If you’re only able to see one Christmas light show in the Houston area during the holiday season, push this one to the top of your list.
Filling 20 acres of space just outside Gulf Greyhound Park in LaMarque, where its been brightening holiday seasons since 2016, the remarkable spectacle is made up of intricate display pieces created using Chinese lantern-making techniques incorporating over six million lights. Some towering 60 feet high. It’s the largest festival of its kind in the United States.
The festival, the largest of its kind in the United States, runs for two months and requires ten months to plan the next one. Designs are sent to lantern technicians and artisans in Zigong, China, and the completed components are assembled on-site.
To truly appreciate the work and artistry that goes into a piece, take a look at it both from afar and up close!
There are nine themed areas in the exhibit, not counting the carnival: the Kingdom; the Village; the East; Houston; Space; Ice; the Dinosaur; the Square and the Sea.
My friend and I headed to The Village first, because . . . Santa! We wanted to get in a quick visit with Mr. and Mrs. Claus before the crowds came. Sitting inside a large lighted ornament with room enough for your entire family to pose together, the couple encourages friends of all ages to stop by with their wish lists and cameras.
The Village is fairly centrally located, with a variety of traditional displays like nutcrackers, reindeer and presents surrounding a towering Christmas tree.
Before you leave the area, look for a big lighted barrel and get a warm (or cold) drink to enjoy on your walk. On brisk nights like last night, it sure makes a yummy difference.
Travel to The East, and enter visions of the homeland of the talented artists who created these lantern lights.
A grove of cherry blossoms invites visitors to leave heart shaped notes among its branches, and a fascinating water garden seems to ripple thanks to clever lighting patterns.
After you find your birth animal on a wall of the Chinese Zodiac, turn to your right for a real “wow” factor: a wall of immense blooms in brilliant colors magically open and close almost seeming to breathe. This is one of the displays that really made us stop and think about all of the talented people behind Magical Lights.
There’s no mistaking The Houston section with it’s large lettered sign. A stage that lights up as participants step and dance on its surface, a cowboy riding a bronco surrounded by longhorn, and a wall of sights from countries around the world fill out this area of the park.
The special Space area this year pays tribute to the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 with lighted tunnels populated with aliens, and a giant, walk-through maze whose center is circled by an enormous revolving space shuttle.
It’s hard not to start humming “Under the Sea” to yourself as you approach the Sea display, which definitely ranked as one of my favorites of the entire experience – mainly because of the stunning walk-in area designed to make you feel that you were below the waves with the friendly sea creatures.
Of course, the lovely mermaid was a plus, too!
For a couple of hours every night, the “Ice Sisters” (yes, we all really know who they mean) reside in Ice, ready to greet visitors. And if you take a photo with them, please be sure to drop a tip into Olaf’s Summer Vacation Fund!
After a chat with the frosty friends, enjoy a stroll through the rest of this glittering display.
Snowy ice flows are populated with polar bears, penguins and animated flying fish, near the Russianesque blue domes of a large structure. You can even sit inside a Cinderella style coach pulled Pegasus!
Rides and games in the Carnival area require additional tickets, but are especially popular with the younger set. The smell of the food alone is enough to draw you to this side of the park.
The “Dinosaur” section of the park just beyond the carnival did, indeed have dinosaurs, but much more.
Entering into the area, visitors will walk through a lighted archway past storybook and fantasy characters including Alice in Wonderland and her friends, Humpty Dumpty, rainbow-striped zebras and a couple of friendly looking elephants.
Paths then wind through a display of animatronic dinosaurs with loud, roaring sound-effect. (Be warned that these moving, monstrous creatures may either thrill or startle small children, depending on their personality.) To the side was a tent filled with dinosaur-themed interactive activities for children, including digging for ‘fossils’ in a sand pit, riding small mechanical dinosaurs, watching baby dinos hatch from eggs, and photo opportunities of being in a dino’s mouth, hatching from oversized eggs, or in a jeep threatened by a T-rex (think Jurassic Park).
The Square is home to the performance stage at Magical Lights. When you enter the park, be sure to check the performance times for the Chinese Acrobats . . . you won’t want to miss them. There are two 40-minute shows each night. We went to the last show of the night, just before leaving.
This lovely bit of Chinese culture and some jaw-dropping acrobatic feats made for an exciting topper for the experience and a great topic of conversation for the drive home. (Be prepared for your kids to want to try juggling an end table with their feet when they get home.)
