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?)