Thursday, March 2, 2017

HGB Ep. 187 - Congress Plaza Hotel

Moment in Oddity - The Moon Mausoleum

William Judson Moon was a successful businessman in Caddo, Oklahoma. His wife was Mollie and he adored her. He would have to leave her on occassion for business and in 1904, we made a trip to St. Louis to supervise construction on a new hotel he was building. While he was away, Mollie committed suicide. William was devastated and he wanted to keep Mollie preserved. He built a glass casket for her, had her body carefully preserved and put her in her favorite dress. The local paper claimed that “the mummification is as complete as any the Egyptians ever accomplished.” He then built a brick mausoleum for her that has come to be known as the Moon Mausoleum. It cost him $2,000 to build. He would visit her every day and brush her hair. He changed her clothes and shoes sometimes and legend claims he even bathed her body. Throughout this time, the mausoleum was open to the public and Mollie became a type of tourist attraction. Over time, vandalism caused the family to close up the mausoleum and put bars on the windows. The devotion William showed his mummified wife defied the normal conventions of society and certainly were odd!

This Month in History - Julius Caesar Assassinated

In the month of March, on the 15th, in 44 B.C., Julius Caesar is assassinated by members of the Roman Senate. Caesar was at the height of his power in 44 B.C. and in his arrogance, he declared himself "Dictator for Life." Sixty members of the Roman Senate decided that the only choice they had was to assassinate Julius Caesar. The group never met publicly and they laid out their plans in small groups at each other's homes. They discussed throwing him from a bridge or attacking him walking along one of his favorite paths, but they finally decided that the Senate was the best place. He would be alone and they could hide daggers in their togas. After Caesar entered the chamber, the Senators unsheathed their daggers. Servilius Casca hit him first in the shoulder. Casca's brother then hit him between the ribs. Cassius Longinus hit him next and the attack continued with even Brutus, whom Caesar thought was his allie and friend, stabbing at Caesar as well. He fell at the feet of a statue, mortally wounded. Every conspirator wanted to get in a stab and when they were done, Caesar had at least thirty-five wounds. A battle ensued between armies of the Senate and supporters of Caesar and by the time that was done, several of the conspirators had committed suicide or had been killed.

Congress Plaza Hotel (Suggested by listeners Matthew Hirons and Kristin Swintek)

Chicago's Congress Plaza Hotel is said to be the city's most haunted hotel. Chicago hosted the World's Fair in 1893 and the hotel was built to help provide more accommodations, so it has been around for more than a century. World leaders, US Presidents and the rich and famous have all stayed here. There are rumors that the hotel was used during Prohibition by Al Capone. And similar to the inspiration The Stanley Hotel provided to Stephen King when writing The Shining, the Congress Plaza Hotel inspired him when writing his short story 1408, which eventually became the movie of the same name starring John Cusack. There seems to be many spirits at the hotel to help provide haunting inspiration. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Congress Plaza Hotel!

We can't discuss the history of the Congress Plaza Hotel without talking about the World's Columbian Exposition. This was an event organized to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landfall in the New World. The first World Fair was held in 1790 in Prague, Bohemia. The country of France hosted the World Fairs for the next thirty years, all of them in Paris. The first World Fair hosted in America was in 1829 in New York. Chicago would host the twelfth World Fair to be held in America and this was the World's Columbian Exposition. Civic leaders in Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New York City and Chicago decided that another fair was needed in America to generate business and increase real estate values. Congress okayed the idea and it was left to them to decide if Chicago or New York City would be the host city. Financial giants from both cities competed with each other to pledge funds. New York's J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William Waldorf Astor, pledged $15 million. Chicago's Marshall Fields, Cyrus McCormick and Philip Armour, pledged the same. Plus, the people of Chicago threw in an additional $5 million in stock subscriptions. Congress voted for Chicago and a site was selected.

Many people wanted to have the fair in a central location, but there were difficulties with traffic and property rights. A marshy bog named Jackson Park, seven miles out, was chosen. Daniel H. Burnham was named the exposition's director of works. Burnham wanted to focus on architecture and sculpture to the degree that Paris had focused on engineering. He recruited the top architectural and artistic talent, including landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted wanted to design a park that would rival Central Park in New York City. *Fun fact: George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. designed the first Ferris Wheel as a landmark for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was meant to rival the Eiffel Tower, which debuted at the 1889 World's Fair.* The fair didn't end on a good note. It left behind a small pox epidemic, a fire that swept through the fairgrounds and destroyed many buildings and Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated.

