New Book Offers Look at Historic Phoenix Hotel and its Guests, Some Ghostly

Posted By Mike Padgett

July 22, 2009

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The desk clerk was frantic. It was 4 a.m. and the seven-story Hotel San Carlos suddenly went dark. The electricity was out. No lights, no working elevators and no air conditioning. It was a typical July with triple-digit temperatures.

The hotel clerk grabbed the phone and punched a number. The predawn call at his home startled Robert Melikian, whose family since 1973 has had a financial interest in the historic hotel in the heart of downtown Phoenix. The clerk then headed for the basement to check the main switch. It had been tripped, and the three ghost hunters standing nearby denied turning it off.

The trespassers were hotel guests. They had portable lights and other equipment. They said the power must have been turned off by the ghosts they were hunting. The clerk turned the power back on and escorted the trespassers out of the basement.

The scary episode isn’t in Melikian’s new book about the hotel, but it shows the interest that fans of haunted hotels have for the Hotel San Carlos. The encounter with the ghost hunters early this month took place a few weeks after Melikian and his publisher, Arcadia Publishing, announced his 128-page book, “Hotel San Carlos.” The book is filled with historic photos and personal vignettes about the hotel, which opened in 1928 at the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Monroe Street.

Melikian’s book has four chapters – The Land and the School, The Hotel San Carlos Is Born, The Melikian Ownership and Changes in Downtown Phoenix, and Celebrities and Ghosts.

The book took more than a year to write. It was fitting that Melikian write it, given his family’s on-and-off ownership of the hotel and his passionate interest in preservation of historic buildings.

When family patriarch Gregory Melikian first bought the San Carlos in 1973, the eyebrow-raising room rates were $3.50, “less if one wanted an hourly rate, which most guests did,” son Robert wrote in his book.

Although the handsome hotel suffered from neglect, as well as transient guests, the older Melikian saw its promise. A new 39-story bank building recently opened across the street. The hotel at 202 N. Central Ave. was in the heart of downtown Phoenix. It had Hollywood and major league baseball history. And it was constructed of poured-in-place concrete, giving it strength and substantial protection against fire.

After he bought the hotel, Melikian’s daughter Ramona worked in the hotel’s sales and marketing. His sons – James, Richard and Robert – worked there between their high school and college classes. In those years, the elevators were hand operated and the sons worked as the bellmen.

“It was like the San Carlos was a roadside stop on a highway through life and the brothers got to be the observers,” author Robert Melikian writes.

Gregory Melikian sold the hotel in 1979, carrying the mortgage. The property came back to him in 1990 when the buyer fell behind in payments. He sold it to another buyer in 1996. Five years later, when that buyer was unable to make payments, Melikian became the owner for the third time. Robert Melikian says the future of the hotel has been strengthened in recent years by the completion of the light rail system, a new convention center, and the arrival of Arizona State University’s downtown campus.

It was during the family’s financial connection to the hotel over more than three decades that author Melikian collected a box of letters, notes and photographs from hotel guests.

Friend suggested the book

The idea for the book came from a friend, who helped Melikian start the book. Melikian says he felt obligated to write the hotel’s history.

“People would come in and tell us stories of their parents getting married at the hotel, or them staying there during the war,” Melikian says during a recent interview. “There’s a lot of stories that were there. Plus ghost stories and movie star stories from old bellmen.”

He also received help from Arizona State University, where the extensive photo collection of noted photographers Herb and Dorothy McLaughlin is housed, and from the Phoenix Museum of History.

Melikian says there were some surprises during his research. He didn’t know that the hotel construction in 1927 had been financed by Dwight Heard, the Chicago businessman who at the time was one of Arizona’s most influential business leaders. He also didn’t know that the hotel construction lasted from August 1927 until March 1928, when it opened.

He also learned that the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in Phoenix in 1928, and that the Cubs stayed at the San Carlos. Heard was a personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, according to G. Wesley Johnson Jr., author of the book, “Phoenix in the Twentieth Century.”

