Wednesday, October 12, 2011

“That divine rendezvous”—the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables

Dear, when in your arms I creep,
That divine rendezvous,
Don’t wake me if I’m asleep,
Let me dream that it’s true.
--“How Long Has This Been Going On?” (1928) by George and Ira Gershwin

Biltmore Hotel
1200 Anastasia Avenue
Coral Gables, Florida


N.B. Thank you for taking time to read this experimental entry. I have a great love for music of the 20s and 30s and I've interpolated meaningful lyrics within the narrative of this entry. Please let me know what you think.

Biltmore Hotel by Milan Boers, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The cover of Leslie Rule’s Coast to Coast Ghosts, a marvelous collection of ghost stories from across America, features a lovely and haunting black and white photo of a colonnaded balcony. A door is open and the wind is pulling the sheer, white curtains outward. This photograph of a balcony at the Biltmore Hotel was shown by Rule to a psychic who exclaimed, “There has been a lot of raunchy activity here! A couple was murdered here. They were having an affair and were shot by the woman’s husband.” The psychic continued saying that the woman was naked except for her jewelry.

Photo by eflon, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

In the mornin’, in the evenin’,
Ain’t we got fun?

Night or daytime, it’s all playtime,
Ain’t we got fun?
Hot or cold days, any old days,
Ain’t we got fun?
--“Ain’t We Got Fun?” (1921) by Richard A Whiting, Raymond B. Egan and Gus
Kahn

Photo by eflon, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

The Biltmore Hotel, in beautifully named Coral Gables, was built as a beacon for fun and sumptuous pleasure at the height of the Roaring Twenties with its Mediterranean Revival tower modeled on the Giralda Tower on Seville, Spain’s cathedral. It featured the largest swimming pool in the world, containing 1,250,000 gallons of water, where synchronized swimmers and alligator wrestlers entertained guests and Johnny Weismuller, who would go on to portray Tarzan on the silver screen, taught and showed off his aquatic prowess. Luminaries gathered in the hotel’s ballrooms where they enjoyed top tier entertainment and even illegal gambling under the watchful eyes of Al Capone and Thomas “Fatty” Walsh. Popular bands of the era pumped out popular tunes with their upbeat tempos, catchy lyrics and jaunty tunes while couples danced foxtrots, the Charleston, tangos and the Black Bottom under blazing chandeliers or glowing stars.

 Photo by Averette, 2007. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Stars fade but I linger on, dear…
--“Dream a Little Dream of Me” (1931) by Fabian Andre, Wilbur Schwandt and
Gus Kahn

The hotel’s beauty began to fade when the United States War Department commandeered the hotel in 1942 for use as a convalescent hospital. Hotel rooms became rooms for patients and offices for doctors while public spaces became surgical suites. The floors were covered with linoleum, original furnishings were thrown out or painted over and windows were sealed with concrete while the interior was painted a dismal, antiseptic green. Following the end of World War II, the hotel became an Army General Hospital which was taken over by the Veterans Administration. But despite its utilitarian garb and atmosphere, the hospital attracted popular entertainers who performed for the patients. During its tenure as a VA hospital, the University of Miami established its medical school in the building as well. The grand hotel served as a hospital until 1968 when it was abandoned.

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely nights
Dreaming of a song.
The melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you.
--“Stardust” (1927) by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish

The now crumbling hotel sat abandoned while the City of Coral Gables attempted to save it as a historic structure. The city finally succeeded in 1973, but the building continued to sit empty while the city decided how best to utilize the building. While empty, the building was used as a backdrop for the horror film, Shock Waves and can be seen briefly in the trailer. It also attracted attention for odd activity. In fact, Dennis William Hauck’s Haunted Places: the National Directory, states that, “Townspeople congregated on the golf course to observe the strange lights and eerie sounds coming from the empty building at night.”

The song is ended
But the melody lingers on
You and the song are gone
But the melody lingers on.
--“The Song is Ended” (1927) by Irving Berlin and Beda Loehner

 Photo by tabitum, 2008. Licensed under Creative Commons.

While the locals who observed the activity in the abandoned building would often hear lingering melodies, that’s only part of the activity they witnessed. Greg Jenkins in his masterful three-volume series, Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore notes the witnesses as seeing windows opening and closing, figures within the building and crashing sounds. The activity was so pronounced that in the summer of 1979 a team of policemen stormed the building in search of drug dealers and other malcontents believed to be hiding within. Their search turned up no one. When the humans failed to find anyone, a pair of police dogs was brought in only to have them flee the building after just five minutes, tails between their legs. It’s noted that after restoration began in the early 1980s, the activity increased.

Looking everywhere,
Haven’t found him yet.
--“Someone to Watch Over Me” (1926) by George and Ira Gershwin

Photo by Marc Kevin Hall, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

A team of psychics and investigators visited the empty hulk in 1978. The psychics picked up on many energies throughout the building especially on the 13th floor and around the elevators. A recording device that was running during the investigation on the thirteenth picked up a loud tapping that was not noticed by anyone present. Many of the psychics remarked that that floor possibly contained hundreds of spirits. Another group investigating in 1979 recorded the sounds of heavy breathing and a sigh. Could this be related to a tragedy from the hotel’s early years?

We lived our little drama…
--“Stars Fell on Alabama” (1934) by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish

O, show us the way to the next whiskey bar.
O, don’t ask why.
--“Alabama Song” (1930) by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht

In the late 1920s, a local gambler by the name of Edward Wilson rented out the suite on the 13th and 14th floors of the hotel and opened a speakeasy, a place where wealthy locals could drink and gamble away from the eyes of the law. Wilson became acquainted with New York mobster Thomas “Fatty” Walsh and his friend Arthur Clark. Both had left the city to avoid an investigation in the death of an associate. One evening in March of 1929 in the speakeasy with nearly a hundred patrons in black-tie, Wilson and Walsh began to argue. Wilson pulled a gun and shot Walsh to death. When Clark rushed to his friend’s side, he was wounded. Police rushed to the hotel but it took some time to reach the murder scene. Once there, the room had been “cleaned” of any evidence of a speakeasy. Modern researchers believe the lack of police records on this event to be evidence of a police cover up.

