State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is currently celebrated as an opulent resort. It has persevered through storms, organized crime, bankruptcy, abandonment, and is also rumored to be haunted. The Biltmore Hotel was the brainchild of John Bowman of the Bowman-Biltmore Hotels Corporation, and Coral Gables real estate developer, George Merrick. Their dream was to build “a great hotel…which would not only serve as a hostelry to the crowds thronging to Coral Gables but also would serve as a center of sports and fashion.” (“History of The Biltmore.” Biltmore Hotel in Miami. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.) The Mediterranean Revival style hotel was designed by Leonard B. Schultze and built in 1926. Schultze modeled the hotel after the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain. When completed, the Biltmore held the title as the tallest building in Florida, until it was surpassed in 1928 by the Dade County Courthouse.
On January 15, 1926, the Biltmore Hotel debuted with a lavish inaugural ceremony. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the resort continued to host decadent events, galas, weddings, and poolside aquatic shows. The resort also played host to a long list of celebrity guests including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby. Franklin D. Roosevelt even had a temporary presidential office set up at the resort when he vacationed in Miami.
During the Prohibition era, it was rumored that gangsters operated a speakeasy and casino on the thirteenth floor of the Biltmore. On March 4, 1929, mobster Thomas “Fatty” Walsh was murdered in the casino over a gambling dispute. Because Fatty had a fondness for beautiful women and fine cigars, some female visitors of the hotel claim that they have smelled Fatty’s cigar smoke in unoccupied sections of the hotel. Other guests riding the hotel’s original elevator have mysteriously found themselves on the thirteenth floor, a place only accessible with a special key card. Some people believe that the random stop on the thirteenth floor is the ghost of Fatty inviting guests to visit his suite.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Thomas “Fatty” Walsh pictured second to the right.
World War II transformed the Biltmore from an extravagant resort into the Army Air Forces Regional Hospital. Most of the hotel’s windows were sealed with concrete, and the Italian travertine marble floors were covered with government-issue linoleum. The building later became the first location of the University of Miami’s School of Medicine, and continued to function as a veteran’s hospital until 1968 when it was abandoned. Stories circulated among locals of teenagers breaking into the deserted structure and “getting tapped on the shoulder by men in army uniforms.”(Preira, Matt. “Spooky Miami: Biltmore Hotel Haunted by Gangsters and WWII Soldiers.” Cultist. N.p., 6 Oct. 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.) Some Coral Gables residents claimed to have heard music coming from inside the empty hotel, while others allegedly saw lights mysteriously turning on and off inside the abandoned structure.
In 1973, the City of Coral Gables was given ownership and control of The Biltmore through the Historic Monuments Act and Legacy of Parks program. The Biltmore remained unoccupied for almost 10 years. Then in 1983, the City supervised the building’s full restoration. On December 31, 1987, after undergoing a $55 million restoration, the hotel reopened its doors.In June 1992, a multinational consortium led by Seaway Hotels Corporation, a Florida hotel management company, officially became the new operators of the Biltmore and now operate the hotel. This national historic landmark has come full circle and is once again a lavish resort and event venue for both living and “ghostly” guests.