Down in the old hotel

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.

By invitation of His Anonymous Generality the Manager...

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.

The GM with some of his treasures.

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.

Entering the (in)famous Cloud Room on the eleventh floor, now a quiet place for guests to read or take in the view.

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.

On the terrace of one of the penthouse suites, where patrons of the Cloud Room once took in the night air after a show at the Paramount nextdoor.

The Paramount nextdoor. It's not every day you get a chance to photograph an old showboat like that from the roof of an old inn like this.

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!”  

A museum in the basement depicting one of the original kitchens uncovered after being sealed up for decades. Wha--- is that a ghost?

One of the many mysterious little anomalies in the basement of the old hotel -- a hidden storage area.

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).

This tunnel just goes out toward the back alley. The question is...why?

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. 

The lunch menu at the Cloud Room the last day it was open.

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.


34 Responses to “Down in the old hotel”

  1. 1 marni May 25, 2011 at 11:47

    Lucky guy! I’m so jealous. How did they ever pry you away from that basement??

    • 2 Matt May 25, 2011 at 11:55

      Given your fondness for the Cloud Room, Marni, I think the trip to the top floor might have broken your heart. (But yeah. Score!!) And there’s more to come, I think, as GM already has “another building” he wants to show me where he’s tight with the keyholders. It just keeps getting better since I wandered into the Camlin that day last year.

  2. 4 Kip May 27, 2011 at 14:41

    Oh, you are truly a lucky man! I, too, find that I have a jealous bone or two making themselves known! Say, are they still keeping notes? I wonder, if when found out, your unescorted trip made it into some log book, electronic or otherwise……hmmmmmmmm…….

    • 5 Matt May 27, 2011 at 14:49

      Well that would just be poetic justice, wouldn’t it? I didn’t ask GM if I’d made it into the “red book”. Well, at least I wasn’t bootlegging.

  3. 6 Jana May 28, 2011 at 08:03

    I can’t even come up with an awesome enough word for how totally cool that is! Another jealous reader here.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    My mom’s father was a manager at The Mayflower Park Hotel in the 50’s. She commented on a Carousel Room post over at VintageSeattle and was invited by their hotel historian for a visit. Sadly, I didn’t get to go but she loved sharing her stories and hearing theirs.

    • 7 Matt May 28, 2011 at 20:11

      Jana, that’s great about the historian inviting your mom to the hotel for a visit. Is that the old hotel on the Westlake Mall block? I think my folks stayed there one night, even though they’re local, maybe for a dance ball or something. What a great thing, to have a gab session with the hotel historian. I didn’t know that hotels had an officer just for keeping history. Up at the Camlin, the GM is the only guy doing that and it’s really a labor of love, not his job function. These people are civic treasures. The Camlin GM says he still bumps into one old guy who was a footman or something there in the old days and that the man tells him all kinds of stories about the old days. Oh to be listening in on that kind of shop-talk!

    • 9 Matt June 1, 2011 at 21:21

      Innit? We thought so, too. Only been cooler if I’d remembered to take a photo of the view from the Cloud Room. Woops.

  4. 10 susan July 30, 2011 at 06:17

    I remember having a cocktail in the Cloud Room with an friend in the mid 1970’s. Would love to know who played the piano at that time. Loved the feel in that room. So cozy…..

  5. 11 Matt July 30, 2011 at 07:54

    Hi Susan,
    Thanks for commenting and adding your memory to the story. I don’t know whether GM has that info, but it certainly seems like something somebody would know or have written down somewhere along the way. Next time I seem him I’ll ask.

  6. 12 Sonja Vance-Abate November 30, 2011 at 21:44

    How I have enjoyed reading about the old Camlin Hotel. My husband and I were married in the Cloud Room many years ago. I spent countless hours in that hotel, since my husband and his family owned it for many, many years. I was there on the last night before it was converted over to a time-share. Funny how it turned back into apartments after so many great years as a hotel.

