Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Appointed Rounds, Everlasting


U. S. Post Office
729 4th Avenue
West Point, Georgia

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

--Inscription on the fa├žade of the James Farley Post Office, New York City, from the Histories of Herodatus.

Apparently, this inscription which is often considered the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service should also include death. It seems that something is still at work within this old post office; something still carrying on its appointed rounds perhaps?

I was first introduced to the West Point Post Office’s haunted state when I took the local Ghost Walk that’s held around Halloween each year (see my review here). The post office was included on the tour, though I was skeptical of the legend which involved a young girl in a bloody dress being seen outside the building. To me, it just seemed like local tripe. That is, until I received an email a couple of weeks ago.

West Point Post Office, 2012, by Rivers Langley. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Robin Jarrell, who has worked at this post office branch since 1996, wanted me to know about the ghost there; something far more believable than a girl in a bloody dress. They call him Joe, though his exact identity remains a mystery, and he tends to ramble about the building mystifying the employees. Robin invited me to visit, tour the building and hear their stories.

Built in 1932, the old building is quite intriguing. The main floor includes the post office and all of its functions. With the exception of a few modern additions, the lobby appears to be mostly original with banks of old post office boxes, marble flooring and original streamlined Art Deco-styled light fixtures. The post office’s main workspace occupies the remainder of that floor. The old, creaking wooden floor underscores the old techniques still employed to sort the mail here. No robots or complicated sorting mechanisms here, just the tried and true hand sorting that I imagine is still employed in small post offices throughout the nation. Above, a modern acoustical tile drop ceiling hides the catwalk that once existed above the floor from which employees were monitored to keep them honest.

From the lobby, a marble staircase leads to a series of rental offices upstairs. Again—in this now mostly empty series of rooms—the building really shows its age. This is also the domain of the ghost. According to Robin, footsteps are heard issuing from up here sometimes accompanied by the slam of a door. The employees downstairs often hear this but simply return to work with the chill of knowing that no one is up there.

Arthur, a postal contractor, is the one person who probably uses this floor more than anyone. His schedule driving the mail requires downtime and he uses one of the old offices to relax. Commonly, he’ll hear footsteps out in the hall or in other offices and he’ll hear things being shuffled through. The old doors of these offices are fitted with opaque window panes and heavy brass knobs that really provide the weight of age. It was through the window of the restroom that he actually saw something. He’d heard footsteps and looking up from the toilet he saw something pass by the door. The window’s opacity blocked out any details.

It is Arthur’s polite, but no-nonsense demeanor that is in sharp relief to his very odd experiences in his garret room in the post office. In the small, cluttered room with a desk, computer and air mattress, he’s had the computers turn themselves on. At times, he’s heard footsteps on the roof as well, though getting up there appears to be a bit of a challenge. He has also had some moments where he has been awakened to the feeling of being smothered.

The issue of sleep paralysis has been frightening people for millennia. In centuries past, the blame for these has been placed squarely on the spirit world and even more specifically on creatures called incubi and succubae. The male form—the incubus, from the Latin incubo, “to lie upon— was believed to attack females and to sometimes impregnate them. The female form, the succubus—from the Latin succuba, “to lie under”— was believed to attack the male in his sleep. Both entities were supposed, over time, to slowly drain the life from the sleepers. Shakespeare includes a description of an incubus in Act I of Romeo and Juliet with Mercutio chiding Romeo, “This is the hag where maids lie on their backs, That presses them and learns them first to bear, Making them women of good carriage. This is she—“

He is interrupted by Romeo who responds, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talkest of nothing.” Indeed, Romeo now has the weight of science behind his exclamation.

As science has explored and begun to understand “O gentle sleep!—Nature’s soft nurse,” (Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II) it has come to understand that sleep paralysis—a much gentler name than evil entities with Latinate names—is a common occurrence. An experience with such may only indicate an uneasy transition between stages of sleep. Though the experience may be terrifying it is not dangerous.

When people experience sleep paralysis in a paranormally active location, though, the black-and-white of science then meets the grey void of tradition and folklore. Could these instances actually be caused by spirit activity in these cases? Since I have begun interviewing witnesses to paranormal activity over the last few years, this is one of a few cases I’ve been privy to involving sleep paralysis in a possibly haunted location.

The first case happened at Unto These Hills Cast Housing in Cherokee, North Carolina. My friend, Philenia, was napping in the new dormitory building. The building occupies the footprint of the old girls dorm and while it is surrounded by buildings with fairly high amounts of paranormal activity, the new building—as well as the old one—had few occurrences. Philenia had been napping awhile when she awoke to the feeling of something climbing on her chest. She said she felt a hand over her mouth and could not move or breathe. When it finally released her, she jumped up upset and terrified.

