It glittered like a cursed diamond sculpted and set in a gold band of pristine beach in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. A vision of one man’s utopia. A marker to guide planes and ships from miles away. A hurricane shelter during a once-in-a generation storm. A movie star hangout. A gambling den (allegedly). A military lookout during World War II when rumors of German U-boats cruising off the coast surfaced more than the enemy did. It was the Ocean Forest Hotel, a spare-no-expenses resort built halfway between New York City and Miami Beach to bring in the rich and famous and anyone who wanted to hobnob with them. In the tradition of ideas destined to become a marvelous success, it was a heartbreaking failure—transformed finally into a fading memory by a few sticks of dynamite.
The Ocean Forest Hotel was many things to many people over the span of its short life, but before it was anything—before it got blown up—it was the dream of one John T. Woodside. Imagine it is 1926, and a linen-suited, cigar-smoking, youngish millionaire aspires Gatsby-esque to the Champagne high life that may have eluded him and his wealth in the rural South. Imagine him a textile magnate turned banker turned hotelier turned real estate mogul turned full-time dreamer of big-time dreams.
No—imagine four of them. Brothers. The Woodside brothers from Greenville, South Carolina, all long dead. John, the one credited with the vision, turns and walks a few slow, confident, echoing steps toward the camera with his hands clasped behind his back. He might have pulled a pocket watch from the vest of his five-piece suit, made of the finest, coolest linen. Count on nothing but humidity in South Carolina. John has just laid out his dream of dreams for his three brothers, and the Ocean Forest Hotel is only a small part of it: “Arcady,” he might have whispered, clutching his pocket watch and gazing out a window, not unlike how Orson Welles murmurs “rosebud,” as his brothers grow increasingly unfocused in the frame.
At a press conference held all the way up in Manhattan in 1929, John Woodside announced their plans. They had put down an installment on nearly 65,000 acres and 12 miles of oceanfront property in Myrtle Beach to be part of what he envisioned as Arcady, which was a “recreational hideaway for America’s most prominent families, the likes of which few in South Carolina had seen,” as Barbara Stokes writes in Myrtle Beach: A History. John chose the name Arcady to invoke an ancient Greek utopia, deviating only slightly from the original idea: There would be golf courses for men and women, beach houses, club houses, stables, paths, polo, a yacht basin, playgrounds, and schooling. All segregated, it must have gone without saying. (Among a dozen books on the area’s history, only one bothers to bring any attention to this.) The brothers had enlisted Raymond Hood, one of the most famous architects of the era, to design the hotel—he was the chief designer of Rockefeller Center and some say the inspiration for the foil to Ayn Rand’s protagonist in The Fountainhead. The first Arcady feature to open was a 27-hole golf course, designed by the first president of the PGA, followed by the “million-dollar hotel,” as the Ocean Forest was called.
Its image remains popular on postcards and prints, coveted by tourists and the locals. Intended to rival the opulence of the French Riviera, Ocean Forest was one of the first hotels along a now crowded coast. When it wasn’t called the million-dollar hotel, it was called the “wedding cake hotel.” The central building was 10 stories with wings of five stories each on either side, all painted in the brightest white to make the hotel seem like a “beacon.” Atop the cupola was a miniature lighthouse intended to direct sailors and aviators. In the more than 200 guests rooms were taps for ice water, hot water, and salt water from the ocean. Chandeliers were imported from then Czechoslovakia. The floors were Italian marble. The lobby was so big that as boys, my dad and his brothers rode their bikes through, zigzagging through the imported marble columns. There were ballrooms, swimming pools, shopping, stables, tennis courts, dining rooms, and an outdoor amphitheater. It was billed as fireproof and storm-resistant, but those modern feats were not enough to save it.
The grand opening was held on February 21, 1930—four months after the stock market crash of 1929. Like that of many Americans, the Woodsides’ fortunes did not survive the Depression, and the hotel had to shut its doors in 1932. John lost everything. What happened to Arcady? Like most utopias, it never materialized, unless you count the golf course. Imagine John Woodside again. Standing barefoot on the beach, his once crisp linen pants in soiled, tattered folds up to his knees. Imagine him embittered and broke, his dream of Arcady going out with the tide. Imagine the three Woodside brothers behind him, still out of focus, as he mutters something like a curse on the hotel and its future.
While the Woodsides cannot be blamed for not anticipating the Great Depression, there was this slightly overlooked logistical concern that kept the rooms, however opulent, empty that first year: Myrtle Beach was hard to get to in the 1920s and ’30s. The beach is as pretty and gentle as coasts get, but it’s surrounded by swamps so full of quicksand, snakes, and alligators, the winning tactic of the region’s Revolutionary Army leaders was simply to lead the British into the swamp and delegate the hard work to the wildlife. It wasn’t until 1937 that Myrtle Beach had a storm-resistant train depot of its own, and inland natives who wanted to spend a day at the beach often had to take the ferries, some of which were big enough to hold oxen- or mule-led carts. My grandmother recalls taking a ferry run by a guy who kept a piece of metal hanging from a tree limb to bang against a plowshare to get his attention. (The county’s first check-in bell?)
