When I wondered into the abandoned Rathskeller in the bowels of Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel I never truly knew what was in my presence. The only light came from the few Gothic wall sconces positioned about and wasn’t significant enough to make out more than vague shapes in the dark hall. Patiently waiting in the solitary space my surroundings were only revealed to me on the LCD of my camera one long 30 second exposure at a time. I was intrigued to discover this lone table and chair waiting in vain for the diner who would not come.
Photographer Thomas Hawk has been working on a massive project to shoot the 100 largest cities in America. Of course that is an extremely broad and ambitious task. Provided the endless time, financial independence, disposable income and unconditional support from my family I’d love to do something similar and shoot the 100 finest hotels in American – a new Grand Tour. But why limit it to America or even 100 for that matter? Who’s to say that hotel 101 is any less luxurious than 100? And maybe the line should be drawn somewhere much lower. Maybe the top 25 or so are the cream of the crop and there’s a considerable drop in quality after that. Possibly 100 is simply the arbitrary number for Thomas in order to give the project nice round indicator of completion.
As I was saying, hotels are some of my favorite places to visit. And it’s fitting that you need to stay in them when you travel. For cities like New York that have an endless wealth of attractions, fine hotels are just more great additions to the full portfolio. But even cities that aren’t rich travel destinations still build great Meccas of accommodation in order to entice outsiders. They are prime sources for high architecture, art, culture and history in their given location. A good example is this hotel, the Seelbach in Louisville, Kentucky.
When travelling to new population centers, even if just passing through, I always seek out the finest hotel. Even cities of certain size that appear to have nothing of substance to their name will have a hotel worth at least a quick stroll through the lobby. Hotels not only contribute great buildings and business to a community but they also salvage, restore and preserve properties in danger of destruction. They occupy palazzos in Venice, castles in Germany, monasteries in France, estates in America and just about any other conceivable property of importance that had once seen better days.
To the benefit of the photographer, most hotel establishments are extremely proud of their usually historic institutions and want people taking photos as much as photographers want to take them. If only I could locate a wealthy donor to invest in my new Hawk-inspired project plan – my New Grand Tour – and send me around the world to document the finest the service industry has to offer.
Reading earlier from the the history of the Seelbach Hotel hardback that was lying on the nightstand in our room, I knew that this space existed. Through its one hundred plus years the Rathskeller has apparently had trouble finding its place. Suffering through a vicious cycle of permanent closures and marginal usage I presume the current owners are too struggling to define a proper use for the vaulted space. Late after dinner, when the hotel seemed more desolate than even early in the morning, I went snooping to locate the historic hall where Al Capone, among countless others, came to drink and gamble. A woman was speaking with the concierge expressing her concern over a recent ghostly encounter she had in the Rathskeller. Listening with a certain countenance of boredom as though he’d heard a similar story many times previous he simply nodded while she proceeded to rationalize the incident to herself stating “this stuff seems to happen to me a lot.” I instantly became even more intrigued and motivated to seek out the haunted hall. I nearly interrupted the conversation to ask for specifics of it’s whereabouts.
When I discovered the heavy, creaky doors I was happy to find that they were unlocked despite the near pitch-black state of the out-of-use room. Lit with the most understated glow the residual burn coming from the lights appeared to be fueled only by the energy of centuries of memories. The Rathskeller was so dark that I never truly got a feel for space until after reviewing the LCD on my camera after a first 30 second exposure. Luckily (or unluckily) I discovered no unexpected presence on the viewfinder or in person. Though the memories of the Seelbach’s Rathskeller certainly crowd its vaults they seemed quiet at least during my visit.
After one glance at the story of the Seelbach Hotel a distantly familiar phrase crossed my lips, a spirit that seems all but broken in this young cynical twenty first century. “Only in America” I breathlessly whispered to myself. America? Certainly this is a scene from Paris or Berlin right? Nope, not even New York or Chicago. The Seelbach is in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
Louis Seelbach immigrated from Bavaria in 1869 at age 17 with nothing more than an unbridled ambition for greatness. He first worked for the Galt House hotel and soon opened a bar and grill. He then added a hotel to his wildly successful restaurant. In 1905 Louis and his brother opened not only the most elegant hotel in Louisville but in all of America. Their goal was to bring old world European luxury to America. The result is just as stunning today as it must have been to modest Louisville 100 years ago. So where did the wet blanket draped over this American dream-inspired spirit come from? And where did our immigrant-centered society which pledged oath to American exceptionalism turn to one of mediocrity and despair?