Knocking at the Tutwiler Hotel
By Alan Brown
In the years just prior to World War I, Birmingham, Alabama, was the largest city in the South. It grew rapidly, due in large part to the discovery of nearby coal and iron ore deposits in the late nineteenth century. Every day, over 100 passenger trains arrived and departed from Birmingham’s terminal train station, which was located on 25th Street and 5th Avenue North. Ironically, even though Birmingham had been deemed “The Magic City,” none of the dozen or so hotels that sprung up around the train stations were “grand” in any sense of the word.
It became an issue when representatives from U.S. Steel did not have a decent place to stay while visiting Birmingham. As soon as a lot on the corner of 5th Avenue North and 20th Street became available, local businessmen invested in the construction of a luxury hotel. Christened “The Tutwiler Hotel” after the hotel’s major stockholder, Major E.M. Tutwiler, the hotel first opened its doors on June 14, 1914.
The hotel’s lease was sold to the Dinkler Hotel Company of Atlanta in 1923, and it was known thereafter as the “Dinkler Tutwiler.”
For fifty-nine years, the Tutwiler was at the center of social, business and political activity in Birmingham. Throughout most of its history, it was the place to see and to be seen in the South. Hundreds of celebrities and politicians visited the 450-room grand hotel, attracted by its private baths, its 1,000-seat ballroom and its many luxury meeting rooms. It was where Charles Lindbergh held a press conference in 1927, and where movie star Tallulah Bankhead’s post-wedding party was held.
By the 1960s, Birmingham was experiencing retail and residential flight to the suburbs and the Tutwiler Hotel had fallen on hard times. Despite repeated attempts by civic leaders to save the bankrupt hotel, the Tutwiler was forced to close its doors for the last time on April 1, 1972. After sitting vacant for a year, the Tutwiler Hotel became the second building in U.S. history to be destroyed through implosion.
Eleven years later, the Tutwiler Hotel was resurrected, in a manner of speaking. In 1984, a banking firm began to convert the Ridgley Apartments into a “new” version of the Tutwiler Hotel. At the time, the eight-story building, which was also built and financed by Major Tutwiler in 1914, was still owned by the Tutwiler family and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the new incarnation of the Tutwiler Hotel opened for business in 1986, the red brick building at 608 21st Street North had been totally refurbished. With just 150 rooms, it is part of a trend in American hotel development toward smaller luxury hotels.
Although the original Tutwiler Hotel is no longer with us, some people believe that the spirit of Major Tutwiler still is. According to stories told by staff and guests, visitors to the new Tutwiler Hotel occasionally receive more than the usual amenities. The bell captain, who has been employed at the Tutwiler since August of 2004, claims that in the past two years, at least seven people have had encounters with an entity that he calls a “knocker.” “I’ve had guests tell me that they have heard someone knocking on their doors late at night on the sixth floor. He comes by and knocks on the door, and as soon as they open the door, there’s no one in the hallway.”
In November 2004, a female guest in Room 604 asked him to come up to her room immediately. “It was very strange,” he said. “I could tell that something really scared her.” After the lady calmed down, she told him that she had heard someone knocking very rapidly on her door. When she opened it up, no one was standing there. As goosebumps began rising on her arms, she hastily retreated back into her room and slammed the door shut. Although the bell captain has only heard the ghost stories for the past two years, he suspects that the hotel has been haunted for much longer. “I’ve had some guests who have been staying at the hotel for the past ten or fifteen years tell me about the ghost knocking on their door or someone they stayed with,” he said. One of his informants told him that she suspects that the ghost is a male, probably because he usually wakes up women in the middle of the night.
The bartender at the Tutwiler Hotel not only agrees that the hotel’s ghost is a male, but he thinks knows the name of the ghost as well. Late one night in 1995, the bartender began turning off the lights and the stoves, just as he had been doing for many years before. After he clocked out, he took one final look at the restaurant and was shocked to discover that all of the lights and appliances had been turned back on. He repeated the process four times before finally giving up and going home.
The next morning, the bartender told the General Manager that someone—or something—had prevented him from turning off the lights, but he received a scolding anyway. For five nights, the bartender was unable to turn off the lights in the restaurant and received a verbal reprimand as a result. On the morning of the sixth day, the General Manager called the bartender and said, “Come to the restaurant, quick! I’ve got something to show you.” Expecting to be chewed out once more as he followed the General Manager in to the restaurant, the bartender was shocked to find that someone—or something—had cooked a full-course meal, drawn the curtains, and removed an old bottle of wine from the cabinet.
The two men conducted a full investigation, but after failing to come up with a logical explanation, the bartender concluded that the ghost of Major Tutwiler had set the table. After this incident, the bartender never closed up the restaurant without saying, “Good night, Major Tutwiler. Please leave the lights and stoves off and don’t make a mess.” The bartender’s nightly entreaties seem to have appeased Major Tutwiler because for the past decade, no nocturnal disturbances have been reported in the restaurant.
If the ghost is indeed the spirit of Major E.M. Tutwiler, the question arises, “Why does he haunt the former Ridgley Apartments but did not haunt the original Tutwiler Hotel?” The answer might lie in the fact that at one time, Major Tutwiler actually lived in the building that housed the Ridgley Apartments. Quite possibly, his spirit simply wants people to acknowledge his presence in the place he used to call home. After all, everyone craves a little attention now and then. Even, apparently, ghosts.