    Yes, I do remember those tunnels. One of them connected the newer addition to the hotel that was used by the maids to cart linen back and forth. And they did have a dumb waiter. long ago put out of commission.

    Those boarded up kitchens were something to see. It was like being in a time warp, once several of them were opened up while redoing some of those rooms. The showers in the rooms were something to see as well. Many had 6-8 shower heads in each stall. Water would hit you from all directions. Pretty innovative for its time.

    I was the last one to redecorate the hotel before we finally sold the property. It was sad to see it go and one day I will come back to see it, I don’t get up to Seattle often but how I miss the place!

    Sonja Vance-Abate

    • 13 Matt November 30, 2011 at 22:07

      Thank you so much for reading and for commenting with your personal experience of the hotel, and for shedding light on one of the tunnels. I’m honored by your appearance here.I would very much like to meet you and hear more of your memories of the old hotel — if you come to town please let me know. Coffee’s on me.

  7. 14 barbara harris January 30, 2012 at 08:41

    I have a piece of memorabilia from the camlin hotel that may be of interest. i am going to have it appraised now i didnt even realize it was attatched to such a historic place. it appears to be a liquir set in a leather case and shot glasses made of a old white plastic and 3 leather covered bottles that say bourban scotch and rum on them and the stir spoon says camlin hotel – seattle

    • 15 Matt January 30, 2012 at 08:48

      Hi Barbara,
      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Yes, they certainly loved their spirits up in the Cloud Room. After you get that set appraised, come back and I’ll put you in touch with the general manager of the property. He loves collecting old pieces from the hotel for his Camlin museum.

  8. 16 Barbie Aney February 8, 2012 at 16:06

    Great story! I enjoyed reading about the history of the hotel. Did you notice you caught orbs in the tunnel? Ghost hunters would be envious. I stumbled on this article in search of a hotel that was near the Camlin. It was called the Albrecht Hotel on 9th street near the bus station. If any one has a picture of it, I would love to have a copy. I am researching my great grandmothers murder which happened at Albrecht Hotel in 1934..

    • 17 Matt February 8, 2012 at 22:11

      Hi Barbie,
      Thanks for visiting. Odd, but I hadn’t noticed the orbs before you mentioned it, but there they are plain as the nose on my face. That post gets hit at least twice a week by people doing searches for “camlin hotel seattle haunted”. I’ve always wondered what the story is there. Sorry to hear about your great grandmother. I never heard of the Albrecht. You’ve got me curious.

      • 18 Barbie Aney February 9, 2012 at 01:24

        I actually think  it may have been more of a boarding house. From the newspaper account. I found the hotel listed in the 1934 Seattle City Directory and if I remember correctly the directory listed about 16 names of people who lived there at the time. I actually drove by the site, but it is now a parking lot. 
        I’ve been researching my great grandmother’s death for about 20 years. It’s a pretty amazing story. When I was growing up my maternal grandmother would relate to me the story of how my great grandmother was stalked by a jealous lover and how the Olympia police placed her on a bus to Seattle to get her out of town. The lover of course was stalking her and followed her and bludgeoned her to death and then fled. A manhunt soon was conducted and they located him in Tacoma. 
        What is interesting is, they were both deaf mutes and when they found my great grandmother’s body , she had a note inside her purse that this guy had been choking her and stalking her and she knew he was going to kill her that night. The article is headed by, “Had premonition of her own death.”
        It was about twenty years ago I decided I wanted to find out more about the story. But no one in my family remembered any of the details. It’s taking me this many years to find what happened. 
        I just recently received the court transcripts of the trial and the guy’s mug shot. I’m hoping to write a book on her story and the story of how I found all my information. It is quite an unbelievable story, which is too extensive to go into here.
        Regarding the orbs.  When I finally located her grave in Centralia, I took a few pictures. That night when I got home and downloaded them, I was so shocked! Each picture was filled with hundreds of orbs! My camera has never done that before or since.
        Thank you for telling your story and if you come across any information on Hotel Albrecht(?) please let me know.