Magical Winter Lights is open through January 5, 2020, every day including all holidays! So when you have that house full of relatives that need to get out and stretch their legs . . . now you have a plan! Ask about group rates and party plans.
I must add though, that this activity is unique in that I would enjoy it just as much as a solo outing, family activity or reason for friends to get together.
Tickets are less expensive if you purchase them online ahead of time, or look for special deals from Groupon or Costco. At the time I am writing this, Costco is running a deal for 2 adult tickets for 27.99, and Groupon has a deal for adult tickets for $20 and seniors and children for $12.
Adult (Ages 13-64): $22.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $13.00
Family 4-Pack: $76.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE
Adult (Ages 13-64): $25.00
Senior (65+)/Child (4-12): $15.00
Family 4-Pack: $80.00
Children UNDER 4 years old: FREE
The festival is at Gulf Greyhound Park, 1000 FM 2004, in La Marque. The entrance to the park is located just before the Pizza Hut / Taco Bell on FM 1764. For more information go to: www.magicalwinterlights.com
Most people only think of nutcrackers around Christmas but Kenneth Pape, owner of Pape Pecan House in Seguin, spent over 50 years collecting over 8,000 classic, obscure, comical and yes – even naughty – styles of the useful mechanisms.
Since 1961, three generations of the Pape family have been involved in the pecan business. They sell everything from pecan trees to harvesting equipment, but most customers stop into the store for edible treats including several varieties of the freshest pecans you’ve ever tasted, chocolate-covered and candied pecans, pecan oil, and more.
With a family legacy like that, it’s pretty clear how his interest in nutcrackers came about. Pape began collecting nutcrackers in the 1950s during his travels, with many of the classic styles coming from Germany. Over the years, friends and family would send them to him as gifts, and a fellow collector even willed his own gathering to add to Pape’s growing assortment. Estate sales, garage sales, antique stores, flea markets were his resources until her discovered ebay…and the collecting floodgates really opened.
One of the largest assortments of nutcrackers in the world, this nutty collection is housed in a 3,375 square foot museum that spills from the front room of the store to an additional space lined with shelves from floor to ceiling.
Nut picks, nut bowls and vices that would splinter the stubbornest nut; hand held and tables mount styles, of wood, metal, plastic and stone crowd every inch of space in view.
Browse to your heart’s content and discover whimsical depictions of Santa Claus, sports figures, likenesses of politicians, sultans, bishops, snowmen, leprechauns, “Naughty Nellies” (shaped like ladies’ legs), characters, movie characters, traditional soldiers, ballerinas, birds, alligators, rabbits, dogs and oh-so-many squirrels!
Somewhat appropriately for the Texas store, a towering nutcracker cowboy guards a sample table.
Pieces from the nutcracker collection aren’t for sale, but it’s unlikely you’ll leave without something tasty to take home. But before you drive off, be sure to take a photo with the world’s “Largest Mobile Pecan” just outside. It’s one of two giant pecan displays in town. The other sits on the courthouse lawn in town.
Admission to the museum is free, so “nut-urally” you’ll want to add Pape’s to your list of roadside stops if you’re in the area.
Kenneth Pape unfortunately passed away on October 8 2019. His wife Zee is now sole owner of the operation. Pape’s stepson passed away several months previous, and his daughter now lives out of state so it is uncertain who will take over. Hopefully someone with a love for the area’s nutty heritage will find his or her way to the helm.
But before we hit the road, I’m curious…do you pronounce it:
Driving down Highway 36, it’s a bit of a surprise to see a lone (quite large) Indian statue kneeling in a pasture. And when you do, ya just know there’s a story behind it!
In 1936 a new restaurant opened at 6151 Main in Houston, across from the original Rice Stadium. Bill Williams’ Chicken House was one of the few places along Main near the campus, and offered students a place to eat on weekends when there was no food available at the dining hall.
Word about the delicious fried chicken quickly spread, and it became one of the most popular places to eat in the area.
The Chicken House had a dining room as well as a drive-in, and an upstairs banquet hall with room for 200 guests.
When business declined due to competition ad the economy in the mid-1940s, Williams added an oyster bar and added seafood to the menu. Happy diners in 1946 could purchase a dozen oysters for 70 cents!
