Elms Hotel & SpaA Storied History
During the long and colorful existence of the Elms Hotel & Spa, the celebrated property 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 over a century old, the building standing today has just reached the 100-year mark. Fires claimed two earlier incarnations of the structure, but, each time, The Elms rose from the ashes—literally—and 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 of Excelsior Springs. They began advertising the healing effects of the water, bringing even more visitors to the valley.
The First Elms Hotel
More than 200 houses were built during the town's infancy. 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
Construction began on a second Elms Hotel in 1908. By this time, the mineral spring waters were being sold worldwide. 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 burned 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. The Elms hosted both large conventions and spectacular festivals 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 50s, 60s, & 70s
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 1980s Revitalization
During the late 1970s and early 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 flew 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 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 hotel to new investors.
By July of 1998, The Elms celebrated yet another grand opening after a $16-million renovation. The new Elms featured 153 guest rooms, 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. 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.