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Exploring a Louisville Original

Author Johnson to speak on history of Seelbach Hotel

His program is part of the Oldham County History Series

LA GRANGE, Ky. (August 2016) – With a past that dates back to 1869 and a dream shared by two brothers, the Seelbach Hotel is a rich part of Louisville’s history. Concierge and hotel historian Larry Johnson has penned a book revealing the legends, myths and history behind this stately building at 500 S. Fourth St.
In 1869 two German immigrants, Louis and Otto Seelbach, came to America to learn the hotel business. Louis Seelbach worked at the Galt House to learn more about the hotel chain business and also opened a bar and grill in 1874 called the Seelbach Bar and Grill. His brother, Otto, moved to the United States in 1890 to form the Seelbach Hotel Co.

Photo provided

Larry Johnson has written a book about the legends and history of the hotel.

The brothers opened their first hotel one year after the birth of this company, located above the Seelbach Bar and Grill at Sixth and Main streets. As the hotel company became more developed, the brothers operated other hotels in the area such as the Old Inn and the Victoria. 
In 1903 they began construction on their Neo-classical designed hotel, the only hotel in Louisville that was fireproof. They picked a pivotal date for its grand opening – May 1, 1905, right before the Kentucky Derby took place.
The Seelbach Hotel is said to be the first European hotel in Louisville. At least 20,000 people turned out for the Seelbach’s grand opening. The only thing that shocked onlookers was the price tag: $990,000.
This is just part of the fascinating history Larry Johnson uncovered when he decided to write a book about the hotel. He had given tours of the hotel and a co-worker suggested he write a book.
“In 2003 I had a problem with my heart,” said Johnson, 72. “When I came back to work, I decided to investigate and see how hard it would be. And as they say, the rest is history.”
The result was “The Seelbach: A Centennial Salute to Louisville’s Grand Hotel.” Johnson will give a presentation based on his book at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 18, at the Oldham County History Center. The program will take place in the Rob Morris Educational Building located at 207 W. Jefferson St. in La Grange. A meal and cash bar will be available.
Johnson, a native Louisvillian, has worked at the hotel for 34 years and said the best part of his job is, “talking to the public.”
Johnson said, “I’ve lived all my life in Louisville. My parents moved from the Highland Park area when I was six months old. I spent the first 22 years of my life in a house that no longer exists because it is part of the Watterson Expressway. We lived on a corner lot; the front street was Woodruff Avenue and the side street was Seelbach Avenue, about 1.5 miles south of Churchill Downs.” 

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The Seelbach Hotel once entertained the likes of ganster Al Capone and writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The famous hotel is said to have been visited by people from all walks of life, including author F. Scott Fitzgerald and gangster Al Capone. Legend has it that Capone frequented the poker room (Oak Room) and the Rathskeller, which was a large, popular dinner club during Prohibition, and a USO in World War I and World War II.
As to Capone’s presence at the hotel Johnson said, “I could find no written proof, but more than likely he was at the hotel. He was a real good friend of George Remus, the bootlegging king of Kentucky.”
It would have been an easy stop for Capone to make on his way back to Chicago from eastern Kentucky, where he picked up his moonshine.
Another well-known character to frequent The Seelbach was a U.S. Army captain stationed at Camp Taylor. Fitzgerald frequented the bar and was supposedly kicked out on several occasions for being a booze hound and being a little rowdy, according to Johnson.
Fitzgerald fell in love with the opulent hotel – so much so, he later wrote about it in “The Great Gatsby,” using the Grand Ballroom as a backdrop for the wedding scene in his novel.
On the darker side of things, many ghost stories are attached to the famous hotel. One of the more popular ghosts is known as The Blue Lady, a.k.a., Patricia Wilson.
Wilson was born in 1911 and moved to Louisville from Oklahoma in 1936. She and her husband of four years had recently separated but decided to try to work things out. On the night they were to meet at the Seelbach, Mr. Wilson never arrived. He died in a car accident on the way to the hotel.
Patricia Wilson was devastated, and on July 15 she was found dead at the bottom of a service elevator shaft with a fractured skull, broken left knee cap, broken right tibia and broken fibula. It was not proven if her death was suicide, accidental or murder.
Her possible killer has a link to Oldham County through Verna Garr Taylor, who is buried in Oldham County. Taylor was murdered in 1937 in Henry County, and the crime attributed to ex.-Lt. Gov. Henry Denhardt. Two witnesses placed Denhardt on the eight floor of the Seelbach, arguing with a young woman the night Wilson died. The Louisville Courier-Journal carried an article with the headline: “Girl’s death is blamed on Denhardt.”
In addition to murder and mystery, there have been many movie stars and politicians who have stayed at the Seelbach. Tony Bennett, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, Will Smith and the late Robin Williams have all signed the hotel’s guest registry. Some U.S. presidents, including George Bush, Harry Truman and Bill Clinton, have also been guests at the hotel.

• Cost for the program is $20 for members and $22 for non-members. For more information contact the Oldham County History Center at (502) 222-0826.

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