Now that I have found you,
I must hang around you.
Though you may refuse me…
--“He Loves and She Loves” (1927) by George and Ira Gershwin

One popular tale about the suite on the 13th and 14th floor involves the private elevator leading to it. A young couple exploring the hotel somehow stumbled into the private elevator and was whisked to the dark, uninhabited suite though guests must have a key to operate the elevator. The young woman stepped off and the doors quickly shut behind her leaving her husband wildly punching buttons to no avail as the elevator quickly descended to the lobby. The husband found a bellhop who used his passkey to get them back up to the empty suite. There they found the man’s wife standing in the dark, scared and befuddled.

Photo by eflon, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

You must realize
When your heart’s on fire
Smoke gets in your eyes…

Now, laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide.
--“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the operetta, Roberta (1933) by Jerome Kern and
Otto Harbach

The young woman stated that when the doors closed behind her, she began walking through the silent suite calling, “Hello?” She heard the sound of distant conversation and occasionally people laughing. The sounds of things hitting the floor echoed from around her but nothing was out of place when she turned. She also remarked that there was the strong smell of cigar smoke with her throughout this experience. The elevator is still said to rise up to the suite on its own accord on a regular basis. This luxury suite (I checked the price and it’s around $1800 a night) is often used by celebrities and President Bill Clinton stayed here in 1994. A number of sources note that he had troubled getting TV reception for a ball game he wanted to watch. His aides were unable to find a reason why the TV would not work properly.

It was just one of those nights,
Just one of those fabulous flights,
A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,
It was just one of those things.
--“Just One of Those Things” (1935) by Cole Porter

The apparition of a lady in white is also a part of the hotel’s folklore. According to legend, a couple was staying in the hotel with their young and very curious son. The child somehow made its way onto one of the hotel’s elaborate balconies and the child’s mother, fearing disaster, ran towards him. Unfortunately, she lost her balance reaching for her son and her body hurled over the railing towards certain death. Her spirit has been seen silently racing towards the balcony and at other times walking through nearby guestrooms.

Photo by Milan Boers, 2009. Licensed under Creative Commons.

There were chills up my spine
And some thrills I can’t define.
--“How Long Has This Been Going On?” (1928) by George and Ira Gershwin

There’s so much more still going on in the Biltmore Hotel. Numerous apparitions, often seen momentarily and disappearing, have been reported including a dancing couple in period attire, World War II era soldiers and a man playing the piano in a top hat. The hotel actually employs a storyteller to keep up with the hotel’s histories: recorded, legendary and paranormal. Perhaps the spirits have finally found their own, sumptuous heaven.

 Photo by Ebyabe, 2011, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Heaven, I’m in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing cheek to cheek.
--“Cheek to Cheek” (1935) by Irving Berlin

Sources
Coral GablesBiltmore Hotel. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed
    11 October 2011.
Hauck, Dennis William. Haunted Places: the National Directory. NYC:
     Penguin, 2002.
Jenkins, Greg. Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore: Vol. 1
     South and Central Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2005.
Lapham, Dave. Ghosthunting Florida. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press,
     2010.
Moore, Joyce Elson. Haunt Hunter’s Guide to Florida. Sarasota, FL:
     Pineapple Press, 1998.
Preira, Matt. “Spooky Hotel: Biltmore Hotel Haunted by Gangsters
     And WWII Soldiers.” Miami New Times. 6 October 2011.
Rennella, Cecilia and Carolyn Pitts. National Historic Landmark
     Nomination form for Miami-Biltmore Hotel and Country Club.
     8 December 1994.
Rule, Leslie. Coast to Coast Ghosts: True Stories of Hauntings Across
     America. Kansas City: MO: Andrew McMeel Publishing, 2001.

3 comments:

  1. What a masterpiece of a post this is, Lewis. Love all the quotes and song lyrics and photos. Feast for the eyes and heart. This showcases your genius!!!

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  2. Hi! You have such a wonderful blog!

    I used to live in Miami and I had the chance to visit the fabulous Biltmore Hotel many, many times. On my blog I posted about a murder that took place at The Biltmore. I knew one of the victims. The posting also contains other information about Biltmore. If you're interested, here's the link:
    http://spirits-and-scents.blogspot.com/2011/06/haunted-miami.html#links

    I hope the link is available to you. I've never inserted a link into my comments so I don't know if it'll work properly. My blog is called Spirits and Scents. The post is titled Haunted Miami: The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. It's dated June 7, 2011.

    You know, while I personally haven't seen a ghost at The Biltmore, I did have a very strange experience at the hotel. Back in the mid-1980s, my boss was planning a very important event and we were searching for an appropriate spot for it. Someone suggested The Biltmore. The hotel wasn't open at the time, but some of the reception salons had been restored and perhaps one of those would be available to us. I visited The Biltmore one day, accompanied by my best friend who also worked with me. We met with The Biltmore's event planner and she took us to see a large salon that had just been completed. The room was beautiful and cavernous, but remember, the rest of the hotel was pretty much empty. The instant I entered that room I felt bad. I can honestly say, I've never felt such negative energy anywhere else! I looked at my friend to see if she felt it, but she seemed fine. I stayed for the tour, but the entire time I had goose bumps and a slight feeling of vertigo. I was so relieved when we were able to leave! Needless to say, I made certain that we didn't host our company's function in that place!

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