The Congress Plaza Hotel was built in 1893 to help provide accommodations for visitors to the world fair. And we can't state that fact on our podcast without pointing out an infamous hotel built in the White City at that same time by a certain H. H. Holmes: the Murder Castle. As a matter-of-fact, that hotel was named World's Fair Hotel. Originally, the Congress Plaza Hotel was called the Auditorium Annex and was designed to complement the building across from it that was Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building. The hotel was designed by Clinton Warren and Louis Sullivan was a consultant for him, along with Dankmar Adler, both of whom built the Auditorium Building. Hotel developer R.H. Southgate built the hotel. The two buildings were connected by an underground marble passageway dubbed "Peacock Alley.”

Other features of the hotel were added later. Between 1902 and 1907, the Hoalbird and Roche Firm designed and built the fourteen-story South Tower. Part of this addition included the Gold Room, which was the first hotel ballroom in America to have air-conditioning. The twelve-story North Tower added the Florentine Room in 1909, which was another ballroom. At this point, there were 1,000 guest rooms. New owners decided to rebrand the hotel and give it a new identity. They looked to its location for inspiration. The street running along it was Congress Street and it was across from Congress Plaza, so they named it Congress Plaza Hotel in 1908.

Subsequent owners would add more improvements. Guestrooms were enhanced in 1916 to add electrical outlets and desk lamps and remove hanging chandeliers. Original bathroom fixtures were replaced in the early 1920s. The Elizabethan Room on the ground floor became a dance club with the innovation of a revolving bandstand in the 1930s. They renamed the club the Joseph Urban Room. In 1935, it was home to Benny Goodman and his NBC Radio show. During World War II, the hotel was purchased by the government and was used as a headquarters for U.S. Army officers. The hotel moved back to private hands in 1945 when a group of Chicagoans purchased it. In 1950, the Pick Hotel Corporation purchased the property and began a multi-million dollar renovation, which included adding a mural-encircled lobby, new front desk, new public rooms on the third floor, new corridors, new Congressional and Presidential Suites, and a new supper club called the Glass Hat. Escalators and another ballroom were added in the 1960s.

Rumors claim Al Capone once owned the hotel,but there is no proof of that.Others claim he played cards there. What does seem to be true is that Jake “Greasy Thumb” Gusik phoned Capone in Palm Island, Florida, in regards to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre from a phone at the Congress Plaza. During all its earlier decades, the Congress Plaza came to be known as the "Home of Presidents." Those presidents include Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Woodrow Wilson, William McKinley, Grover Cleveland and Richard Nixon. Political conventions were hosted here and as a matter-of-fact, the nickname "Bull Moose" for Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive Party was coined here. The hotel became the headquarters for the Democrat Party and President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. In 1952, the Republican Credentials Committee broadcast from the Gold Room via television. In 1971, nearly 3,000 people packed the Great Hall when President Richard Nixon addressed the Midwest Chapters of the AARP and National Retired Teachers Association.

Today, the Congress Plaza features 871 guest rooms and several suites. The lobby features beautiful mosaic tile by Tiffany and Co., along with gorgeous chandeliers. The hotel also features ghosts. Some claim that this is the most haunted hotel in Chicago. Could its tragic past associated with many suicides, be part of the reason for its notorious reputation? James Kennedy was a man from New York who came to the hotel in May of 1910. He checked into his room and then strangely cut all the dry cleaning identification tags out of his clothes and burned his documents. He then walked across to the lake and shot himself. That same year, an insurance salesman named Andrew Mack visited a friend who was staying at the hotel. He then left and walked to the lake and drowned himself. In 1916, mining investor Morse Davis and his wife attempted suicide in their Congress Plaza hotel room by taking cyanide. His wife survived, but later tried to throw herself out of a third story window at St. Mary's Mission. A salesman committed suicide by throwing himself down an elevator shaft. Another man hung himself on a cupboard hook in his room and a drifter jumped off the roof of the north tower. 

