In Joseph Mitchell’s story “Up in the Old Hotel” the author stops to eat at a regular Lower Manhattan haunt of his called Sloppy Louie’s, and the owner, an old friend of his, convinces him to accompany him to the upper floors of the building, which was once the old Fulton Ferry Hotel and at the time of Mitchell’s story (1952) had been abandoned for decades. Louie had bought the old building and had opened his restaurant in it but had never ventured above the second floor because the stairs did not go further and to access the upper floors you had to ascend a ladder through the second-floor ceiling and then pull yourself up into the dark in a rusty lift with old ropes. Like two nervous schoolboys exploring a haunted house, Louie and Joe try to uncover the hotel’s past.
My story about the Camlin is a little like that.
After I wrote about “sneaking” into the old Camlin Hotel here in Seattle last year (see Trespass), the general manager of the hotel found my post and left a comment employing perfect comic timing and understatement, not only letting me know that I was busted, but also that I had missed a few things he would be glad to show me next time I was in the neighborhood. I am not allowed to name him nor the company that now owns the venerable property, but I contacted him last week and asked if I might come round for my grand tour. Mara got wind of it and wanted to come too, so I took a long lunch and Angela and Millie made a large sacrifice (skipping an important midday nap for Mills) by bringing Mara downtown to meet me at the old hotel.
As it happens, the general manager (we’ll just call him GM) is a person uncommonly well suited to the managing of an old hotel like the Camlin. He loves history. He is a regular visitor at the same local history-related websites I frequent, and he is persistent and resourceful in teasing out tangible bits of the historic Camlin from the mists of the past. In the very little free time that overseeing the operations of a busy time-share location leaves him he has amassed — is amassing — an impressive collection of ephemera — articles, postcards, advertisements, menus, brochures — related to the Camlin and its famous (though now erstwhile) Cloud Room. Using eBay he has even found such odd items as salad plates with the Camlin logo and letters from former managers to prospective VIP visitors. A note he showed me from many years back states that one Ozzie Ozborne contacted the hotel staff late one night to tell them that there was someone lying on the sidewalk near the front door. A later note informs us that the person had jumped and was pronounced dead at Harborview.
In addition to the collection he has formed, GM’s office holds a series of red-cloth-bound log books dating back to 1979, with entries written in many hands and in many shades of blue and black ink, detailing the salient events of any given day, such as fights breaking out between besotted patrons of the notoriously lively Cloud Room. There is also a set of smaller books, also bound in red-cloth, that the bartenders logged separate nightly reports in, mostly about which patrons got so plastered that they were cut off. It’s all there in writing, so if you misbehaved at the Cloud Room anytime in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the details have been duly noted for posterity. GM said the logs were lively reading and I would love to have simply kicked back and read some of their entries, but Mara was soon spinning complete circles with the chair we had deposited her in, so GM grabbed some keys from the front desk and we hit the elevator.
First stop was what is left of the Cloud Room. The sign is still there above the door to the back portion, which is now simply a quiet lounge area with a stunning view. According to GM, and you could google this or TiVo it or whatever, a scene from the movie The Fabulous Baker Boys pans through this room as Michelle Pfeiffer is yelling at the Bridges Bros., and out the window you can see the lit sign on the roof of the Roosevelt Hotel, the other surviving Seattle hostelry famed for its neon. GM got a lot of hate-mail when the hotel’s new owners closed the Cloud Room in 2004 and added several penthouse suites, even though they thoughtfully named them Cumulus, Nimbus, Cirrus, etc. as an homage to the great old skyscraping pub.
Next GM showed us one of the penthouse suites, and then we descended a few floors and toured one of the more modest rooms on the north side. I would have taken some photos of these rooms except that a) Mara’s attention span was better served by moving at GM’s clip, which was not slow enough for me to really think out my compositions, and b) I was too busy listening to all the fascinating historical factoids that GM was telling me. An example: the mahogany doors that once fronted each room were not usable in the renovations the new owners made because they would not meet fire code specifications, so they now comprise the bar in a pub on Capitol Hill called 22 Doors.
