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The Elm Hotel & Spa History

During its long and storied existence, the celebrated Elms Resort & Spa has nurtured a rich and vibrant history. Not only has The Elms established itself as a sought-after destination for over 125 years, but it has also been a true survivor against all odds. Though The Elms brand is 125 years old, the building that stands today is a mere 100 years old. Fires claimed two earlier incarnations of the structure, but each time, The Elms was rebuilt into an even grander place.

The Birth of Excelsior Springs—"America's Haven of Health"

The story of The Elms begins with the discovery of healing mineral waters in Excelsior Springs in the late 1800s. In 1880, when local farmer Travis Mellion's daughter Opal fell ill with a form of incurable tuberculosis, he asked campers in the area for advice. They suggested giving Opal spring water bubbling from the bank of a nearby river. Mellion gave his daughter the spring water to drink and bathe in, and after several weeks, she steadily improved and was eventually completely cured.

Word of Opal's healing spread, and soon every ailment from bad joints to Civil War wounds were being treated with the waters. More springs were discovered, and thousands of people poured into the tiny valley to sample the water. Visiting pastor John Van Buren Flack and landowner Anthony Wyman recognized the phenomenon's potential and developed the land, forming the town Excelsior Springs. They began advertising the healing effects of the water, bringing even more visitors to the valley.

The First Elms Hotel

During the town's infancy, more than 200 houses were built. The remaining hundreds of visitors who didn't stay in houses built camps or stayed in their covered wagons. In the late 1880s, entrepreneurs formed the Excelsior Springs Company and created parks, pavilions, and in 1888, The Elms Hotel. 

The grand Elms Hotel enchanted visitors with its combination of elegance and warmth. Guests could soak in mineral water baths or soak up the sun in the lush gardens. There were exquisite parties and grand balls. Eventually The Elms, along with the springs, became one of the most desired destinations in the country.

Sadly, it all ended on May 9, 1898. A horrible fire burned the The Elms' wooden structure to the ground, but thankfully, there were no fatalities or injuries. While the devastating fire destroyed a structure, it awakened an indomitable spirit in the townspeople of Excelsior Springs. That spirit was a guiding light in making vast improvements in the town.

The Second Elms

By 1908, a second Elms Hotel was being built. By this time, the mineral spring waters were being sold worldwide and gaining international attention. Despite heavy rains and flooding during construction, the second Elms opened July 31, 1909. The new resort attracted guests by train from all over the country and the hotel reveled in its restored glory. Astoundingly, the joy was stolen by another destructive fire on October 30, 1910.

The Elms of Today

Three short months after the second Elms Hotel burnt down, plans for the third incarnation of The Elms were complete. On September 7, 1912, The Elms opened the third and current hotel. Constructed of native limestone and boasting grand ballrooms and inviting verandas, it was once again attracting world-famous clientele.

In the 1920s the city and the hotel enjoyed continued fame as a national health resort. The Elms weathered a near conversion to a sanitarium. Unfortunately the great hotel did not weather the Great Depression. The Elms filed for bankruptcy in 1931.

A Clientele of Celebrity & Notoriety

New ownership in the 1930s rescued it from bankruptcy, and The Elms was transformed again into a playground and health spa for the well-to-do. The new management brought in prominent citizens from all walks of life as well as both sides of the law. Politicians, sports stars and crime figures created a heady combination of hotel guests. Al Capone, “Pretty Boy” Floyd and Bugsy Moran reportedly hosted illegal gambling and bathtub gin parties. Police tried to raid the Elms during Prohibition on several occasions. During one memorable attempt, the police busted in on a cocktail party that included the Governor of Missouri. The governor memorably told the cops to go out and bust someone who was “really breaking the law”.

Jack Dempsey and the New York Giants visited and trained there. Large conventions were held and festivals were created on the grounds. The hotel activities at this time included private thoroughbred trails, fox hunts with hounds, games of bridge overlooking the gardens and a cocktail lounge complete with in-house orchestra.

