IN PICTURES | Glossy book charts the iconic Oyster Box Hotel's history

26 March 2019 - 08:08 By Deborah Curtis-Setchell
The Oyster Box Hotel and Umhlanga lighthouse in 1959.
The Oyster Box Hotel and Umhlanga lighthouse in 1959.
Image: The Oyster Box

The jewel in the Red Carnation crown, The Oyster Box Hotel, is celebrating a decade under the tenure of current owners Bea and Stanley Tollman, with a pearl of a coffee-table book A Love Story (Assouline).

The Tollmans not only met and fell in love while sampling oysters on the iconic terrace of The Oyster Box in the 1950s, but they also fell for this Umhlanga landmark's unique features. So much so that, half a century later, they purchased the rapidly waning hotel in order to restore it to its former glory.

Stanley and Bea Tollman, who met and fell in love at The Oyster Box in the 1950s.
Stanley and Bea Tollman, who met and fell in love at The Oyster Box in the 1950s.
Image: The Oyster Box

The book, much like each historical chapter of the hotel, has been a labour of love in itself. It traces the origins of the property from 1863, when a modest teak-and-concrete cottage called The Oyster Lodge was built as a navigational beacon, through to 2009, when the Tollman's triumphantly re-launched The Oyster Box  as five-star hotel and destination for the discerning, be they royals or local  regulars.

What makes this love story such a satisfying one is that, irrespective of whether the depth of their pockets has matched the breadth of their dreams, each owner’s passion for this establishment has been palpable. Each has imbued it with a signature feature, which has remained historically intact and collectively contributed to making The Oyster Box, the Grand Dame she has become.

In the ’50s, Ken O’Connor and his sister Kay Hill transformed the overgrown labyrinth around the lodge into an immaculate tea garden and restaurant before opening The Oyster Box Hotel in 1954.

The seaside tea garden, which was established in the early 1950s.
The seaside tea garden, which was established in the early 1950s.
Image: The Oyster Box

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, socialite Hill, who made the world - as well as the hotel - her oyster, travelled Europe in search of extraordinary artefacts to bestow on her project. These include the wrought-iron balustrade of the spiral staircase, original hand-painted tiles depicting exotic fauna and flora and, of course, those distinctive black-and-white chequered floors that lead through the property with the same promise of utopia as Oz’s yellow brick road.

Kay Hill on the original staircase of The Oyster Box Hotel.
Kay Hill on the original staircase of The Oyster Box Hotel.
Image: The Oyster Box
The Oyster Box Hotel's spiral staircase today.
The Oyster Box Hotel's spiral staircase today.
Image: The Oyster Box

The Tollmans, the most ambitious of all the hotel's proprietors, were also confronted with the greatest architectural challenge to date: how to remain authentic to the past while simultaneously satisfying the insatiable demands of the 21st century on a small tract of land.

In turning the pages of this glossy and sophisticated book, one is struck by the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same – a triumph indeed.

It is almost impossible to surpass the glamour of the ‘50s, but everything else, from food to décor, has been touched by a magic wand. The double-volume Palm Court, the addition of the revolving brass door at the entrance, and the state-of-the-art cinema are examples of modern aggrandisement.  

The Ocean Terrace of The Oyster Box Hotel in the early years.
The Ocean Terrace of The Oyster Box Hotel in the early years.
Image: The Oyster Box
The Oyster Box today.
The Oyster Box today.
Image: The Oyster Box

The Oyster Box remains a monument to impeccable taste and the book a reminder that manners maketh man ... especially a romantic one with a red carnation in his buttonhole.

To buy a copy of 'A Love Story' (Assouline, R995), call The Oyster Box on 031-514-5000.


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