Another surprise for Melikian was learning why Heard insisted on concrete construction, which was scored on the exterior to resemble block construction. Heard had watched the Adams Hotel at Central and Adams Street burn to the ground in 1910. The fire was across the street from Heard’s own office building, the Heard Building, which is in the block just south of the San Carlos. Heard died in 1929, soon after his hotel was completed.

Melikian says the late 1920s were a time of change for Phoenix. A new railroad connection offered affluent tourists easier access to Phoenix and its mild winters. The San Carlos opened in March 1928. The Westward Ho Hotel, which today is subsidized housing for the elderly, opened in November 1928 a few blocks north of the San Carlos. And the Arizona Biltmore Resort and Spa, a few miles away in the desert northeast of downtown, opened in early 1929.

Also in 1929, the Wigwam Resort – originally built years earlier in Litchfield Park for visiting Goodyear Tire & Rubber executives – was opened to the public, according to published accounts.

But soon after all these new hotels in Phoenix opened, they suffered high vacancy rates when the nation’s economy was stopped in its tracks by the stock market crash of October 1929, sparking the Great Depression.

During World War II, the hotel was a favorite for servicemen and women on their way to war. That period was when the three-story addition on the west side of the building – with the swimming pool on top – was completed.

Celebrities and ghosts

The hotel’s Hollywood connection is extensive. Clark Gable visited several times, always staying in Room 412 so he could watch people on the streets. He studied their body language for ideas in future movies.

Marilyn Monroe preferred the room closest to the pool. Carole Lombard stayed in the room next to Gable’s. They were married in Kingman in 1939. Lombard died three years later in a plane crash.

Other celebrities seen at the hotel included George Raft, Betty Grable, Humphrey Bogart, Mae West, and Gene Tierney.

In his book, Melikian mentions his hotel’s permanent guests. People who believe in ghosts (Melikian doesn’t) have reported hearing the laughter of children where there were none. Other guests have reported seeing a woman standing at the foot of their bed. After a few seconds, she would drift away, vanishing through the door. Or so the story goes.

That apparition is said to be the image of Leone Jensen, 22, a guest who had traveled to Phoenix from another state and checked into the San Carlos a few weeks after the hotel opened. The popular story is that she jumped to her death in a wedding dress after her lover changed his mind about marrying her. Melikian says a second note left by the young woman suggests she had failing health. “So who knows which story is the correct one,” he says.

Another unexplained phenomena is the repeated laughter of children. The laughter is said to be linked to the skeletons of four children found during construction of the hotel basement. The property is the site of a well dug on the property in 1874. The children, according to the story, had fallen into the well and drowned.

The hotel once had a book at the front desk where guests could write down their ghost stories. Most Saturday nights, the hotel hosts ghost tours.

Yet another ghost of contemporary times occupied the penthouse on top of the hotel. It originally was the home of the hotel manager, Charles Harris, and his family for many years after the hotel opened in 1928.

But in the 1970s, its resident was someone enrolled in the federal witness protection program, according to the photograph cutline on p. 78 in the book. There is no further information about the federal witness, such as whether he or she was a witness to a crime or a criminal helping investigators.

Whoever the person was, he or she likely walked and dined among hotel guests who were unaware of the protected person’s situation and identity. Was a federal bodyguard present each time the person left the penthouse? Who knows.

The book can be purchased in the hotel lobby or online from the publisher or other sources. Melikian also helped a team of journalism students from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication create a vodcast, or video podcast, about the hotel. The link is http://cronkiteworks.asu.edu/sancarlos/about.html.

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Jul 22nd, 2009

One Comment to 'New Book Offers Look at Historic Phoenix Hotel and its Guests, Some Ghostly'

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  1. Vincent Murray said,

    It’s always great to read about someone saving Phoenix history, whether by brick or by chapter, or in this case, both.

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