|By Dawn Bryant, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 13, 2004 - The wealthy vacationed there. Well-known celebrities performed on stage. Tuxedo-clad gentleman twirled their ladies on the dance floor in the lavish ballroom. Locals partied on the patio under the stars.
The castle -- towering 10 stories when small beach cottages were the norm -- went by the name Ocean Forest Hotel. It had all the makings of a fairy tale, minus the happy ending.
After 44 years of grandeur, the hotel came down in 1974, but not before carving a place in locals' hearts and local history.
The Ocean Forest set the stage for high-rises and high-end hotels that have helped Myrtle Beach evolve as a destination. It also introduced the Grand Strand to faraway states such as New York.
A push to add upscale offerings has emerged in recent years with the creation of Grande Dunes, Barefoot Resort and a flurry of high-end houses.
"The Ocean Forest Hotel set a precedent and initiated a vision," historian Rod Gragg said. "The Ocean Forest Hotel moved Myrtle Beach from a regional vacation spot to a national resort for the first time."
Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the hotel's demolition, though it's not noted in too many calendars. Locals would rather not remember the day it turned to dust. Some couldn't handle it then.
"I could not go watch it come down," said Tempe Oehler, a Myrtle Beach native who used to dance in the hotel's grand ballroom. "Just the thought of it was too much. It was like the death of a long-beloved friend."
Locals learned a lesson from the hotel's demolition. It sparked a movement to preserve Myrtle Beach's few older attractions, including the Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park. Some locals have spoken out against the proposal to move the Pavilion and replace it with stores, residences and attractions that would lure visitors year-round.
Another historical property, the Myrtle Beach Train Depot, was saved from the wrecking ball after a group of locals rallied for it. The restored Depot reopened as a meeting hall earlier this year.
"All I could think of was the hotel coming down," said photographer Jack Thompson, who led the Depot restoration. "Because of the Ocean Forest Hotel, more and more people are determined to save some elements of the past."
Decades before "upscale" became as trendy as it is today, developers of the Ocean Forest Hotel set out to create a high-end haven for East Coasters in Myrtle Beach.
The hotel was just a piece of the grand plan, which included Pine Lakes International Golf Course and its famed clubhouse.
To be named Arcady after a section of Greece, the development was the vision of Greenville textile magnate John T. Woodside, who bought 16,000 acres for the project from Myrtle Beach Farms Co., which eventually became Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc.
Work had started on the clubhouse and the hotel when the stock market crash of 1929 nearly wiped out Woodside. Arcady would never be.
The hotel itself reportedly cost $1 million to build -- that's $1 million in the late 1920s, a hefty price tag seen in the hotel's marble columns, elevators and crystal chandeliers. Oehler saw an ice sculpture for the first time there.
The workers wore gray and burgundy uniforms and lived in nearby quarters.
But the money woes from the stock market crash led to a rocky start for the Ocean Forest. It opened as planned in 1930, but Woodside couldn't make the mortgage payments.
Myrtle Beach Farms foreclosed on the property and it was closed for two years. The hotel would go through many ownership changes.
But the behind-the-scenes troubles didn't bother the Ocean Forest guests. They flocked to the finery, loved the luxury.
"Along the East Coast, it was the place to go," Oehler said. "It was a tourist attraction that was far superior to anything that we had at that time. They brought hospitality features to Myrtle Beach that had not been here before."
For 44 years, the hotel greeted celebrities and locals. Folks danced under the moonlight on the Marine Patio. They watched well-known actors such as Shelley Winters and Brian Dunleavy perform on a theater in the round.
Some also say the hotel was the area's unofficial convention center for that time, playing host to many groups before the Myrtle Beach Convention Center opened.
"At one time it was considered the finest hotel between New York and Miami," historian Blanche Floyd said.
Pieces of the hotel, literally, decorate Cagney's restaurant. Locals, including Cagney's owner Dino Thompson, scooped up souvenirs, including columns and pieces of china, before the implosion.
Some of those show up frequently on online auction site eBay, where Ocean Forest postcards have fetched up to $8 apiece.
Ocean Forest prints are the top sellers in Jack Thompson's studio and can be spotted in offices around town.
One hangs in Oehler's living room, winning a place among the few available spots left. Gragg brags that he worked at the Ocean Forest, referring to his one-night stint there as a teenager in the 1960s cleaning tables in the dining room.
"You were really moving fast," he said. "It was a crowd of folks every night."
But the hotel left more than memories. It planted the seeds for development strategies that have taken off in recent years.
Tourism promoters continue to try to tap new markets to grow the destination.
And Grand Strand developers have created high-end properties, including Grande Dunes, that rival the service and amenities at the Ocean Forest.
"Dr. Woodside's vision for the area came true," Gragg said. "He foresaw a resort that would appeal to people far away from South Carolina. That's exactly what happened over time. It paved the way for modern development of the Grand Strand."
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