Around the same time, Williams replaced a rooftop sign of two Native Americans cooking over a campfire with tall, fiberglass statues of the same scene. One Indian knelt on one knee holding a skillet over the fire, and the other supervised, sitting cross-legged across from him. At night, the campfire was lit with flickering lights to simulate flames. You won’t find depictions of Native Americans cooking in skillets in most history books, but the eye-catching display became one of the well-known roadside attractions of the day.
Williams was also a generous philanthropist and supporter of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
The restaurant closed in 1973, and Williams passed away eleven years later at the age of 72.
James Wheeler was a member of the demolition crew that razed the Chicken House. He bought both of the Native American figures and moved them to his family’s property in Fort Bend County. When that property was divided, Wheeler used his money to purchase a home near Lake Somerville in Burleson County and took the figure holding a skillet with him. The other figure remained in Fort Bend, and its current whereabouts are unknown.
Wheeler later sold his Somerville home, the new owners insisted that the Indian be left on the property, but later decided to dispose of it.
Dennis Griffin and his wife made an offer on a whim, and ended up as its new owners, moving it to its current location. He’s considered a sort of a mascot in Somerville, whose school mascot is a Native American from a mythical tribe. Mysteriously appropriate, don’t you think?
So the next time you’re cruising down Highway 36 through near Somerville, keep an eye out for this unusual piece of restaurant history that…at least for now…has finally found a permanent home.
You know how I love historic buildings, and this one definitely comes with a colorful story. Built before 1904, it has served as a Masonic Lodge, a doctor’s office, a drug store and a classroom. The cafe has been serving up Texas-sized roadhouse fare here since 1986.
Grab a table when you arrive and – if you’re in the mood – prop this sign on your table to invite some chatty company to sit a spell with you.
At any given time of day the tables surrounding yours are likely to be serving a combination of ranchers, leather-clad bikers, tourists and church ladies. It feels like a wonderful combination of community center and diner.
Since it was a slightly chilly night when we visited, my friend and I ordered a patty melt and a BLT sandwich. Thumbs up to both, but what I really had my eye on was the pie safe.
Deciding which slice to order was one of the biggest challenges of the day (these things are important, ya know!), and I finally decided on fudge pecan. The choco-holic in me was definitely not disappointed! The portions are overly generous (if that’s possible), and if you’re a fan of meringue pie you’ll especially fall for the mile-high toppings.
While we were there we visited with a handful of the locals who went from table to table visiting friends and sharing the latest local news. We also heard one of the adorable waitresses exclaim what a busy night it had been with five to go orders to prepare.
Yes, things really do stroll along at a slower pace in Utopia, and thank heaven they do.
If you’re staying in the area of Vanderpool or Utopia, you’ll need to remember this cafe out of necessity as well since it’s pretty much the only “real” restaurant around, and stays open past 5:00 p.m. when the streets “roll up” in the area.
If the photos of this cute little cafe look a bit familiar, it’s probably because you saw it in the movie “Seven Days in Utopia,” starring Robert Duvall. As neat as that is though, its enduring fame will be for the tasty food rather than its acquaintance with Hollywood.
I dare you to go in there without leaving with a bag of cute items and a smile on your face. Pun-ny sayings on signs and dish towels, yummy smelling candles, seasonal decorations, yard art, and . . . well, take my word for it and stop in. This is one adorable shop.
A little comical for a town motto perhaps, but it reflects a pride in the heritage of this little town.
Settlers first arrived in the area of Rice, Texas in the late 1860s, and by 1872 the Houston and Texas Central Railway was built through the area.
The town was named for one of the railroad owners, William Marsh Rice who was the namesake of Houston’s Rice University as well. Rice also donated land to the community for a church and cemetery.
By 1890 Rice boasted a cotton gin, steam gristmill, two grocery stores, three general stores, a blacksmith shop, two wheelwrights, druggist and about 75 citizens. Pretty impressive, right?
Unfortunately almost half of downtown was destroyed by fire in 1901. The side of charming buildings that survive on the north side of what was once a busy street are shuttered, but charmingly picturesque. Step up onto the raised brick sidewalks to get a glimpse through the windows of interiors that have surely seen more than their share of stories.
At the corner is the local bank building, where some locals say the infamous Bonnie and Clyde carried out a bank robbery. Though rumors of the criminal duo robbing the local bank may have more to do with spinning a good yarn, they reportedly did stay at the hotel that used to be downtown. Photos in the Pioneer Village in Corsicana evidently offered proof of that part of the tale.
