The Secret Life Of The Seelbach Hotel

Published: May. 7, 2003 at 5:56 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 29, 2004 at 2:06 PM EDT
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By Carrie Harned

Kentucky has a rich history, but sometimes we forget about the treasures in our own backyard. The Seelbach Hotel was the dream of two German immigrants, and over the past century it has gained the reputation of one of the finest hotels in the area. But with its four stars comes some unscrupulous characters. WAVE 3's Carrie Harned reveals the secrets of the Seelbach.

Just after the turn of the century here in the river city the talk of the town centered on what was being billed as the first European hotel in Louisville.

"They opened the doors in 1905, the original cost was approximately $990,000 dollars," says Larry Johnson, who is now the lobby concierge at Louisville's Seelbach Hotel.

At least 20,000 people turned out for the Seelbach's grand opening. And the lavish furnishings kept drawing crowds for years to come. "People wanted to see what was here that caused such a commotion to build it," Johnson says.

From its early years to the present, the Seelbach has undergone many renovations, including the addition of a bar in the mid 1990s. But over the decades, its walls have held many Seelbach secrets.

Johnson says the restaurant that now draws the fine dining crowd was once a place for fun and games. "This is where all your fine outstanding gentlemen would come to shoot pool, just to congregate, smoke their cigars, bet on the horses."

Except for a certain gun-slinging bad boy of the 20s, the Seelbach was the perfect pit stop. And many came to play poker in what is now called the Oak Room.

"The poker room had the distinction of being where Al Capone came to play poker," Johnson says. "He probably would have stopped here on his way back to Chicago from being in eastern Kentucky, where he picked up his moonshine."

It was the era of Prohibition and Al Capone played it safe at the hotel, always facing a mirror in the poker room to keep an eye on his competition ... and on his back.

And Johnson says there were "lookouts" throughout the hotel. "Whenever the police came into the lobby, somebody would step on the button and the doors going into the poker room would automatically close and he would know to get out."

And secret passageways -- now sealed up -- allowed just that. "One of the doors went out and down to the street, and the other door went downstairs to the tunnels underneath the hotel."

"They would go down into the tunnels and he could go anywhere from a block to a mile away form the hotel without being seen."

Louisville police never caught up with Capone, whether he was escaping a card game or from another room he favored: the Rathskeller. Now a backdrop for corporate events and other parties, Johnson says the Rathskeller was a "big night club back in the 20s and 30s, it was a USO in World War I and World War II. During Prohibition, it was a dinner club."

With its unique Bavarian design, and the only room in the U.S. made entirely of rook wood, it drew a selective crowd, especially during Prohibition.

And at the height of Prohibition, the Seelbach was able to offer what few other establishments could: a sneak drink and a roaring good time.

Johnson describes what the Rathskeller must have been like during the roaring 20s: "You would probably see a speak-easy -- the doors would have a security guard, you probably would have to know someone to get it. And then the booze would probably be snuck to you behind the bar."

Capone liked the Rathskeller, not just for the booze, but also for its architecture, allowing him to hear conversations across the room.

"He liked to try to eavesdrop on the conversation going on around him, and that he was staying ahead of the game."

Capone wasn't the only well-known character to frequent the Seelbach. An Army captain stationed at Camp Taylor also gained quite a reputation at the hotel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, he frequented the bar and supposedly he was kicked out on several occasions for being a booze hound and being a little rowdy," Johnson says.

Despite his brushes with the law, Fitzgerald loved the opulent hotel. So much so he wrote about it years later in the Great Gatsby.

Now, decades later, they are the stories that help make this hotel so grand. And from infamous to famous, the history is so rich.

The Seelbach also has its own ghost. In 1987, Johnson says an employee cooking up Sunday brunch spotted something strange. "He saw a lady in a long blue chiffon dress with long dark hair walk into the elevator and completely disappear. The amazing thing was the doors were closed at the time."

Just a few minutes later, a maid saw the same thing.

"We went to the library to investigate and we found a newspaper clipping dating from 1931 that the lady had come across the street from the Starks building to meet her husband, and he was on his way here and he was killed in traffic accident," Johnson says. "And they found her body in an elevator shaft, and the article read, 'Suicide Or Accident?'"

The lady in the blue dress has not been seen since.

But another lady will also not be forgotten. In 1985 Johnson says a woman called the front desk to say something was "rubbing up against her legs when she pulled the covers up over her legs and turned the lights out."

Larry Johnson checked it out himself, tearing apart the bed only to find nothing. But the story of the haunted room only gets stranger. Outside the same room, a heart-shaped bubble in the wallpaper kept engineers baffled for years. "This heart had been there since 1982 and the engineers would poke holes in it, flatten it out, they would repaint it, and in a couple days the heart would be back."

Finally in 1996, the secret was revealed: a pin hole in the drywall caused the heart, but the rest remains a mystery.

"Since that time, we haven't had the heart, but we haven't had the ghost back rubbing the legs either."

For nearly 100 years, the Seelbach has been a place for the weary traveler, the infamous and the unexplained, a grand hotel with a history of secrets. Now revealed.

There is a running debate if it's pronounced SeelBACH or SeelBACK. Louis and Otto Seelbach named the hotel after themselves, but changed the pronunciation after many years to SeelBACK to make the name sound more American.

Online Reporter: Carrie Harned

Online Producer: Michael Dever