Now you know. (Don’t mention it, it’s my job.)
GM was like a fountain of these small vignettes from the Camlin’s intriguing and often comical past. Or if the facts or events weren’t funny in themselves — like the fact that whole kitchens were walled up intact in the 1940s when some of the original apartments were converted to guestrooms (the hotel opened with both guestrooms and apartments) — we could tell he was very amused by them, or by the telling of them, which makes him the perfect host for a tour such as this. As we breezed through the hallways, in and out of rooms and elevators, he regaled us with snippet after snippet in an understated style that often left me puzzling for a moment what he meant. He enjoyed telling us just enough of an anecdote for me to put together what he meant a few minutes later. For example, he told us that some decades ago it was someone’s brilliant idea to put a small yacht in the swimming pool as a room you could rent. He stopped at a framed newspaper article on the wall depicting workmen lowering the storied craft into the pool. Then he remarked that it would have been a good idea if the bilge pump had been checked beforehand. With a twinkle of his eye and a slight grin, he whirled off down the hall while I explained the portent to myself by saying to Mara as we raced to follow him, “Mara, wow, they forgot to close a valve in the bottom of the boat and it sank in the pool!”
Lastly we descended to the basement, which I must admit turns out to have been my favorite part, despite the view from the Cloud Room (still a nice view to the south even though the famous views of the water to the west and the Space Needle to the northwest have been forever occluded by new highrises) and the view from the penthouse terrace. Down here are mysteries…mysteries I tell you. Before going through one set of doors, GM paused to bid us bear in mind that the hotel was built in 1926, smack dab in the middle of Prohibition, a time when anyone building a hotel might have taken great pains to make sure that their guests could…let’s see…enjoy a full range of refreshments, as Americans of the high class and growing middle class felt they were entitled to do, regardless of what the law said. I may be mistaken about this, but I think many good people regarded Prohibition as a temporary inconvenience they knew would surely end, and with which they must “play along” until it was over. In any case, the person who built the Camlin (the son of the man who built the church next door) built it with $800,000 siphoned from his father-in-law’s bank (one indiscretion among many that eventually earned him a long stay as the guest of the state at a facility in Walla Walla).
So it is puzzling, but not surprising in the least, to find tunnels running off here and there and hidden rooms and staircases that rise a few steps and then stop at blank walls. GM first showed us a long hallway that ended at a big delivery door. Low along one wall of the hallway was a hole covered in plexiglass, the forgotten entrance to a strange, low-ceilinged room that was rediscovered only a few years ago. Behind this window a light was left on and you could see the base of a ladder that rose up to a hole in the ceiling, leading to another hidden room on top of the first. They were last used as storage rooms for old junk the hotel was shedding, including a huge Vance Lumber Company sign that used to hang out front (the Vance Lumber Company owned the hotel for a time). GM believes that this hallway was used to bring in the booze when the front door might have been watched, and these hidden rooms were used to store it. A dumbwaiter that has since been removed would have completed a path to the guestrooms upstairs that liquor could travel without ever having to pass through the publicly accessible parts of the house.
We stopped in the kitchen to sample some homemade pozole that one of the staff had brought in to share (muy delicioso… ¡Muchimas gracias, Maria Lena!). Mara and I had to go after that, but I left all bothered about those tunnels and hidden rooms in the basement. And there are still further mysteries that haven’t even been identified. As we passed out of the boilerroom on our way to somewhere else, GM rapped his knuckles on a wall of bare sheetrock put up before his tenure began more than a decade ago, a wall that encloses a space unaccounted for, and said with one raised eyebrow, “still have to get in there”.
NOTE: For a great article about the men who built the Camlin by my mentor from my days at Washington Magazine, local author and historian J. Kingston Pierce, see this excerpt from his book Eccentric Seattle: Pillars and Pariahs Who Made the City Not Such a Boring Place After All. Order it from your local indie bookshop.