By 1933, the hotel reopened under new ownership. According to one local history book, Myrtle Beach “became an escape from the national trauma, a refuge for drifters and dreamers, eccentrics and outcasts. Its geographic isolation and littoral whimsy made it a natural hideaway, a palace of new beginnings and new identities.” As the Woodsides had originally hoped, celebrities showed up onstage and off. My grandmother swore she saw Clark Gable on the beach in front of the hotel one afternoon as a teenager. On the Marine Patio, people danced to the music of celebrities like Tommy Dorsey, Guy Lombardo, and Count Basie, who would have been required to drive half an hour north to stay in Atlantic Beach, the beach community for Black travelers. He would not even have been allowed to stand on the beach, as Gable had, or wade in the water while waiting for the band to pack up. Segregation extended onto the beach and into the ocean itself.
Some vacationers—possibly the “drifters” or the “eccentrics”—might have been coming to the Ocean Forest for more than sunbathing and a show. Rumors of a gambling den in the hotel’s tower have long circulated. Dorothy Knox, a reporter visiting from Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1930s supposedly saw every game “from roulette to poker” being played. “Money was piled on the tables like autumn leaves,” she described. Mingling with bootleggers and gangsters were the hotel guests, all dressed in “everything from ‘bathing suits to ball gowns.’” A former employee of the hotel coffee shop described accidentally discovering a prostitution ring in the late ’60s led by the doorman.
By the 1960s, a boom of rectangular, concrete Populuxe motels lined Myrtle Beach’s Ocean Boulevard, offering families not only cheaper, more casual accommodations, but the modern miracle that is air-conditioning. It is the million-dollar hotel’s need for “modernizations” that is to blame for its ultimate fate. Even after switching hands over and over, no one seemed to be able to make an honest success of it. In September 1974, after reportedly estimating that it would cost more to update the hotel than it was worth, the last owners of the hotel, who only bought the place the year before, decided to demolish it.
On Friday the 13th, my dad, then in high school and the same age as his mother when she spotted Clark Gable, walked with his brothers from their house to watch the explosion. The symbol of the opulence that never fully made it to Myrtle Beach. The beacon that guided planes and ships. The Red Cross shelter that had saved the residents from Hurricane Hazel, whose winds came ashore almost 20 years earlier. It all disappeared into a cloud of dust and then nothing. The Ocean Forest Hotel was gone in six seconds flat. According to Stokes, “To fill the psychic vacuum, [a] local businessman…briefly entered into negotiations, in 1978, to buy the Eiffel Tower, to have it dismantled, shipped from Paris and reassembled on the Grand Strand.” Nothing similar has yet been built or reassembled in Myrtle Beach.
So the story goes. There are rumors of deals under the table. Of mortgages and insurance and land grabs and double crosses. The simplest explanation, the given one, is usually closest to the truth—that the land was more valuable for the condominiums coming into fashion and that stand there now. Some people in Myrtle Beach blame the destruction of the only truly historic building in town for the reputation Myrtle Beach went on to acquire. Some older folks remember a time when the hedonism was dressed in evening gowns instead of denim cutoffs. I guess they are forgetting about what went on in the tower and the hotel’s shameful segregation.
The Myrtle Beach I knew growing up there is, like Arcady, based on the sale of fantasies. Strip clubs. Tattoo and piercing parlors. Extravagantly tacky mini golf courses on every corner. Beach shops whose windows display bikinis printed with the racist flag. Hollywood has fun not in, but with my hometown in shows like Eastbound and Down, and movies like Magic Mike XXL. As a native, I find no fault in those portrayals.
The Ocean Forest Hotel did set some precedents, however inadvertently. A slew of grandiose tourist-trap real estate ventures have been built and failed, subsequently ruining their investors. One of them was my grandfather, who let a Music Man–style con man convince him to build a multimillion-dollar amphitheater, sure to attract the biggest names in entertainment, in a small town nearby that is surrounded by swampland, as full as ever of quicksand, snakes, and alligators. There were high hopes for the Hard Rock Park, a rock-and-roll-themed amusement park, when it opened in Myrtle Beach in 2008. Like the Ocean Forest Hotel, it closed and filed for bankruptcy only a year later and has since been partly razed. In what seems most like history repeating itself, the Pavilion, another beloved, historic tourist attraction, was demolished a few years back for reasons that remain obscure at best.
Like a lot of beach towns, ours is full of ghost stories. Pirates, first among Myrtle Beach’s “drifters” and “eccentrics” perhaps, enjoyed the natural isolation—Blackbeard supposedly buried some treasure nearby—and reports of ghostly galleons floating at the horizon are not unheard of. There’s a dozen tales of daughters and wives distraught enough over love affairs to brood forever as spirits. The daughter of Aaron Burr is said to haunt the coastline of Myrtle Beach for some reason. One popular ghost a little south of Myrtle Beach, the Gray Man, is seen walking the beach when a hurricane is imminent. The Ocean Forest Hotel is just one more ghost to live with.
Nicole Jones is the author of Low Country, a memoir about her childhood growing up in Myrtle Beach.
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