evident in the Instagram page “Classic OCNJ.” On the retail side of OCNJ are a downtown district with its own Main Street Program — Asbury Avenue — and a boardwalk lined with small businesses and enchanting amusements. It is worth emphasizing that, as OCNJ demonstrates, a boardwalk and a downtown can coexist and generate revenue!

Historic Buildings in Atlantic City

Atlantic City has noteworthy records: the first boardwalk built in the US (1870), the place where salt water taffy was invented (1883), home of the original Miss America pageant (1921), location of the world’s largest pipe organ (Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ, completed 1932), and site of the first legal casino outside of Nevada (Resorts Casino, 1978). There are eight spots in AC on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places plus 24 more that are eligible, all of which attract tourists. But it wasn’t until 2019 that the city got a historic preservation commission after potential historic districts were identified. “Atlantic City’s newly created Historic Preservation Commission positions the City to benefit from the positive economic impacts, including job creation, tax revenue generation, and increase in property values, associated with historic preservation,” Mayor Frank Gilliam stated.

Historic Homes in The Wildwoods

The Wildwoods are renowned for the largest boardwalk in the state as well as for Doo Wop: the Populuxe commercial architecture and the music genre of the era. Hundreds of motels with elaborate neon and kitschy themed facades brought the Wildwoods into the national architectural spotlight in the 1980s-1990s. But soon after, the real estate boom of the 2000s coincided with the retirement of the motel’s first-generation owners, many of whom cashed out. Over 100 motels, plus hundreds more homes, businesses, and rooming houses, were demolished faster than local preservationists could save them. Although today bright colors and vintage styling are incorporated into the towns’ branding efforts, there are no active historic preservation commissioners in the Wildwoods, and historic buildings continue to be demolished. In 2019, a new organization, Preserving the Wildwoods, was established to educate the towns about their valuable places and to fight for protective legislation.

Most Jersey Shore communities have their own identities. But the ones who are proud of their culture — the ones who actively preserve their history — are the ones who become destinations. So…what is your town about?

Taylor Henry is a lifelong resident of Wildwood, NJ, with a background in journalism. She earned an MA in Writing from Rowan University in 2021. Taylor is president of the Wildwood Historical Society, cofounder of Preserving the Wildwoods, and the author of the 2018 book Wildwoods Houses Through Time.