With roofs caving in, restoration looks doubtful. Rice isn’t a true ghost town but many of its residents work in nearby Corsicana as local businesses have shuttered.
Take the time to visit remnants of vanishing communities like Rice before the opportunity disappears. Walking in the steps of those who lived before us gives us a unique glimpse into their lives you won’t want to miss.
What’s inside that huge, white tent at Moody Gardens? It’s visions of Christmas Around the World, carved entirely from ice.
This holiday season, grab your ear muffs and set off on a chilly journey around the world without ever leaving Galveston Island with a visit to Moody Gardens’ ICE LAND exhibit. Returning with a brand new theme for its sixth year, this frosty phenomenon has become a favorite of visitors and locals who have made it part of their annual holiday traditions.
The process begins when 6,000 300-pound blocks of dyed ice arrive from College Station, dyed in an array of colors. Just to put it into perspective, if those ice blocks were lined up they would stretch 4.46 miles.
Even Elsa from “Frozen” would surely be impressed!
A team of 25 professional ice carvers from Harbin, China carved over 100 sculptures in just 45 days completing over 1,080 hours of work in a tent kept at a bone-chilling nine degrees. Brrr…..
After several years of hosting the event Moody Gardens President and CEO John Zendt is still impressed with the undertaking. “The craftsmanship and artistry of these carvers is truly spectacular. The precision is quite remarkable as you consider this work is done free-hand with just chainsaws and ice picks. For example, the Statue of Liberty, just of the massive landmarks being featured in this year’s ICE LAND is itself over 20 feet tall.”
When you arrive at ICE LAND, you’ll be issued a full-length blue parka especially designed for the frigid temps ahead. Special hint here (and I’m speaking for experience) – BRING GLOVES! Even if you pull them off occasionally to take photos, you’ll be soooo glad you did.
Once you’re bundled up, you’ll enter the 17,000 square feet of exhibit space and “travel” along a path between famous sites from around the world, including a giant windmill, the Alamo, Russian nesting dolls, Egyptian pyramids, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China and more with some towering 35 feet in the air.
And of course they haven’t overlooked the most famous gent of the season. Santa appears occasionally in the festive variety of fashion and styles he wears while delivering goodies across the globe.
What’s a family attraction without a slide, you say? No worries. In the center of the exhibit, visitors can climb the stairs to reach nutcrackers standing at the base of the Eiffel Tower, then glide down a 30-foot ice slide to land at the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a slippery, slide-y (yes, that’s a word!) photo app waiting to happen.
The bravest of visitors can linger after seeing the sculptures and “chill out” with refreshments in the log cabin style Shiver’s Ice Bar, a watering hole made completely of ice. Yep…including the tales and stools. But don’t take off your mittens! Even the flames in the fireplace are carved from the frozen stuff.
One thing’s for sure: it will be the coolest thing you do all season!
In addition to ICE LAND, Moody Gardens will feature seven other attractions as part of Holiday in the Gardens including the Cirque Joyeux Dinner & Show, Festival of Lights, an outdoor ice rink, train rides, Arctic Slide, Rudolph 4D, and 3D holiday films.
ICE LAND will be on display Nov. 14 – Jan. 12. Admission for adults is $28.95 and $23.95 for children and seniors. Super Value Days start at $8.95 for Festival of Lights and $19.95 for ICE LAND with an additional $5 off for seniors and children at ICE LAND. Super Value Days start at $19.95 for ICE LAND with an additional $5 off for seniors and children at ICE LAND. Super Value Days are Nov. 17-21; Dec. 2, 9 and 16; and Jan. 5-12.
Click here for a calendar of of all of the special pricing opportunities…you can save a bundle before you bundle up!
For a calendar of daily hours, special discount offers and hotel packages call 409-744-4673 or visit their website here.
Driving through Central Texas recently, I made a detour to visit a Fairy . . . and the tiny town named after her.
In a state that likes to brag that “bigger is better,” the town of Fairy Texas in Hamilton County named themselves after a surprisingly diminutive member of their community.
Originally known as Martin’s Gap it was named after James Martin, a settler killed by local Indians in the 1860s while driving cattle through a “gap” between two mountains in the area. He was buried at the foot of one of those mountains.
