The Historic San Carlos Hotel in Phoenix

May 13 09:25 2005 CArolyn Proctor Print This Article

The courtesies of a gentler era can still be found at the only historic hotel still operating in downtown Phoenix, the grand Hotel San Carlos, this year celebrating 75 years of graceful and elegant service.

At a reception attended by the Phoenix and Arizona Historical Societies and Phoenix business leaders,Guest Posting the mayor of Phoenix and the governor of Arizona presented a proclamation and plaque to the hotel. It was not the first time the Hotel San Carlos has received accolades; its history is rich in glamour and significance.

On this same site native Americans once worshipped a god of learning. Perhaps this is why Phoenix's first school, a one-room adobe structure, was built here for a handful of Indian children in 1874. By 1893 a brick schoolhouse with an expansion to sixteen rooms had replaced the adobe building. For almost a quarter century, the new schoolhouse served the children of Phoenix. Then, in 1927, it was condemned to make way for construction of the Hotel San Carlos.

The historic Hotel San Carlos is a perfect selection for your romantic Phoenix week-end getaway.

In the Phoenix of the 1920s there was a growing need for tourist hotels. The Hotel San Carlos, touted as one of the most modern hotels in the entire Southwest, was welcomed as a state-of-the-art establishment with steam heat, elevators and air cooling, justifying $1.00 higher average daily rates over the other three area hotels. The Hotel San Carlos featured circulation by ice water in every room and "automatic cooled air that changed in each room every three minutes." Elegant tapestries of medieval Italy adorned the walls of the lobby and a high molded ceiling graced the entrance.

The Hotel San Carlos, is just seven stories high, featuring rooms & suites facing picturesque Central Avenue.

The front page headline of the Arizona Gazette (today's Arizona Republic) of March 19, 1928, announced that the Hotel San Carlos had reached its goal and would hold its formal opening the following evening. At seven stories, it was the tallest hotel in town, and its construction served as testimony to Phoenix's rising reputation as a tourist destination.

Immediately the Hotel San Carlos occupied a prominent place in the Phoenix social arena. There were not many places that could be called "fashionable", where one could go to be seen. The Hotel San Carlos, with card rooms and a place for dancing, was called "smart". The Arizona Gazette noted that the hotel had a "smoking lounge and writing room". The Palm Room of the lobby served as the cocktail area. The hotel's French Café restaurant became a noted dining spot. Literature for the hotel boasted that its French onion soup was the best in town, and fashionable Phoenicians were known, according to the newspaper columns of the day, to enjoy the onion soup on Sunday afternoons. Members of the state legislature would have drinks in the Palm Room after a day at the Capitol building.

During the heyday of Hollywood in the forties and fifties, celebrities such as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant, Gene Autry, Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, and others stayed - and played - at the Hotel San Carlos.

"Mae West stayed here during her run at the Orpheum theatre," says hotel general manager Bruce Barnes. "After one performance, she stopped at the front desk, asked that champagne be delivered to her suite with two glasses, and that she not be disturbed until 3 p.m. the next day."

In 1928, governor Rose Mofford proclaimed April 25th as "Hotel San Carlos Day". The proclamation recognized the importance of the hotel as the only property in Phoenix selected to join the prestigious Historic Hotels of America, an exclusive affiliation based on historical character, architectural quality, and preservation efforts made by owners who are dedicated to maintaining historic integrity.

The Melikian family, owners for the past thirty-one years, have been keeping this tradition alive: to commemorate the Hotel San Carlos' sixty-fifth anniversary in March, 1993, the San Carlos Hollywood Star Walk was inlaid on both the Central and Monroe sidewalks adjacent to the hotel with the names of famous movie stars and big band leaders who occupied the hotel while playing at the Orpheum theatre, or the Palace West theater, or the Riverside Ballroom. In addition, suites on each floor of the hotel were named in honor of the famous visitors who slept in them.

Historic Decor -

Rich in design as well as history, the Hotel San Carlos is visually reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance period. The entrances are decorated with vertical ribbed, glazed terra cotta tiles.

Above the entryway, at the second and third floor levels, are neoclassical column ornamentations. Fabulous artwork by the likes of Frank Weston Benson, Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, Thomas Moran, and Albert Bierstadt can be found gracing each floor, making the walk to your room like passing through a famous art gallery.

Such an historic ediface is not without its tales of tragedy as well as fame.

"The Hotel San Carlos was the first skyscraper, had the first elevator, and the first suicide," says history-enthusiast Dawna Higgins of Phoenix.

At 2:30 a.m. May 7, 1928, just months after the opening of the Hotel San Carlos, a 22-year-old woman garbed in a fashionable evening gown jumped from the roof to her death in the street below. Miss Leone Jensen left a note, explaining that she was heart-broken from being spurned in love by a bellboy who worked in another hotel. Today her ghost has been seen in a white gown, and Barnes says the housekeeping staff will never go to the seventh floor except in twos and threes. The entire hotel staff talks of paintings on seventh floor walls that remain crooked no matter how often straightened, and clock radios, turned off, that come on again by themselves. A woman's figure, in the form of a white cloud, accompanied by unexplainable breezes, has often been reported.

There are also confirmed reports that the ghosts of young children have been heard running through the halls of the San Carlos.

"Four Indian children drowned in the well in the late 1800s," explains Barnes. The San Carlos water well, originally built for the schoolhouse in 1874 and still operating in the hotel's basement, is believed to be the center of the countercurrent. "But they're happy ghosts. They laugh and cackle and giggle. Cynthia, the head housekeeper, the engineering staff, and even nearby store tenants have heard them.

"There's definitely phenomenon here," adds Barnes. A normally practical Australian, Barnes relates how psychics and psychologists of the paranormal have visited the hotel and come away convinced of ghostly presences.

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CArolyn Proctor
CArolyn Proctor

CArolyn Proctor, Jetsetters Magazine Correspondent. Join the Travel Writers Network in the logo at

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