The Heart of Myrtle Beach’s New Historic District

When I grew up in the First Baptist Church of Myrtle Beach, my church family included many of our city’s most prominent families, literally pillars of the community.  They and their generations before and after them shaped Myrtle Beach’s development, commerce and government. 

When I think back on them, it’s the ladies who headed those families who stand out in my memory.  Because, at church, they were mostly in charge.  They performed the music and taught the Sunday school classes. 

In writing this, three in particular come to mind:  Esther Gray, Marjorie Benton and Sarah Watts.  Of course, to me and everyone else who loved them, they were known as:  Miss Esther, Miss Margie and Miss Sarah.  For those of you who don’t know, Southerners will use “Miss” in front of a lady’s name to show respect and affection for her, even if she is or has been married and regardless of her age. 

These three women were so unique and accomplished in their own ways that I was surprised to realize when I was older that they were related, three of ten siblings.  They were the Nance Sisters. 

While certainly deserving of having a public space named for them (in fact, Miss Esther and her husband were the namesakes of Gray Park, across from their home on the north end of Myrtle Beach), Nance Plaza is named for their parents. When you go there today, you will see a bronze plaque dedicating the plaza to Daniel Wayne Nance and his wife, Mary Ellen Todd Nance.  Their lifetime of accomplishments are intertwined with the development of Myrtle Beach.  And it is noted that their descendants are still active in the community today. 

Mr. Nance was not only a founding father so to speak.  He served on the committee to incorporate Myrtle Beach as a town in 1938.  He was also a master builder responsible for, as the dedication reads, “many downtown buildings near this plaza, as well as historic homes on North Ocean Boulevard and in the Withers Swash neighborhood.” 

Across Kings Highway, where the zipline and ropes course are now, was initially the municipal heart of Myrtle Beach.  The first fire station was located where the ticket booth building is now.  Nearby, was the first police station, city hall, and several businesses.  They included Coastal Federal Savings and Loan which moved to the corner of Oak Street and 27th Avenue North decades later.  It became BB&T and is now known as Truist.  If you are facing Truist, the bank to the left of it is almost hiding a secret from that original municipal enclave.  Look through the drive-through, under the tree canopy, and you will see the façade of an elegant little building with white columns.  It is attached to a modern office building designed to compliment the original structure’s architecture.  The vintage sign that hangs between those columns reveals that those are the offices of the H.B. Spring’s Company which has been providing real estate and insurance services since 1928.  That smaller building had previously stood across from today’s Nance Plaza and later joined Coastal Federal on Oak Street to once again be its neighbor.

What I find even more interesting in Mr. Nance’s resume is that he built what are now historic homes on North Ocean Boulevard and in the Withers Swash neighborhood.  Those who know me know that I love a historic house.  With the myriad of residential designs on display within our city limits including, Mid-Century Modern, Lowcountry or Myrtle-terranean, long-time natives are particularly fond of the style we dub “Old Myrtle Beach.”  The few examples that are left can often be identified by their windows.  They are the ones with the wooden awnings with the scalloped edges.  In some cases, the houses that Mr. Nance built are still here, but they have been remodeled and the awnings have been removed, so you can’t tell their historic significance. 

The location that is now Nance Plaza has undergone its own transformation.  In the beginning, it wasn’t a plaza.  It was a small thoroughfare called George Cox Street, named for the town’s first train stationmaster.  Between it and Kings Highway a triangular lot was created on which a triangular-shaped office building stood.  It was called the Flatiron Building.  Like New York City’s Flatiron Building, the 22-story landmark, it was named for its shape that rather resembles the appliance that tackles your clothing’s wrinkles.

Ours only had three stories.  I entered the upper office areas for the first time when I was in high school doing volunteer work for a charity that was headquartered there.  That was in the early Eighties and the venue was past its prime.  The most intriguing nameplate on one of the few remaining offices was that for our local field office of the FBI.  The ground floor space was dedicated to a bank.  I loved to join my mother on errands there when I was little because I was fascinated by the triangular lobby.  I didn’t know in my formative years that an interior space could be anything but square. 

It’s hard to find a photo of our Flatiron Building, but local historian and photographer, Jack Thompson, would be a good source.  His temporary gallery is located at the junction of Highway 501 and Broadway Street.  If you go on Facebook and search pages like Myrtle Beach History or my Myrtle Beach History Tours, you’ll see a photo of it that he took. 

In that photo, you get a glimpse of Edward’s, a five and dime where I picked out my first Halloween costume on my own when I was about three.  In the Seventies, it was The Creative Arts Center.  The plate glass windows on the front facing George Cox Street were a showcase for their award-winning gymnastics program. 

We dancers were in the studios in the back.  One of my classmates ended up singing and dancing on Broadway. I was attending a show there in the Nineties and happened to see his name in the Playbill.  I went backstage afterwards to congratulate him on his long, successful journey from The Creative Arts Center.  He, Jeffrey Broadhurst, later played Tulsa to Bette Midler’s Rose in CBS’s made-for-TV-movie version of the acclaimed musical, Gypsy

Upstairs of our arts school was a cool, empty space that we used a small part of for dressing rooms.  Now, that space is still cool but has been reimagined as industrial style studio lofts for short-term or extended-stay guests that can be booked through Airbnb.  Their stellar reviews are filled with reasons to stay there.  In addition to the well-appointed studios, visitors rave about the food and craft beer conveniently procured from the Grand Strand Brewing Company that is just downstairs on the ground floor that was once Edward’s.  In addition, they enjoy the great location that is only a short walk to the Boardwalk Entertainment District and the beach.  Early each June, these accommodations look out over the Carolina Country Music Festival  ranked in the top five of country music festivals across the nation by the Academy of Country Music. 

The plaza itself comes alive in the shoulder months of our summer season when live bands take to the permanent stage at the far end of the plaza.  Year-round, patrons of the brewery gather at picnic tables and play lawn games all the while being serenaded by the babble of the attractive fountain nearby. 

Nance Plaza is a fitting tribute to a family that was and is so much a part of Myrtle Beach.  Come, visit, have a nice meal or even spend the night.  You’ll have a good time.