As you can see from the map, it isn’t “on the way” to anywhere particularly…but it’s worth a road trip diversion.
When a post office was requested for the town in 1884, locals renamed it “Fairy” to honor Fairy Fort Phelps (1865-1938), the daughter of Sallie and Battle Fort, a former Confederate Army Captain and lawyer.
One of the smallest Texans ever, Fairy was just 2’ 7” tall and weighed about 28 pounds. Her size didn’t stop her from leading a somewhat normal life and becoming one of the most beloved people in her community.
Her namesake town once had a cotton gin, school, general store, café and businesses to serve the ranchers in the area.
Fairy had four younger brothers: Henry; Hugh Franklin; William “Battle,” Jr; and Walter Herbert – all of whom were average heights.
Fairy and her father taught area children at a school in their home for many years. One story reflects how respected and well liked she was by her students. The tale states that it became necessary for Fairy to paddle an unruly student, but she couldn’t high enough. The student himself lifted his teacher onto a chair so she could paddle him.
The petite young lady even married twice, once to William Y. Allen in 1892 and again to T. J. Phelps in 1905, but both marriages ended in divorce. Probably not surprisingly, she never had children, but she did live into her 70s and is buried with her parents at…yes…Fairy Cemetery. The sign on the gate alone is enough to back you look twice.
Fairy’s post office closed in 1947, and the school consolidated with Hamilton schools in 1967. A Baptist church, community center, volunteer fire department, a few homes and one historic cemetery are all that endure.
The stories of a petite woman who lived life to the fullest remain with the residents, and those who stop to visit her gated grave.
The tiny town’s cemetery is interesting on its own for a variety of style of distinctive, handmade grave markers. Many exhibit expert stone carving skills, but others include one constructed of petrified wood and another meticulously covered with sparkling, local minerals.
Oh….and if you’re curious what locals are called, they are “Fairians.” How cute is that?
It’s impossible to roam the halls of Mineral Wells’ 14-story Baker Hotel without uttering the stories of its hauntings. And while I look forward to sharing more about the history and state of the hotel itself in my next post, Halloween calls and insists that we revisit their stories once more.
Now closed to the public the once luxurious Baker was one of the most popular resort destinations of its day.
Now the graffiti covered walls with their flaking paint and the crumbling walls and ceilings create what seems to be the ideal home for the numerous phantoms that are said to roam the premises.
Climb the front stairs, turn on your flashlight and join me for a visit with the Baker Hotel ghosts.
15-year-old Douglas Moore earned a job as a passenger elevator operator at the grand hotel two years after his family moved to Mineral Wells.
On January 16, 1948 Douglas arrived early for work and went to the basement to catch up with his friends working maintenance shifts. Teenage talk turned to horseplay and Douglas began to play with the service elevator at the base of the stairs, jumping in and out when it was in motion.
Mind you, this was in the days before safety features would keep doors from closing entirely if something (or one) was in the way.
You see where this is going…and it can’t be good.
One of his friends notice that Douglas hadn’t jumped quite far enough to get his body totally inside the elevator compartment on one attempt, and pulled the young man’s legs to try to get him out. Tragically, he wasn’t quite fast enough and Douglas was caught between the doors and floor of the rising elevator, crushing him at the abdomen.
Even more gruesome, it was half an hour before help could dislodge him and get him to the hospital, where he died of his injuries.
As if his fate wasn’t horrific enough, lore states that he had actually been cut in half and that apparition of merely the top half of the unfortunate teen has been seen throughout the basement. According to his death certificate was an exaggeration of his fatal injuries, however.
Visitors have said that those who call the young man’s name aloud will feel a cold rush of air push by them…but it’s best not to tempt him while standing too close to the elevator shaft. The teen might just be lonely for a bit of company after all these years.
In an odd coincidence, his only brother Thomas was also killed as a teenager in a horrific accident while at his job in Mineral Wells.
BAKER, BUT WHICH ONE?
Earl Maynard Baker, nephew of the hotel’s found Theodore B. Baker, managed the Baker Hotel for over 40 years and lived in its Presidential Suite. After a string of contentious years with his family, spouse and even the community, Baker had a heart attack in his suite and subsequently died in the local hospital.
Reports say that he (or perhaps his uncle, the original resident) endlessly paces the rooms, now only a shadow of their former elegance. When the hotel was available to guides of ghost tours it was customary to knock before entering the suite as a form or respect…or perhaps to avoid his fiery temper.