While Arthur’s experience was not as dramatic as Philenia’s there’s still the question of cause left hanging. There are other cases of people being awakened by possibly paranormal activity. A cousin of mine grew up in an antebellum home in Newnan, Georgia. During the Civil War, Newnan was, like many Southern towns along the railroad, pressed into hospital service. Churches, government buildings and private homes quickly filled with the wounded and sick, my cousin’s home included. She spoke of being awakened to the feeling of something holding her feet down. She continued,

I could feel the pressure of hands. I assumed it was my mom. But when I looked down at the foot of the bed, I saw a small woman with a bun wearing a long, grayish blue dress that came all the way to the ground. It was a weird sensation because I could see her, but I couldn't make out details. What remains with me more than the brief image I saw was the feeling she gave me. It was extremely peaceful and sweet and real. It was nothing like I had ever felt before that day or since.


When my cousin married and moved into a home with her husband, she began to experience a far less positive haunting. “I had a lot of experiences where I would wake up in the morning (sometimes at night) and feel paralyzed. I was completely aware but unable to speak or move. That was not pleasant at all.” This was in addition to other activity, some of which centered on her young daughter. While this was going on she took a photograph of her youngest daughter in which a grayish hand appears reaching towards the child. She no longer lives in the house and has experienced nothing in her new home.

As for Arthur, he pointed out a lounge chair on the other side of the room and said he’d slept in that chair several times without incident. The only times he’d been awakened were while sleeping on the air mattress. He noted that he would sometimes leave a radio on upstairs to hopefully placate the spirit or at least keep it at bay. He removed the radio and the activity has returned. “I don’t think I’ve slept since I took the radio out.” He remarked. I made the suggestion that he try sleeping in the lounge again or that perhaps he move the air mattress.

As I toured the building from attic to basement, I didn’t really feel anything energy-wise that was off. I was guided up to the old attic entrance to the catwalks. The narrow, closet-like space felt quite different, though. As attics are wont to be, this one was hot and stuffy, though the atmosphere was charged with energy. It was almost like being surrounded by hot breath. While I’m not really sensitive, I do sometimes pick up on strong energy and what I felt was a feeling I’ve felt in only a few other situations. Needless to say, I didn’t stick around in the attic very long.

While the spirit or spirit may occasionally upset or mystify the employees at the post office, it’s not thought of as dangerous. Robin remarked, “We take it as a good spirit.” She thinks that the spirit is “looking for something or he needs something fulfilled.” Or perhaps he’s just going about his “appointed rounds.”

I’d like to thank Robin Jarrell and Arthur for extending me such hospitality on my visit and for sharing their experiences. I’m also grateful to my cousin and Philenia for sharing their experiences as well.

Sources
Conversation with Bonne B. 23 April 2013.
Interview with Arthur C. at the West Point Post Office, West Point,
     Georgia. 19 April 2013.
Interview with Philenia W. at the Cherokee Historical Association,
     Cherokee, North Carolina. 21 September 2012.
Interview with Robin Jarrell at the West Poing Post Office, West Point,
     Georgia, 19 April 2013.
Johnson, Forrest Clark and Glenda Major. Treasures of Troup County: A
     Pictorial History. LaGrange, GA: Troup County Historical Society,
     1994.
West Point Depot Visitors Center and Museum. Ghost Walk. 15 October
     2010.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Spirits at the Heart of American Theatre--Actors Theatre of Louisville


316 West Main Street
Louisville

The two buildings at this address are at the heart of modern American Theatre. The theatre company here, the Actors Theatre of Louisville, has striven to become one of the premier theatre companies in the nation and they have succeeded. From humble beginnings in a former tea-room, the company moved to an old train station which was renovated to house a 350-seat theatre. At that time, Jon Jory, son of Hollywood actor Victor Jory, joined the company as an artistic director. He expanded the horizons of the company and oversaw their move to this current space after the train station was demolished in 1972.

With the company, Jory envisioned and created the Humana Festival of New American Plays, now considered the “preeminent annual showcase of new theatrical work.” The festival has introduced new American plays such as David Margulies’ Dinner with Friends and Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart to the American theatrical consciousness; both of which garnered Pulitzer Prizes for drama.

Western theatre’s deepest roots lie in Ancient Greece, thus it’s appropriate that the entrance and lobby for this venerable theatrical institution is a remarkable Greek Revival structure. Built in the mid-1830s, for the Bank of Louisville, this building’s marvelous architecture and the participation of noted architect Gideon Shryock in its construction have led it to be named a National Historic Landmark. The adjoining late-19th century commercial building also belongs to the theatre.

Bank of Louisville Building, now the lobby of the Actors Theatre.
Photograph taken in 1987 by William G. Johnson for the Historic
American Buildings Survey. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Part of the ghost story of this venerable institution begins in a field in the Hamptons in 1970. Rodney Anderson and his wife, Pamela Brown—an actress and scion of Kentucky’s prominent Brown family—were setting off on a journey with pilot Malcolm Brighton to cross the Atlantic in a Roziere balloon (a hybrid between a hot-air balloon and one held aloft by gases like helium or hydrogen). Friends and family gathered to fete the trio and watch as the intrepid voyagers headed into the horizon aboard The Free Life. One of the friends in attendance recalled that the event was “kind of a last hurrah.” She continued, describing the atmosphere as “all that hope and joy of the 60s that seems to have gone so sour, a last little flickering flame before everybody got serious again.” Grasping the euphoric hopes of a libertine decade the balloon ascended heavenwards into a perfect sky. Some thirty hours later, those hopes were dashed when fate caught up with them off the rocky coast of Newfoundland.