        • 19 Matt February 9, 2012 at 10:06

          Thanks for the story, Barbie. If I come across anything on that establishment I’ll let you know. I did a quick image search but nothing chirped. If you’re in Seattle you should go to the top floor of the public library and talk with Carol in the Seattle room. Lots of old Seattle documents and books in there. You have to put on disposable gloves for some items. Good luck with your book.

  9. 21 Chanel March 8, 2012 at 23:11

    Hi – Love reading about the Camlin Hotel. I was lucky enough to stay there for an event circa 1985. I visited the Cloud Room a few times when I was a student at the UW (very cool retro place to visit… and if I remember correctly, they had really good apple pie). More recently, my husband and I built a house in 2004(ish) and we lucked out by finding the most awesome doors salvaged from the Camlin Hotel. They are now in our house, and I am slowly restoring them (not refinishing… just kinda buffing them out). They are so beautiful, and they add so much character to our house. I read in your blog that some of the doors are in a pub on Capitol Hill… I’ll have to take a visit!! I’m happy to share photos if you are interested.

    • 22 Matt March 8, 2012 at 23:23

      Hi Chanel,
      Thanks for commenting. That’s great that you managed to procure some of the Camlin doors. What a treasure. Yes, please send photos. Maybe I could link to them somewhere or include one here as an update. I’ll ask the GM if he’s ever heard anything about the pie.

  10. 23 stuart holm April 18, 2013 at 13:51

    I was the exec chef at the Camlin from May of ’90 to may of ’91, and while there, Pedro and his son Jesse (maintenance and housekeeping) removed a large piece of 1 inch plywood from the concrete wall in that back tunnel, and we crawled through the hole into a scary, forgotten place where old menus and other paper had been stored, and where you could throw a rock into the dark and wait for the ‘splash’./ On our way out I found a large, very old meat cleaver with LOTS of wear under a half inch of dust. I asked Pedro, :”who’s is this?” to which he replied “It’s yours chef.” Still have it and often wonder about it’s history/mystery. My office and the prep kitchen and store room were all down there, and there was a way to squeeze past the boiler to get into the housekeeping area, which I did once. Very mysterious basement. Very interesting part of my career. Wish I knew who put that cleaver there for me. Stuart.

    • 24 Matt April 19, 2013 at 06:06

      Hi Stuart,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. If you knew who put that meat cleaver there, and what they’d been cleaving with it, you might wish you didn’t. This post is one of the most frequently visited posts on my site and it’s because people seem to think the Camlin was haunted. You can tell by the search strings. Maybe some uncorruptible inspector who wouldn’t look the other way during Prohibition met his end in that dark place where you”wait for the splash”. 🙂

      • 25 stuart holm April 19, 2013 at 07:32

        Interesting that you say that, I have had similar thoughts, and feelings, about and, maybe from, this cleaver. The Camlin is no doubt haunted, at least with decades of different peoples energies. I read some references to the dumbwaiter, and while I was there, it was functional and we used it to transport food from the basement to the Cloud Room. I once had a dishwasher beg to ride up in it, and I let him. I was young then, but half way up one of my cooks threw the circuit breaker just to mess with him. What a sound, his muffled yelling from in inside, several floors up. Thanks for sparking so many memories. Stuart.

  11. 27 Holly January 28, 2017 at 13:22

    Loved reading the article and all the comments. We are planning a trip to Seattle this spring and plan on staying at the Camlin. I love travel and history. Thanks!

    • 28 Matt January 28, 2017 at 20:33

      Holly, I’m glad this piece is still proving useful or entertaining to people all these years later. Because we Seattlites have treated our built environment as utilitarian and disposable for the most part, Seattle’s history is often more easily read about than seen. I hope you get to explore Seattle’s history while you’re here. To get the most out of it I recommend David B. Williams’ recent book “Too High and Too Steep”. His whole angle is to tell you about historical aspects of Seattle that you can still go and witness with your own eyes. Not just old buildings. Read it before you come. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  12. 29 Laura McCracken April 27, 2017 at 10:42

    Reading your post about the Camlin Hotel has brought back many wonderful memories from my childhood. My mom’s boyfriend was the maintenance engineer at the Camlin and he hired me to be his “assistant”. It was my first summer job (1986, 87 and 88) I was 12. My first job there was helping to change and re-key every lock on those big mahogany doors you mentioned. I also helped out the bell boys with luggage and room service. My duties include pool cleaning and maintenance and spraying down the courtyard where you had your coffee and other odd jobs.