Visitors to the area have claimed to smell cigar smoke, and to have small items from their purses or pockets come up missing…only to be found on the premises by tour guides later.
Whichever Baker may remain, he certainly has a sense of humor!
The most famous spectral resident of the Baker is the lovely apparition of a ghost with red hair and green eyes. A porter of the hotel first saw her in the 1960s.
Known as the “Lady in White” she is believed to be the former manager’s mistress Virginia Brown, she flirts with men whom she finds attractive and resents the intrusion of other women in her suite at the southeast corner of the 7th floor.
Apparently the woman, distraught from the affair, committed suicide by jumping to her death from the window of her room (or the roof, depending on which version of the tale is told).
Her distinctive lavender perfume wafts throughout the floor; a red lipstick was even found by a maid on the rim of a glass when no one was staying in the suite.
The most restless spirit in the hotel, she refuses to be confined to one floor as she was in life, and the clicking of her high heels can be heard on the lobby floor.
I couldn’t find a Virginia Brown that would fit her age range and profile living in Mineral Wells at the time, though there were three others with the same name.
Whatever the name of the permanent guest, she is not to be taken lightly.
HIGH DIVE DURING COCKTAILS
The parties held in the Cloud Ballroom on the 12th floor were legendary, and guests often enjoyed themselves to excess.
One intoxicated woman actually tried to jump from the ballroom balcony into the pool below and naturally died in the attempt. Versions of the story say that she may have been racing her boyfriend who fled down the stairs to the pool deck and others that perhaps she may have received an unfriendly push.
Now she paces along the balcony considering her fate.
The Cook and the Maid
One of the persistent tales linked with the Baker is that of a hotel cook who was having an affair with one of the chambermaids. The legend states that the hotel’s cook was having an affair with one of the maids. The story goes that the woman threatened to expose their relationship to the cook’s wife, causing him to fly into a fit of rage and stab her to death in the kitchen pantry.
It’s said that female visitors have reported hearing a woman’s voice telling them to leave when they entered the kitchen.
Not surprisingly there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support that such a murder too place – though the hotel’s food was reputed to be “to die for.”
Considering the fact that many visitors to Mineral Wells came in search of thee curative properties the local spring waters were said to possess, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that not all cures were successful.
The spirit of a little boy about six-years-old plays in the hallways of the hotel, accompanied by his large, shaggy dog companion. A visiting medium claims that the boy communicated to her that he passed away in 1933, when his parents brought him there seeking treatment for his leukemia. He tends to be watched over by the spirit of an older woman who remains nearby, and try to gain visitors attention by bouncing his rubber ball.
Any hotel that has had some many people pass through its doors has seen its share of tragedies, and the Baker is no exception.
In 1944, a federal civil investigator – probably assigned to Camp Wolters- threw himself out of a window from Room 919. The FBI is said to have investigated, but no foul play was found.
In 1952, a man rented a room, went upstairs and cut his throat.
In the 1940s one man murdered another man in the lobby, reputedly over a private parking space. The murderer was found guilty, but released…enough of a reason for any victim to roam in anger.
Stories have also circulated about a spooky, secret network of tunnels beneath the hotel. There is one known passageway that leads from the hotel the pool on the property, and it’s possible that originally extended northeast to the original water tower (now a parking lot for a Methodist church). No other tunnels have been discovered but just the possibility can cause a shiver.
Although it doesn’t have stories of specific haunting attached to it, the hotel spa on the second floor is unarguably one of the creepiest areas on the property. It’s difficult to say whether that feeling is due to the archaic equipment crumbling in place or the general atmosphere.
The “Brazos Room”
When a group of World War II veterans and their spouses toured the hotel, multiple people in the group heard voices chatting, orchestra music playing and the sound of dinnerware and utensils being used. This occurrence seemingly had not happened before or since that day. Maybe their recognized their contemporaries?
With the Baker Hotel now receiving long overdue renovations and restoration, the ghosts of the famous inn will hopefully have plenty of living company very soon.
“Good evening, Mrs. Maca,” the desk clerk smiled as she handed me my room key card. “We’ve booked you in a suite on the haunted floor.”
It definitely wasn’t the usual greeting I receive at a hotel check-in, but obviously someone on staff had Googled my name . . . and I have to say I was pretty delighted.