There are many rooms that reputedly have spirits hanging around in the afterlife. The most notorious of these is Room 441. This room hosts full-bodied apparitions. Cold spots and disembodied whispers have been experienced and even more startling are reports that items have launched themselves across the room. Could this room be the inspiration for Stephen King's story "1408?" Other rooms that could be candidates as inspiration for "1408" are Room 905, where constant phone static is experienced, Room 474 where the channels on the television are constantly changed and Room 759 where an unseen spirit pulls the door shut when people try to enter. There are those that would argue that Room 441 is not the most haunted in the hotel. That prize is said to really belong to an unnamed room on the twelfth floor. The haunting here was so horrifying that the hotel managers decided it would be best to not only not rent out the room, but to seal it up forever. The door was removed and replaced with a wall and covered over in wallpaper. Many claim that it is this room that is featured in the story and movie about a young man who convinces the hotel's manager to let him stay in the haunted room that was said to cause another guest to commit suicide.

One floor above, people claim to hear groans near the elevator. There are at least two people that are believed to have fallen down the elevator shaft. The Gold Room is popular for weddings, but if you chance having your nuptials hosted in this room, you just might end up with something missing in your wedding photos. Specifically, members of your wedding party or family who try to join you in those pictures. Final photos will have spaces in the pictures that are blank where someone had been standing. It's a weird phenomenon that seems to remove the living from pictures. This generally happens in any pictures taken near the grand piano in the Gold Room. Could it be that a spirit blocks the person in the picture? Could that spirit belong to a construction worker? There is a legend that a worker was walled in the drywall somehow during construction. The remnants of this can be seen in the 'hand of mystery' in the closets behind the balcony in the Gold Room.

The Florentine Room was where the roller skating rink used to be and there is a residual haunting here that features the sounds from that past time of roller skates moving across the floor, the ominous piping of organ music and the sounds of laughter and disembodied voices. The North Tower is host to the spirits of a mother and her children. Apparently, she was so depressed that she decided to commit suicide by jumping from a balcony on the North Tower, but she didn't want to leave her children behind, so she tossed them from the balcony before she jumped herself. Most often, only the apparition of one of the boys is seen.

It seems as though all common areas of the hotel have some kind of unexplained phenomenon happening. Objects throw themselves about, cold spots are felt and there are apparitions seen as well. Most of these occurrences happen at night. Some wonder if these could be the work of a ghost that has become famous at the hotel and that is Peg Leg Johnny. Johnny was a disabled homeless man who met his final fate at the hotel. He was killed here and now seems doomed to wander the halls, particularly in the south tower of the hotel. Whenever he is seen, he mysteriously vanishes before he can be approached. The apparition has only one leg.

TwistedElegance25 wrote on TripAdvisor in 2009:
"I stayed there on a company trip so didn't actually pick this hotel. All I know is it was definitely haunted. I was laying on my bed and the curtain moved to the side as if somebody was peeking at me. Then my friend said she heard someone whistling in our room when she was in the bathroom. She looked out and nobody was in happened 3 times. I had NO idea this hotel was even haunted until I told my friend about it and he looked the hotel up for me. He sent me the link about it...this hotel is one of the most haunted hotels in Chicago! I wish I had known this before I stayed there! The hallways look like the hallways from that movie 'The Shinning.' The bed was super uncomfortable...the room was absolutely freezing! It was so hot out too. I had to ask the bell guy for a lot of extra blankets and my friend and I were still freezing!!!! So I then asked them how to turn the heater on and they said they only turn on the hotel heater during the winter time. He came back to our room and felt how cold it was so then searched the hotel for a portable heater for us. thank God he found somewhat helped a little. The hotel seemed really pretty downstairs...but the rooms I didn't like very much at all. I felt like I was staying in an old Grandmas room. Anyways...if you guys like ghost...then yeah sure...stay at this hotel, lol."
 Matthew Hirons said:
 "It's an outdated hotel, which I found charming...ish. Think Wes Andersen movie.  Definitely helps with the creep vibe.  The location is great, right across from Buckingham Fountain. The Stephen King short story "1408" was based on the hotel, but the movie was not filmed there. There have been some pretty famous guests there. It's true that Matthew Hirons was seen checking in there. I did some walking around and took some recordings in the hallway around the infamous Room 441. I spent some time there and caught nothing. I didn't see anything. However, I did catch two ladies that had done the same as me and they said they saw a man through the divider door window to the next hallways and then he was just gone. Does this mean it's not haunted? Who knows. I think that if you really want to get to the heart of that answer, you have to book 441 and stay focused on it. If you want a fair priced hotel downtown with a lure of haunting, than it will be worth staying there."
 Kristin Swintek said:
"I absolutely love the Congress Hotel! It might not be one of the most luxurious hotels in Downtown Chicago, but it is beautiful, very affordable and in an excellent location. It's right on the famous Michigan Avenue across the street from Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain. In walking distance to the Art Institute (the art museum that Ferris, Sloan and Cameron go to in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off), very close to the Museum Campus which includes The Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum of Natural History, and the Adler Planetarium and you can see Lake Michigan if you have a room facing Michigan Ave. I haven't stayed there in over 10 years, and from a quick look at the website, it appears the rooms have been renovated since I was there last in probably 2005. I remember there being claw foot tubs in the bathroom which appear to be gone now. Those were so neat.

