Archive for June, 2012

During its existence, the celebrated Elms Resort and Spa has nurtured a rich and vibrant history. The Elms has not only established itself as a sought-after destination for over 100 years but a true survivor against all odds. I recently had a chance to stay at this old historic hotel and thought it might interest some of my readers.

I looked up Historic Hotels on Google and discovered over 200 hotel listings of which I had stayed in twenty-five. However, The Elms and some others I stayed at were not listed. Then I discovered another designation, National Register of Historic Places. This is where the Elms and the Great Lodges of the West fit in. So all I really concluded is there are hundreds of historic hotels all over the US, which I think says a lot for the preservation efforts in our country.

The Elms has had a very interesting and varied history. It began with the discovery of healing mineral waters in Excelsior Springs in the 1880s. Once the rest of the country heard of the springs and their medicinal properties, thousands visited the sleepy little valley to partake of the waters. They pitched tents and built boarding houses as the springs were marketed as a health resort. Soon, the first and grandest hotel was built. This property enchanted all of its visitors with its combination of elegance and warmth. Guests could soak in mineral water baths or soak up the sun in the lush gardens. There were exquisite parties and grand balls. Eventually The Elms, along with the springs, became one of the most desired destinations in the country.

Sadly it all ended on May 9, 1898. A horrible fire burned the wooden structure to the ground. Thankfully there were no fatalities or injuries. While the devastating fire destroyed a structure, it awakened the spirit of the townspeople of Excelsior Springs. By 1908 a second Elms hotel was being built. By this time, the mineral spring waters were being sold worldwide and gaining international attention. Despite heavy rains and flooding during construction, the second Elms opened July 31, 1909. The new resort attracted guests by train from all over the country and the hotel reveled in its restored glory.

Astoundingly, the joy was stolen by another destructive fire on October 30, 1910. Three months later, they began to build again. A third and final structure was built and opened in September of 1912. Constructed of native limestone and boasting grand ballrooms and inviting verandas, it was once again attracting world-famous clientele. In the 1920s the city and the hotel enjoyed continued fame as a national health resort but unfortunately it did not do well in the Depression.

After filing for bankruptcy in 1931, new management took over. The new management brought in prominent citizens from all walks of life as well as both sides of the law. Politicians, sports stars and crime figures created a heady brew of hotel guests. Al Capone, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Bugsy Moran reportedly hosted illegal gambling and bathtub gin parties. Police tried to raid the Elms during Prohibition on several occasions. During one memorable attempt, the police busted in on a cocktail party that included the Governor of Missouri. The governor memorably told the cops to go out and bust someone who was “really breaking the law”.

Sometimes when I sit in these old hotels, I think if only these walls could talk. Jack Dempsey and the New York Giants visited and trained there. Large conventions were held and festivals were created on the grounds. The hotel activities at this time included private thoroughbred trails, fox hunts with hounds, games of bridge overlooking the gardens and a cocktail lounge complete with in house orchestra.

In 1948 The Elms hosted its most famous guest. Harry S. Truman checked into The Elms in secrecy on November 2, 1948, accompanied by six secret service agents. The President wanted to enjoy the quiet graciousness of the hotel and escape the stress of the Democratic campaign headquarters in Kansas City on Election Day. He stayed the next day also, but that day he was officially the newly elected president of the US.

The 1950s ushered in the era of the corporate and national conventions. Names like Avon, Standard Oil, The American Red Cross and many others reserved the entire hotel for their conventions. During this time The Elms also gained a reputation as a wedding and honeymooners paradise.

The 70’s and 80’s were not good for The Elms and the city took over after the hotel had been closed for 8 years. In 1991 there was another bankruptcy and the city bought the property and took over until a proper buyer was found. By July of 1998, the Elms celebrated yet another grand opening after a 16 million dollar renovation with the emphasis on a new spa that was built on the property. Today, new buyers have recently purchased the hotel and have had it closed since last October doing a $15 million renovation. It is due to open by the end of May.

Even through the sad years, it is obvious that a lot of love has gone into this hotel. And, not to be discounted, I have never heard of an old historic hotel that doesn’t have “ghosts”. Over the years, the Elms has been said to be host to several spirits. The origin of these ghosts have been the source of many a ‘spirited’ discussion. While the hotel had seen two devastating fires, no fatalities occurred. Rumors have persisted that one of the spirits was involved in one of the fires. The lap pool area supposedly entertains the spirit of a gambler involved with illegal activities during the speakeasy days of Prohibition. The housekeeping staff has a spiritual adviser in the form of a ghost wearing a 1920’s style uniform. One thing everyone seems to agree on is the friendliness of the spirits. And, all I can say is “believe it or not!”

Some of the amenities include a full service restaurant and lounge, a pub inspired lounge where sandwiches may be purchased, an awesome outdoor pool (think sitting out there with a glass of wine in hand looking at the wonderful gardens and grounds), a twenty person hot tub opened all year and an indoor European lap poll which must be seen to be believed—almost like a lazy river pool. There is volleyball, bocce ball, badminton and shuffle board just like you would expect to find in a luxurious European resort hotel. There are 16 acres to stroll through with outdoor fire pits and they even grow their own herb garden for use in their restaurant. The Paradise Playhouse and Hall of Waters (originally built to allow access to the healing mineral waters) in downtown Excelsior Springs are nearby if you feel the urge to leave the hotel. Actually, just sitting in the lobby watching the people stroll by is great entertainment.

And, if you check in for a couple of days (during the weekday since weekends are extremely busy), you can tour nearby sites as well. The Jesse James farm is very close and Harry Truman’s presidential library is in nearby Independence. Kansas City, the city of boulevards, is only 30 miles away. It would take a whole other article to talk about KC, but a tour of Hallmark Crown Plaza would be high on the list. Or, possibly even a baseball game.

The Elms Resort and Spa stands today as a Grande Dame of Hospitality featuring spectacular amenities and gracious service. The hotel is a true survivor and stands as a magnificent tribute to the unbeatable spirit of the town of Excelsior Springs. As I said earlier, there are many of these hotels scattered all over the US. Some have stayed opened for their entire history and some have had to struggle to stay alive. But I just think it is fun to sit in these places reflecting on the history that has occurred within their walls.

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