I was in San Antonio speaking about cemetery symbolism at a paran
ormal conference, of all things. My books about Galveston cemeteries and ghosts have certainly opened up some unusual venues for me. And although I must admit that my choice to stay at the Emily Morgan was based on an admiration for its elegance and location (right next door to the Alamo, for heaven’s sake!), the stories of its hauntings may have played a part in the decision to choose it. It is known as one of the three most haunted hotels in the city.
Now a part of the luxurious Doubletree by Hilton chain (yep, that means their famous fresh cookies at check-in), the thirteen-story building wasn’t always a hotel.
The striking Gothic Revival structure opened in 1924 as the Medical Arts Building, with the first four floors being doctors’ offices and a pharmacy. Other levels included a psychiatric ward (seventh floor), the top two floors served as surgical wards, and of course – a morgue in the basement.
The towering building features unique ornamentation and a copper roof with wood ribs. The most unusual adornments are undoubtedly a variety of gargoyles (actually “grotesques” since they have no downspouts) that surround the building, each portraying a medical ailment that might have been treated within. They’re slightly reminiscent of some stone carving from the movie “Ghostbusters” about to come to life. There are even flying monkeys for those who look closely.
One of the more “princely” – though certainly not handsome – examples wearing a crown was perched right outside a window of my room, and it was fascinating to see him so close-up.
It remained a hospital for about 52 years before being converted into an office building in 1976. Luckily for those who appreciate her beautiful architecture, the Emily Morgan (named after the Yellow Rose of Texas) was recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Alamo Plaza Historic District the following year.
In 1984 it opened as a luxury hotel, and in 2012 it underwent a multi-million dollar renovation before being reopened as part of the Doubletree group.
I suppose that should be our first clue, since one of the common superstitions about spirits . . . or is it a fact . . . is that they tend to get “stirred up” during renovations of their surroundings.
Considering the amount of suffering and death the walls witnessed for so many years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that “energies” from the past are reported to remain.
SPIRITED ROOMIE, ANYONE?
Throughout the weekend I heard hotel guests inquire of each other if they had had any ghostly experiences, anxiously hoping to hear the answer “yes.” When comparing room numbers, my answer was usually met with a lot of interest, and I invited people up to check out my room for themselves whenever my timetable allowed. There was even a YouTuber who took video. More often than not, the visitors ended up being just as intrigued by the beauty of the view and the room as any otherworldly roommates I might have.
I found it amusing that even a few attendees of the paranormal convention, which was held at a reputedly haunted mansion, left before all of the festivities were over to return to the Emily Morgan to seek out their own “encounters” in impromptu ghost hunts.
Would you stay on the 13th floor of a notoriously haunted hotel or do you think that would be bad luck?
Poppycock, you say – hotels don’t have a 13th floor! Ah, but we all really know the truth, don’t we? A glance at any hotel elevator board and you’ll see they’ve conveniently skipped from the 12th to the 14th when numbering floors to avoid any superstitious guests being uncomfortable. So the 14th floor actually is the 13th.
The Emily Morgan has taken these superstitions into account at an entirely new level by omitting the room number 1408. You see, when you add those numbers together you would realize they equal 13 on the actual 13th floor.
Regardless, there have been reported ghostly occurrences on almost every floor, with the 7th, 13th and 14th being the most active.
12th & 14th FLOORS
Guests on the 14th floor have often specifically requested to stay on this notoriously haunted level. As one of the former surgical wards where numerous deaths occurred, the expectation of ghosts is somewhat understandable.
Room occupants in the past have reported opening doors to the hallway only to see hospital scenes playing out in front of them, complete with nurses pushing squeaky-wheeled gurneys.
When they shut the door to gather their wits before reopening it, the scenes vanish.
Much more unpleasant is the report of a lingering scent of antiseptic, which I was quite grateful not to have noticed.
The perception something cool brushing up against guests has been noted on both floors. Would it be a relief on a hot summer night, or send unwelcome chills?
Utilities seem to be of special interest to spirits on the 12th floor, including flashing lights and impish water faucets. Dripping noises can be heard in the middle of the night, with investigating occupants discovering the bath faucets to be completely cranked open.
I must admit that I heard an incessant dripping of water as I was admiring the full moon outside my window, but after investigating I decided that someone on the floor above me must have a slow draining bath, as there was no water actually running in my room.
