Chapel Hill: Opinion

When a hotel speaks history – Lee Storrow

Lee Storrow
Lee Storrow

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the room was the heavy antique door suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room. It was adorned with glass, reflecting the room and hotel receptionist who was showing me around.

I had stopped in Johannesburg on my way to the International Conference on AIDS in Durban. I’d never been to South Africa before and, given the expense and long travel time, wanted to make the most of every minute. I decided to stay in Johannesburg for two nights before heading onto Durban, a mere 36 hours to explore South Africa’s largest city.

I found the Twelve Decades Art Hotel while researching different lodging options. The hotel was featured in a New York Times profile on Johannesburg a couple of years ago, and is in the Maboneng precinct, known for its coffee shops, restaurants and for housing Johannesburg’s only independent cinema. The concept seemed too cool to be true; the hotel was on the first and seventh floor of a renovated factory, and each room was designed by a different artist to highlight a different decade in the history of South Africa. My room for the first night was entitled Marabi, and was inspired by the years 1926-1936.

When I arrived in Johannesburg, I had spent almost 24 hours in travel, including the 16-hour flight from Atlanta to O. R. Tambo Airport. Though the hotel and my lodgings were intriguing, I didn’t have much time to process before going straight to bed.

I awoke at 5 a.m. South Africa time and decided to explore the hotel.

The space directly outside of my room was an art gallery, with paintings on the wall and giant letters from a vintage sign on display in the middle of the room. I was reminded of the space at 21c in Durham, but unlike their gallery, this space was only accessible to hotel guests.

I found my way to the common space and read for a couple of hours as I watched the sun rise. When I returned to my room, I found myself more intrigued in the decor than I’d been the night before. The nightstand beside the bed had its original surface replaced with reflective glass, and the same was true of the wardrobe and door suspended from the ceiling that cut the room in half. Over the bed hung a picture of a South African couple on their wedding night, dressed in what I perceived to be traditional “Western” wedding attire.

What was this artist trying to express about this period in South African history? As I pondered the room, I kept returning to the glass that reflected the already large room and me as I wandered through it. Did I, the viewer, have some role to play in the inequality and discrimination that happened over the course of the last century? I looked for a guide to explain the historical context of the choices the artist made when designing the room, but found none.

I’ve served on the Chapel Hill-Orange County Visitors Bureau for the last three years, and become passionate about the role that visitor promotion and hotels play in building vibrant communities. As I’ve advocated for visitor promotion in the past, it’s always been grounded in the value hotels play in promoting economic development, brining revenue from visitors into communities to support your broader goals.

This hotel clearly played a role in supporting the neighborhood. Guests bought art from the galleries and morning coffee and meals from the local restaurants. Yet in my short stay in Johannesburg, this hotel did more than just provide a pillow for my head and shopping venue. It challenged me to think about the country I was visiting and the role I played in global inequality. When was the last time a hotel challenged you?

Over pizza at the art cinema that night I chatted with a local who worked in the building next door in IT. He told me about the neighborhood’s revitalization, the city’s struggles to support its poorest residents, and his vision for the future of Johannesburg. For a moment I felt like I belonged in the community, even though my skin color instantly marked me as different from the majority of people in the establishment that night.

My time in Johannesburg was brief, but I’m glad I visited before going on to the conference in Durban. My stay at the Twelve Decades Hotel provided a perspective and challenge to me about the country’s history that I knew would inform and catalyze the remainder of my trip.

Lee Storrow is a former member of the Chapel Hill Town Council and lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach him at