My first visit to the Congress Plaza Hotel was during my college orientation week. I attended Columbia College Chicago with is located a block south of the hotel and they had deals for families coming in for orientation. My parents and I stayed in a "Family Suite" which included one large room with two queen beds and a smaller bedroom with one Queen bed off which was the bathroom. We surmised that the larger room was probably once used as a parlor or sitting room with the bedroom off of the parlor. My mom and I came down to the hotel early in the day and my dad was going to meet us there later after work. We weren't sure what our schedule would be like with the orientation so we told the front desk to hold my Dad's room key so he could pick it up and let himself into our room when he arrived.

Orientation day was done earlier then expected and decided to head back to the hotel to cool off from the hot summer day. My mom and I were relaxing together in the smaller bedroom and we read the hotel booklet with information and the history of the hotel. We were reading about all the famous people who had stayed there including former US Presidents and there were pictures of what the hotel looked like in the 30's and 40's. Then there was a section on some of the hauntings around the hotel. As we are reading this particular section, we were startled by the sound of the door opening. We jumped and screamed. It was just my Dad who had decided to leave work a little early and surprise us. He came in and was equally startled by our reaction and said "What heck is the matter with you two?" We told him what we were just reading and he agreed that an old hotel like that was surely haunted and we all had a good laugh.

We didn't have anything really definitive happen while we were there. I was sleeping alone in the larger room by myself. One of the nights I woke up and felt like something was staring at me in the middle of the night. I turned around to look into the dark room, praying that I wouldn't see anything. I found the room empty but still had the unsettling feeling. I pulled the blankets over my head, squeezed my eyes shut and willed myself to go back to sleep, hoping I wasn't going to have nightmares. It may have just been an overactive imagination, knowing that I was in a haunted hotel. I've stayed there one other time with my Husband back when were dating for a little staycation in the city. I would really like to go back soon and see if anything spooky happens. It's such a wonderful place."
Ursula Bielski, Founder of Chicago Hauntings Tours, wrote, "Since 1989, I have participated in more than 3 dozen investigations of the Congress Plaza, documenting no fewer than 47 distinctively haunted rooms and at least two ballrooms, as well as common areas such as employee workrooms and public guest areas.  The sheer variety of phenomena reported and experienced at this massive structure is mind-boggling.  Truly, there seems to be no end to the historic tragedy or of its supernatural manifestations."

Are the spirits of former guests and employees still walking the corridors of this century old hotel? Is the Congress Plaza Hotel haunted? That is for you to decide!


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  14. I LOVE Congress hotel. I have always felt a weird connection with this hotel but can't quite put my finger on it. I stayed in room 441 on New Years Eve a few years back and had no idea at the time that that room/ hotel was haunted. I couldn't sleep for the life of me and I remember I felt a weird presence also but nothing I could visually see. As we were getting ready for a concert, I tried taking numerous pictures on my cell phone but with the awful lighting in that room, they were coming out black! The one & only picture that I kept on my phone from that stay is a photo of me and half my face is black. Very eerie feeling staying here but if you are open minded with everything paranormal, it sure is fun! I'd like to stay in that room again sometime, now that I'm aware of it being haunted.