Bathroom doors visibly opening and shutting have also been witnessed, which is odd since the extensive renovations should have taken away any explanation of “off kilter” doors.
Having heard these stories, I considered myself pretty darn brave to take a soaking bath both nights of my stay . . . but I just couldn’t resist the immense “champagne Jacuzzi” tub. Thankfully, the spirits left me to unwind in peace.
I even heard one report that the Emily Morgan’s swimming pool, a triangular feature situated on an outcropping of an upper floor, was constructed out of the stainless steel from the medical center’s operating tables. Though I couldn’t find anything to confirm this, it sure makes a great story and would have been an ingenious (if eerie) example of repurposing materials.
IT HAS ITS UPS & DOWNS
One ”phenomenon” at the Emily Morgan that I can confirm through personal experience is that the elevators seem to have a mind of their own.
The elevators are said to often to ride up and down without a single rider or skip past a floor that a rider has requested by pushing the button, because . . . c’mon, ghosts just wanna have fun.
When you step onto one of these conveyances, take a bit of patience and be ready to accept an adventure if it should present itself.
Front desk attendants are said to receive phone calls –from these same elevators-even when no one is inside.
One of the creepiest experiences reported by visitors is that the elevators (regardless of which floor was requested) have taken their passengers below ground to the basement level, where the morgue once was.
Meeting rooms and housekeeping are the only things housed there today, but it is said that even employees keep their time there to a minimum. Among the things reported to have been experienced there are dancing orbs (there are no windows, so they couldn’t be reflections) and disembodied voices. I wonder what they have to say?
The most dramatic – verging on unnerving – experience I had at the hotel involved the elevators. It was witnessed by numerous other guests and staff, but I’ll keep this one to myself (sorry).
Other floors in the hotel come with reports of a woman’s shrieking cries in the middle of the night, transparent apparitions moving from room to room and passing through walls or even gazing into the mirror as guests check their appearance. Which of these would you be brave enough to see or hear?
The staff confirms that occasionally guests request to switch rooms, citing that the activity in theirs is too much to endure.
Did they actually experience something paranormal or did they take the hotel’s ghostly tales too close to heart? Only they will know for sure, but I suggest you check in and decide for yourself.
Employees of the hotel are happy to share their own experiences or stories they’ve heard, and if they aren’t scared, why should we be?
Ghosts or not, the Emily Morgan Hotel remains high on my recommendations for accommodations in the city of San Antonio. The beautiful architecture and interior spaces and gracious staff are unparalleled.
One of the least known and most fascinating museums in Houston surrounds a topic that not everyone is entirely comfortable discussing – funerals.
The National Museum of Funeral History isn’t only a great idea to visit around Halloween, though. The tasteful curation of a fascinating collection from across generations and cultures will soon have you roaming around wondering why you haven’t visited before.
I admit I hadn’t visited the museum since they were in their original, much smaller space so I was wowed by the 30,500 square feet of exhibit space is filled with fifteen permanent displays that explain topics from the lives and deaths of popes, to presidential funerals and the Day of the Dead celebration as well as visiting exhibits.
My favorite room is filled with historical hearses, which will especially amaze car enthusiasts. Rare horse drawn carriages from the 19th century sit beside the actual hearses that carried actress Grace Kelly and U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald R. Ford. There’s even a 1916 Packard funeral bus large enough to hold a coffin, pallbearers and up to 20 mourners.
The museum even has Roy Rogers and Dale Evans parade car…and you have to see it in person to believe it!
Around each corner are unexpected surprises, including a replica of Snow White’s glass coffin and displays of funeral details of the rich and famous.
A collection of fantasy coffins from Ghana, West Africa captures the personalities of the departed. Imagine being laid to rest in a wooden coffin carved to resemble an eagle, a chicken, an airplane or even a Mercedes Benz! They are truly pieces of art.
Other exhibits explain the history of topics like the history of embalming or 19th Century mourning. They’ll open your eyes to a part of history that isn’t often talked about, but can of course be bypassed if you’re with younger ones who you’d rather not have view them.
Rest assured though, there is nothing gory or blatant about any of the displays. And yes, there’s a gift shop with a great selection of conversation-starters to commemorate your visit.
Whether you’re looking for something you consider a bit creepy to visit for Halloween, or an unusual museum that your friends probably haven’t even heard of…this is the spot.