The Tutwiler Hotel had its inception in a statement made by the President of the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company. In 1907, George Gordon Crawford told Robert Jemison, Jr., that when members of the finance committee came to visit him in Birmingham to consider appropriations for the modernization of existing plants and the building of new ones, they spent most of their time complaining of inadequate hotel facilities. Realizing that Crawford’s concerns were valid, Jemison began looking for the perfect site for the kind of luxury hotel that would attract businessmen like George Gordon Crawford to Birmingham. He settled a 140 X 150 foot lot on the east corner of Fifth Avenue and 20th Street owned by Harvey Woodward. Jemison challenged Crawford and other businessmen to join him in what promised to be a very profitable business venture. One of the businessmen Jemison approached was Major Edward Magruder Tutwiler, who agreed to sell his interest in the Tutwiler Coal & Coke Company at a price around $1,850,000 to underwrite the first mortgage bonds for the new hotel. Tutwiler’s only condition was that the new hotel be named “The Tutwiler.” Because Tutwiler was the largest shareholder in the project, Jemison happily granted Tutwiler’s request. The plans for the hotel were a composite of the varied floor levels of the Blackstone Hotel of Chicago, the caenstone valuted ceilings of the Vanderbilt Hotel of New York, and the terra cotta and fisk tapestry brick exterior of the MacAlpin Hotel of New York. Flower boxes, of the type featured in the Vanderbilt Hotel, would be used to divide the lounge and café’ space on the mezzanine floor. The owner of the Statler Hotel in New York recommended the installation of pipe chacers from basement to roof. As a result of the planners desire to construct Birmingham first truly luxury hotel, final building costs soared to$1,600,000. The investors’ dream became a reality when the Tutwiler Hotel opened its door on June 15, 1914.
For the next sixty years, the Tutwiler reigned as the “Grand Dame of Birmingham’s hostelries. For years, it was the scene of a multitude of business, social, and political functions. Celebrities, politicians, and dignitaries from all over the United States traveled hundreds of miles to walk through its doors. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh held a press conference in the Louis XIV Suite. President Warren G. Harding, who had traveled to the Birmingham to help celebrate the city’s semi-centennial, slept at the Tutwiler. Tallulah Bankhead threw a post-wedding party in the Centennial Room.
By the 1970s, the Tutwiler Hotel’s glory days were long in the past. Finally, in 1974, plans were made to demolish the old hotel to make room for a new bank. On January 27, 1974, the Tutwiler made history as one of the first buildings to be imploded. However, the razing of the hotel proved to be much more difficult than Jack Loizeaux, chief of Controlled Demolition, Inc. Following the initial explosion, the south wing was still standing, primarily because the Tutwiler was a supported by a skeleton of structural steel instead of reinforced concrete. Total destruction of the remaining structure was not completed until several weeks later.
The Tutwiler Hotel returned over a decade later when the hotel management firm of Lincoln Hotel Corporation set about renovating the eight-story Ridgely Hotel at 21st Street North and Park Place. It was built by Major Tutwiler the same year the ground was broken for the original Tutwiler Hotel. For years, the Ridgely operated as an “apartment Hotel,” where residents lived on both a transient and a full-time basis. The architectural firm of Kidd/Plosser/Sprague was hired to convert the historic but worn Ridgely Apartments into a shining new Tutwiler Hotel. Birmingham received an $897,000 urban development action grant for the $15 million Ridgely project. The architects strove to maintain the character of the original 1914 building, including the preservation of the original fireplaces. A black-tie gala was held on December 13, 1986, to celebrate the grand opening of the newly- re-named “The Tutwiler” Hotel. Proceeds from the $75-dollar ticket price benefited the Birmingham Historical Society.
Today, the eight-story Tutwiler Hotel retains much of the splendor of its predecessor. The 149-room hotel has thirteen different room layouts on each floor. The hotel includes fifty-three suites, ninety-six standard guest rooms, four banquet and meeting rooms, and a restaurant and bar. The lobby area, which has two separate anterooms with fireplaces, is resplendent in a décor of tapestries and Italian marble. A first-floor meeting room is trimmed in dark-stained oak beams and cloth-covered walls. The original terra cotta cornices, which had been removed years before when they deteriorated beyond repair, were replaced with fiberglass cornices at a cost of $400,000. A citation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation is proof that the new owners have succeeded in their efforts to restore the Tutwiler’s Old World Charm. Eye-witness testimony from guests and employees suggest that the extensive renovations might have awakened the dormant spirit of Major Tutwiler as well.
In paranormal circles, the Tutwiler Hotel has earned a reputation as a place where guests are likely to receive attention from beings other than maids and bellboys. A bell captain, who has worked at the Tutwiler Hotel since 2004, has never seen a ghost in the hotel, but he has had experiences with something that he calls a “knocker.” Guests staying on the 6th Floor have called him up in the middle of the night to complain about being awakened by someone knocking on the door. By the time the guests walk groggily across the room and open the door, no one is there. In November 2004, a female guest staying in Room 604 informed the bell captain over the phone that someone was knocking on her door and she was really frightened. When the bell captain walked into Room 604, she was sitting on the bed, shaking uncontrollably. After she calmed down, she told the bell captain that she was awakened by frantic knocking on her door. Sensing that there was an emergency, she jumped out of bed and opened the door. When she opened the door and stepped outside, she was shocked to find that the hallway was completely empty. All at once, she felt as if she was in the presence of something unearthly. She retreated back inside her room and slammed the door. The bell captain believes that the Tutwiler Hotel was haunted long before he began working there: “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.” He has concluded that the ghost must be male because most of the recipients of his midnight visits are female.
The Tutwiler Hotel’s best-known ghost story took place late one night in 1995. The bartender was in the restaurant, turning off the lights and stoves, just as he had been doing for years. He had just clocked out and was leaving the restaurant when he felt the urge to look back. To his surprise, the lights were back on. When he walked back inside, he was shocked to find that the stoves were turned on as well. He turned off all of the lights and appliances and walked out the doorway. When he turned around, the lights and stoves were turned on once again. The bartender tried two more times to turn off everything before finally giving up and going home. As the bartender had expected, the General Manager did not accept his explanation that “something” inside the restaurant kept turning everything back on. For five nights, the bartender tried everything in his power to keep the lights and appliances turned off, but to no avail. On the morning of the sixth day, the bartender walked into the General Manager’s office, fully expecting to receive a “tongue lashing,” just as he had the previous five mornings. Instead of “chewing him out,” the General manager told the bartender to follow him to the restaurant. “I’ve got something to show you,” he said. Expecting the worst, the bartender followed the General manager into the restaurant. He gazed in amazement at one of the tables, on which someone—or something—had set a full-course meal and placed a bottle of vintage wine. The curtains were drawn as well, as if the waiter were trying to create an intimate atmosphere. All of the employees of the hotel were interviewed, but no logical explanation for the “midnight dinner” was ever found. Working on the theory that the perpetrator was the ghost of Mr. Tutwiler, the bartender began saying, “Goodnight, Mr. Tutwiler. Please turn off the lights, and don’t make a mess!” before closing up the restaurant. For over a decade, no nocturnal activity inside the restaurant has occurred.
Even believers in the paranormal have difficulty understanding why Mr. Tutwiler’s ghost haunts the new Tutwiler Hotel, but his spirit has never been reported inside the original hotel. The answer is more obvious than it might appear to be. Mr. Tutwiler never really lived in the first Tutwiler Hotel, but he did live in the Ridgely Apartments. Could it be that Tutwiler’s spirit, like the Tutwiler Hotel, has been resurrected?