lap of luxury

One of the detriments to overnight travel, to me, is today’s breed of hotel. Most look alike, inside and out. Most have an antiseptic smell. Fresh pillowcases that clasp pillows that resemble Chiclets notwithstanding, who laid his greasy head here last night? And then there’s that bedbug thing. During the night you hear all manner of noises and come morning, you can make your own waffles or dine on biscuits worthy of the National Hockey League’s logo. Staff act as if they’d rather be anywhere but there and desk clerks deign to speak to you.

Stay in one of today’s indistinguishable chain hotels and you can pretty much say you’ve stayed in them all. I’m always glad to check out and hit the road.

Still there are hotels I’ve enjoyed immensely such as the Francis Marion in Charleston. It gives me the feeling I’ve returned to the era when people appreciated formality and refinement. Then too I like Charleston’s Vendue. The Sheraton in downtown Columbia is a gem. There are hotels with a classic past I wish to stay in some day. The Georgian Terrace Hotel in Atlanta with its Moorish Revival, Beaux-Arts, Renaissance Revival architecture comes to mind. It evokes earlier times when people weren’t so casual and cheap. The Grove Park Inn, too, what a fine place with its scenic views and granite construction and enormous fireplaces. Some fine hotels, however, are gone with the wind and alas no one will see the likes of them again. And that brings me to one oh so fine hotel that fell victim to its own success.

My family vacationed one summer in Myrtle Beach, the crown jewel of what’s called the Grand Strand, when I was a boy, aged nine or so, as best I remember. Perhaps we drove by it but I would not hear of the place for fifty years, a lifetime. In 2008 I came across a reference to this grand hotel while writing Save The Last Dance For Me. Author Bo Bryan quoted an old lawman’s play on words when he described the Pad, a legendary mid-1950s beach club. In OD, as they called Ocean Drive Beach (one of four tiny beach towns that later merged to form North Myrtle Beach), folks partied the night away at the Pad. “At times,” wrote Bryan, “the crowds were so thick, the dancers only had room to hold hands and shuffle. The empty beer cans piled up like drifting snow, knee-deep in the corners.”

OD’s police chief, Merlin Bellamy, “The Wizard,” arrested more kids on the Pad’s sidewalk than his jailhouse, the crossbars hotel, could accommodate. A lot of those kids had hitchhiked to OD, drawn by good times and girls. Bellamy would collar a vagrant and ask where he was staying. Often the answer was “At the Ocean Forest.”

“What they meant,” said Bellamy, “was they stayed in the ocean by day and the forest by night.”

The Ocean Forest was south of OD by a few miles, and what a sumptuous hotel it was, described by one writer as “the finest hotel between New York and Miami.” From NYC to Myrtle Beach it’s 558 miles. From Miami to Myrtle Beach it’s 554 miles. Slap dab in the middle as we say around these parts. Built in the late 1920s the hotel’s price tag came in around $1 million. The “million-dollar hotel’s” goal was to create an East Coast haven for well-heeled folks in New York and Miami. They built it and the rich they did come. The location and the hotel’s grandeur, many insist, made Myrtle Beach the tourist destination it is today.

The Ocean Forest Hotel
The Ocean Forest Hotel

Back in the pre-50s beaches weren’t walled off with high-rise hotels. Go to Myrtle Beach today and peer through the haze down the long hotel-lined crescent. It’s as if a colossal saw sliced a wafer off New York City and created an Atlantic Escarpment with which to counterbalance the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Myrtle Beach bristles with high-rise accommodations. It thrusts more hotels into the air than all of South Carolina’s cities combined. Thank the Ocean Forest for that.

Photographs of the Ocean Forest summon up the Taj Mahal, though the Ocean Forest was anything but a mausoleum. The Ocean Forest and its wedding cake tower soared 10 stories high. Quite simply, it exuded elegant spaciousness. As celebrities crooned tuxedo-clad gentleman escorted ladies into a ballroom that oozed luxury.

It was big. When it opened February 21, 1930, it and its gardens, pools, and stables covered 13 aces. No hotel in the area rivaled it. Its tower and twin five-story wings dominated the skyline. It was so big offshore fishermen navigated with it. They found the sight of it more dependable than their compasses. “Coming in,” said one fisherman, “if you didn’t see this big white building up there, you knew you were in trouble.”

The man behind the big building was Greenville textile baron John T. Woodside. He bought 16,000 acres from Myrtle Beach Farms Co., which eventually became Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. Woodside would call his development Arcady after a section of Greece. The work commenced on the clubhouse and the hotel but the 1929 stock market crash put Woodside in dire straits. Arcady, a reference to a rustic paradise, would never be. It opened as planned in 1930 but it wasn’t rustic. It was palatial. Woodside couldn’t make the mortgage payments.