In the Brown family’s grief, the Actors Theatre was granted a substantial sum to build a theatre in Pamela’s honor. Built directly behind the antique buildings fronting the street, the 643-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium stands as a memento mori to the idealism of youth. The young, promising actress who was lost so young is still glimpsed in the theatre bearing her name while another specter is seen as well: the shade of an African-American male, possibly from the 19th century. He quietly goes about his business and disappears when he detects he has been spotted by the living.

Sources
Actors Theatre of Louisville. “The History of the Actors Theatre.” Accessed 15
     March 2013.
Cummings, Mary. “The Day a Dream From Springs Crashed.” New York Times. 22
     January 1995.
The Free Life. Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia. Accessed 15 March 2013.
Parker, Robert W. Haunted Louisville. Alton, IL: Whitechapel Productions, 2007. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Midnight with Minarets—Old Tampa Bay Hotel (Photos)


Plant Hall—University of Tampa
401 West Kennedy Boulevard
Tampa, Florida

It’s truly an incredible sight, silver-roofed minarets out of a Moorish fantasy rising above the oaks and palms of downtown Tampa. As I was researching something else, photographs of this fantasy palace called for a further look. I’m glad I did.

It does not, in any way, resemble an academic building, though that is its current use. It was constructed by Henry Plant as the Tampa Bay Hotel between 1888 and 1891. Plant—who had already constructed a rail line to this sleepy hamlet in 1884 and later a steamship line running to Havana—had dreams, like those of Henry Flagler, of turning Florida into a vacation paradise. Their pioneering ideas did succeed—look at Florida now—though it took quite a bit of time. Plant’s investments in this fine hotel were never recouped, though he did succeed in building Tampa into an exciting and cosmopolitan city.

Some of Plant Hall's minarets. Photo 2012 by WalterPro4755.
Released under a Creative Commons License.
Over the more than forty years the hotel operated it barely turned a profit while still attracting some of the best and brightest celebrities. The great French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, lounged in the hotel’s opulence while the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, danced in the corridors. The voice of William Jennings Bryan echoed through its rooms while Babe Ruth signed his first baseball contract here.

The highlight of the hotel’s illustrious, though impecunious, early history came in 1898 when the hotel served as the stateside command post for the American invasion of Cuba. The ladies and gentlemen who usually promenaded through the elegant hallways of the hotel were replaced with generals, troops and newspaper reporters. With Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stationed nearby, Mrs. Roosevelt was booked into the 511 room hotel alongside the famous nurse, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who came to oversee the nursing of soldiers.

After Plant’s death, the grand hotel passed to his heirs who sold it to the city of Tampa in 1905. The hotel saw a series of lease holders until 1933, when the building was leased to the fledgling University of Tampa. Much of the hotel was converted into classrooms and offices while a small portion remained as a museum, preserving the hotel as it was in its heyday. In addition to appearing as part of the university’s logo, the unique building now serves as administrative offices for the school.

A grand staircase inside Plant Hall. Photo 2009 by Gordon Tarpley.
Released under a Creative Commons License.
As midnight’s darkness descends on the minarets of Plant Hall—the building’s current designation—the memories from the great building’s heyday are relived. Legend says that students still occasionally encounter servants from the Victorian era still going about their duties. Students have noted that certain parts of the building have an eerie chill and they get the feeling of being watched. A theatre professor in the building’s Fletcher Ballroom encountered an oddly shaped mist. “This cloud of mist…fog, and it was obvious there was some kind of physical shape to it. And as soon as I saw it, it literally sucked into the wall.”

A curving corridor. Photo 2009 by Gordon Tarpley.
Released under a Creative Commons License.
A curious student one morning had a frightening experience. As she explored the labyrinthine structure, the student encountered a man in an old-fashioned three piece suit. When she called out to ask if she could help him he did not respond, though he began to walk towards her. At that point she realized his eyes were glowing red and she fled. As she descended a staircase, she encountered the same man calmly drinking tea. There’s no telling what else one might encounter around midnight under the minarets.

Sources
Dickens, Dorothy K. and Ralph Christian. National Register of Historic Places 
     nomination form for the Tampa Bay Hotel. October 1975.
“The Ghosts of Plant Hall.” The Minaret. 1 November 2007.
Henry B. Plant Museum. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 10 April 2013.
University ofTampa. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 10 April 2013.

The facade of the grand hotel. Photo 2007 by Ebyabe.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.