    In 1987, when they started the transit tunnel construction, we went into a few of those tunnels and rooms below the basement level to remove the papers from them as the tunnel was going to go through them. I found a front elevation drawing of the Paramount Theater, which I still have.

    I was very fond of the Monte Cristo sandwich they served in the restaurant and had that as a regular lunch on the rooftop terrace, next to the old cherub fountain on the north side of the building.

    Because the Paramount Theater is catty-corner from the Camlin I received free concert tickets to shows there. And because of that, there were a few celebrity musicians that I got to meet that stayed at the hotel.

  13. 30 Matt April 27, 2017 at 10:57

    Hi Laura. Wow! Thank you so much for contributing these memories. They are wonderful. But now you have me all twitterpated about the tunnels. You say you had to remove “the papers” from them. Do you mean the tunnels were being used to store old paper files? Also, I only remember seeing two tunnels. One is the shorter one going nowhere with the ladder in it, shown in the post, and the other is the longer service one that I think is still functional. I wasn’t aware that the transit tunnel went through those. Can you elaborate on that? Best I can reckon, the main transit tunnel ended up being well south of the Camlin. I would love to know more about that from you.

    Also, do you have the Paramount plan scanned? If you sent it I could post it here.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  14. 31 gunner56 July 24, 2017 at 14:41

    I don’t know this will go thru I have an old colorful advertising ashtray from the 1940’s trilobe in great condition of the Cloud Room in seattle

    • 32 Matt July 25, 2017 at 09:50

      gunner, thanks for reading and commenting. If you’re in the neighborhood you should take that ashtray in and ask for the general manager…show it to him. Not sure he’s still working there, but when I wrote this the GM collected old items from the hotel.

  15. 33 Ruthie Zimmerlin January 19, 2018 at 20:57

    Matt . . . OMGoodness !! I’m enthralled after traveling thru the Old Call-in Hotel with the three of you. I was in my teens, actually in jr high school when I first visited the Cloud Room where my mother’s sweetheart was the Maitri ‘d. His name was Wade Fairchild and I will remember him always. That was over SIXTY-FIVE years ago. Since I just turned 81 this month. My favorite thing which will seem silly to others was after a wonderful lunch and Wade asked what I would like for my desert and I asked him if I could please have another of the delicious rolls ! Well I did have a desert and Wade sent home a fantastic dinner roll, especially for me. (teehee) I remember the gorgeous view uninterrupted by skyscrapers even before the Space Needle!! Everytime I have the same dinner rolls I think of my teenage visits to the Cloud Room. To update my life barely, a son and his wife bought tickets to “Mamma Mia” at the Fifth Avenue in February and she was looking for someplace special to take me to dinner and I thought about the Cloud Room!! I retired from Lowe’s Home Improvement after 14 yrs and moved away so had no idea it was a very long past memory. I could not believe your site was still accepting comments, so after reading all 32 of them and their dates I was pleased to be able to “reply.” Thank You again. and Many Blessings. ~Ruthie~

    • 34 Matt January 20, 2018 at 13:02

      Hi Ruthie,
      Yes, that area has changed a lot, and so has the hotel. It’s part of a resort/hotel club now and the cloud room is forever gone. I’m so glad you stopped by and took the time to comment. At some point I may have to gather all these comments up and send them to the General Manager. I’ve lost touch with him and not sure he’s even still at the Camlin. Great memory you shared — dinner rolls for dessert! Those must have been SOME rolls. Thanks!

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