Myrtle Beach Farms foreclosed on the property and the hotel gathered dust for two years. The hotel then went through many ownership changes. Unaware of the money problems guests came and came. As did stars. Shelley Winters performed there. Mike Hammer’s creator, Mickey Spillane, loved the place. And so did the affluent who dined, danced, slept, and well did more than that.

You’d have liked the Ocean Forest. Gentlemen entered the dining room wearing tuxedos. No tux? Persona non grata. Ladies glided about in evening gowns. That bit of polish would dull. The times they do force change. “Resort attire” became the rage. Imagine a swim trunks-clad Governor Strom Thurmond knocking a volleyball around. It happened. Out with the tuxedos and fine gowns.

If some of you reading this were fortunate enough to spend time at the Ocean Forest before the slide set in I envy you. I know that you like Grecian columns of marble and Czechoslovakian crystal chandeliers. I hear too that some of you saw your first ice sculpture there. You took fresh and salt water baths in your room, one of 202 guest rooms. You and your partner danced beneath the Milky Way on the Ocean Forest Marine Patio. You described this grand palace as one of the most beautiful hotels in America to friends and they envied you.

Imploded In Time
Imploded In Time

What nights you had. What tales you can tell. What times you had. But that was so long ago. I am writing this letter of lament to the dead. Well let me go ahead and tell you things have changed. Rewards points and gimmicks are what matter today, not crystal, not Grecian columns of marble or Oriental rugs or saltwater baths. If you forget your shampoo or toothpaste today’s fine hotels “got your back.”

Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. Run-of-the-mill hotels do the best they can. Well do they? Or are they like so many other things in our cheap, throwaway society: places that regularly change their marquee as the latest gang of white-collar types see a way to make some extra dough? (I saw a cheap eatery once whose sign simply read “Eats” Maybe hotels need a sign that says, “Sleeps” and they can dispense with all the branding hoopla).

I hate to see so many aspects of life cheapened. Thank goodness class and refinement are still out there. Grand old hotels soak souls in luxury the world over. Myrtle Beach had one but codes, costs, and a wimpish will did in the opulent old dame. Not so across the sea. Europeans find a way to preserve their classic buildings. Stateside, the desire to appear contemporary and fear of straying too far from the pack trade tradition and elegance for homogeneous compromise. I’ll make you a bet. I say I can blindfold you and lead you into one chain hotel room after another and when I remove the blindfold you won’t know the room from a legion of plagiarists’ rooms. You won’t remember any as being particularly fine. You might as well try to explain why one grain of salt is more memorable than another.

At least some dirt-cheap hotels achieve immortality. I’ll never forget the time a dearth of options conspired to stick me in a chintzy hotel. The place smelled of cigarettes. My companion refused to walk barefoot in the room. She kept her socks on at all times. The washcloths looked like gauze and cheap flyers plastered all over the mirrors warned of prosecution if you made off with the towels. Please.

Unlike the roach hotel where beetle-like bugs don’t check out, we skedaddled at first light.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 9.29.26 PMThey say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, imitation can also be a death knell. Eager to cash in on the Ocean Forest’s cachet other high-rise hotels sprung up and though they couldn’t equal its grandeur they “out-moderned” it with amenities. The Ocean Forest began to limp, then crawl, then fall. With its back to the sea and its back to the wall it capitulated.

For 44 years resplendence lived at 5900 North Ocean Boulevard. For 44 years the neo-Georgian building sat 29 feet above sea level. Like a sumptuous luxury train with a fatal case of jet plane blues, it reached the end of the line. Nancy Rhyne wrote of the grand hotel’s downturn and final moments. “During the 1960s, the owners of the hotel declined to make much-needed improvements. The Ocean Forest showed signs of neglect. The hotel closed its doors in June 1974. On Friday the 13th of September 1974, explosives were situated around the hotel. The ten-story building that had taken a year and a half to build was reduced to a pile of rubble in six seconds.”

Into the landfill went a resplendent place of accommodations that once found itself on an exclusive list of world-class hotels. Condos stand where it stood. Only the roundabout remains where guests drove in to enjoy the majesty that would ascend to legend. Golfers, residents, and such motor through today with no thoughts about the Riviera of the South that once threw its morning shadow over their path.

All We Have Is A Photograph
All We Have Is A Photograph
Images: Old postcards of the Ocean Forest Hotel, Myrtle Beach, S. C. by Boston Public Library (also on the library's flickr photostream) and used under a Creative Commons license; attribution for the black and white photo unknown, but presumed public domain; aerial view from Google Maps

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].