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Sniffing out history -- and ghosts

Louisville's Seelbach Hotel a grand reminder of city's past

hotel exterior
Louisville's Seelbach Hotel was opened in 1905 by brothers Louis and Otto Seelbach  

In this story:

Europe in Kentucky

Gangsters' hideaway

Hard times

If you like bourbon ...


LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (CNN) -- Since when does a ghost leave a trail of perfume?

Louisville's Seelbach Hotel is filled with the musty odors of a rich history, including the haunting tale of the lady in blue. Back in 1907, a young bride was handed the horrifying news that her new husband had been killed in an accident on his way to the wedding reception in the hotel ballroom.

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    Inconsolable and heart-broken, she threw herself down an elevator shaft. The wedding party found her broken body, clad in a blue dress, 10 stories below.

    That elevator is still in use almost one century later. During our six-day stay, the elevator often moaned and shuddered -- a sure sign, we were told, that the lady in blue is still in mourning. Some guests report seeing her in the middle of the night, and most include a chilling detail: They recall the aroma of her perfume.

    The Rathskellar, in the basement, features stunning Moorish-influenced arches decorated with hand-painted tiles from the Rookwood Pottery factory in Cincinnati  

    Europe in Kentucky

    Even without a ghost-in-residence, the Seelbach is one of the most storied historic hotels you're likely to visit. Gangsters, writers and United States presidents have stayed under its roof, sometimes with intriguing results.

    Louisville attracted European immigrants after the Civil War, including Louis and Otto Seelbach, brothers from Bavaria. Louis ran a series of restaurants and small inns, but longed to build a majestic establishment in the style and tradition of the grand hotels of Europe.

    In 1905, the brothers opened their 196-room, 10-story hotel several blocks south of Main Street. It was a huge hit, particularly during the annual Kentucky Derby celebrations. After only two years, Louis and Otto added a new wing, expanding the hotel to 350 rooms.

    Throughout the first half of the century, the Seelbach was a sight to behold. The grand lobby had soaring ceilings, supported by columns of marble imported from Switzerland, Italy and Vermont. Giant murals ringed the high walls, each depicting scenes from Kentucky history, including several images of Daniel Boone.

    Mahogany, bronze and leather gave the hotel the feel of an exclusive club for men. In fact, female guests were provided with a separate entrance and waiting room, while most of the hotel's parlors were reserved for men only.

    Gangsters' hideaway

    The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald was among those who came to the Seelbach to sip Kentucky bourbon and smoke expensive cigars. Fitzgerald was particularly taken by Cincinnati mobster George Remus, a dashing figure who ran whisky northward during Prohibition. Known as the "king of the bootleggers," Remus became the inspiration for the title character Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."

    Al Capone was in the same business as Remus, and the fabled Chicago gangster made dozens of visits to the Seelbach every year. You can still eat dinner in a room designed especially for Capone's poker games. The dark-paneled oak walls include a large mirror -- the better for Capone to see if anyone was sneaking up behind him.

    Capone table
    Hotel visitors can still eat in a room designed for Chicago gangster Al Capone's poker games  

    Whenever G-men launched one of their frequent raids attempting to catch the infamous crook, Capone would slip through one of two hidden doors behind the poker room's panels, sliding through a secret passage to freedom. The panels are still there.

    The most breathtaking room at the Seelbach is in the basement. The Rathskellar, built in the Bavarian tradition, features stunning Moorish-influenced arches, covered with thousands of hand-painted tiles from the Rookwood Pottery factory in Cincinnati.

    The pillars are ringed with pelican frescos (a symbol of good luck), and the ceiling above the bar is covered with hand-tooled leather featuring intricate designs from the zodiac.

    The architecture is so precise that sound is reflected like a polished parabola. Capone reportedly loved the Rathskellar because he could hear what other people were whispering about him from across the room. The Rathskellar is now used only for special events.

    Hard times

    The Rathskellar, like the rest of the Seelbach, has survived decades of floods, financial straits and failed renovations.

    The mighty Ohio River, 10 blocks to the north, used to spill its banks every decade or so, ruining much of below-ground Louisville. By the 1960s, seawalls and bulkheads managed to keep the river away, but nothing at the time could stop the economic erosion that threatened downtown.

    Fancy stores headed for the suburbs, and a creeping blight brought boarded-up windows to the business district. Fewer visitors came to the Seelbach every year.

    The Sheraton chain bought the hotel, painting the marble columns, obscuring the vaulted ceilings and even plastering over the beautiful murals. The "modernization" failed; in 1975, the Seelbach closed its doors -- seemingly forever.

    During the next decade, several benefactors sank millions of dollars into the hotel, restoring the columns, ceilings and murals, and trying to turn the 10th-floor ballroom into the center for Louisville society.

    Hollywood actor Roger Davis (married, for a time, to Jaclyn "Charlie's Angels" Smith), ran out of money after spending more than $7 million, but managed to see the hotel through its grand reopening in 1982.

    The hotel reopened in 1982 after a multimillion-dollar renovation  

    In the nearly 20 years since, millions more have been committed to the hotel, including ongoing projects by the current owners (MeriStar Hotels & Resorts) to modernize all bathrooms and continue historic renovations.

    If you like bourbon ...

    During our stay, we found the rooms to be clean and comfortable. There are plenty of creaks (ghosts?) and continuing small troubles with plumbing, but the marvelous history more than compensated for those minor discomforts.

    We were fortunate to arrive in time for a spectacular wedding, where hundreds of guests attired in finery offered a shimmering glimpse of the hotel's earlier glory.

    The Old Seelbach Bar boasts of having one of the largest collections of Kentucky bourbon in the country, but the decor was fairly uninspiring. Not so for the landmark Oak Room, a beautifully restored dining room that enjoys a reputation as one of the finest restaurants in the region (it's also where you'll find Al Capone's poker table).

    If you're lucky, you'll meet some of the hotel staff members who've been around for more than 10 years they can tell you about all the famous guests (Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Al Pacino) who slip in when they're in town. If you saw the recent movie "The Insider" (Pacino and Russell Crowe), then you've already had a glimpse of some of the Seelbach's splendor.

    But if you're reallylucky, you might see -- or even smell -- a ghost.

    Destinations: Louisville, Kentucky

    Seelbach Hotel

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