A Presidential Visit

In 1948, The Elms hosted its most famous guest. Harry S. Truman checked into The Elms in secrecy on November 2, 1948, accompanied by six secret service agents. The President wanted to enjoy the quiet graciousness of the hotel and escape the stress of the Democratic campaign headquarters in Kansas City on Election Day. The President stayed in room 200, and he and his party occupied the entire west wing of the second floor (the first floor at this time did not exist as it does now; due to this change, the original Truman Suite is now room 300.) He took advantage of “America’s Haven of Health” and its various health benefit offerings.

Truman enjoyed the electric cabinet, salt rub, mineral water tubs and a massage. He then retired to his suite and listened to the radio for the election returns. The next morning, Truman left for the downtown Kansas City Democratic HQ for the photo ops of his victory. The next day, the newly elected President Truman returned to The Elms amid hundreds of members of the press and well-wishers. The Elms gained an even greater level of publicity thanks to that visit.

The 1950s, 1960s & 1970s

The 1950s ushered in the era of the corporate convention and The Elms went after it aggressively. The hotel was often reserved in full for national conventions. Names like Avon, Standard Oil, The American Red Cross and many others reserved the entire hotel for their conventions. During this time The Elms also gained a reputation as a wedding and honeymooners paradise.

By the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 60s, the allure was fading. As the hotel went through different owners, it was marketed as, among other things, a motor inn and a Sheraton hotel. By 1970, The Elms closed its doors for the next eight years.

An '80s Revitalization

By the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, the city of Excelsior Springs and other investors were beginning to see a renewed hope in their crown jewel after several years of frustrating setbacks and crushing disappointments. By 1981, under new ownership, The Elms was alive once again with conventions, tourists and corporate retreats. An all-new spa renovation added to the allure, featuring a European-style lap pool surrounded by a jogging track, a waterfall tub and unique environmental rooms complete with hot tubs and cool mists.

The 1980s seemed to be a renewed golden era for the grand old Elms. Advisors were flown in from all over the country to assist in the latest upgrades, and parts of the hotel were converted into condominiums as part of a new time-share corporation. Formals, church retreats, wedding celebrations and club events were all part of the wonderful daily social whirl at the Elms. A corporate challenge course was also created for companies to conduct training exercises and team-building exercises. The Elms seemed to be settling into its renewed popularity when fate struck yet another cruel blow.

A Financial Setback

In the summer of 1991, the Elms Redevelopment Corporation and the hotel itself declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Rumors of the closing of the hotel were set ablaze as the stunned city leaders and community set about looking for ways to save the Elms once again. Despite all, the Elms continued to stay open and serve guests.

In November of 1994, the city of Excelsior Springs starting making moves toward buying the Elms. In October 1995, the city purchased all remaining interest in the hotel. The Elms continued to stay open and operated with a profit.

The city leaders continued to search for the proper buyers for the Elms. At the same time, the IRS was aggressively looking to collect on unpaid back taxes. To prevent the hotel from closing its doors, the city created a new organization to help transition the Elms to new investors.

By July of 1998, the Elms celebrated yet another grand opening after a $16-million renovation. The new Elms featured 153 guestrooms, state-of-the-art conference facilities and a brand-new spa.

Bringing The Elms into the 21st Century

In 2011, The Elms was closed again for $20 million in renovations to usher the hotel, spa, restaurant and grounds into the 21st century. With a grand reopening in the summer of 2012 and under the leadership of Widewaters Hotel Management, The Elms Hotel & Spa stands today as a Grande Dame of Hospitality, featuring spectacular amenities and gracious service. The hotel is a true survivor and stands as a magnificent tribute to the unbeatable spirit of the town of Excelsior Springs.

The Spirits of The Elms

Over the years, The Elms has been said to be host to several spirits. The origin of these ghosts has been the source of many a spirited discussion. While the hotel had seen two devastating fires, no fatalities had occurred. Rumors have persisted that one of the spirits was involved in one of the fires.

Some of the ghost legends purport that the lap pool area entertains the spirit of a gambler involved with illegal activities during the speakeasy days of Prohibition. Another story says the housekeeping staff has a spiritual adviser in the form of a ghost wearing a 1920s-style uniform.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is the friendliness of the spirits. These gracious ghosts may act as spiritual guides to the next adventures that await the grand hotel.