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I have to tell ya…I’ve been looking forward to staying at this renovated mid-century motel all through covid shutdown! If you watched my instagram live interviews/tours of hotel properties around the state during shutdown, you’ve already seen a sneak peak of this one.
The sign alone would have convinced me, but the rooms, gathering spaces and friendly owners and operators make this a definite addition to a road trip list.
The Desert Air isn’t one of the made-to-look-vintage places. It was actually built in 1960 by Ervin and Melburn Grisby, who operated it until 1971. Here’a a photo of Ervin and Melburn — can’t you just picture meeting them at the motel back in the day?
Ervin worked at the Kerr Mercantile for 35 before building the motel. He even met his wife at the store. So it’s especially appropriate that one of the store’s (it’s now known a Z-Bar Trading Company) dinosaurs has taken up residence at the motel. But more about that in a minute…
Besides bringing the entire motel back to life, the new owners have added a couple of their own signature touches to the place, including custom benches outside each room where you can sit back, enjoy the sunset and kick the dirt off your shoes.
They also restored the iconic sign and lit it with an ingenious method that avoided costly neon. She’s a beauty!
Each of the rooms has its own special charm and is decorated with photo artwork featuring the beauty of the area. We stayed in Room 117, the Ocotillo Suite, which is the only one that has a private courtyard with table and chairs, a “cowboy tub,” view of the mountains and a T-rex…. because… why not? It was a nice place to enjoy the mornings and evenings with a cold drink and catch up on a few emails.
The rooms are just retro enough to be fun, but with all the amenities you’ll expect from a modern day motel including a small fridge and microwave. And that bed felt s-o-o good after a long drive, let me tell ya!
Even if you’re lucky enough to have the room with a private courtyard you won’t want to “keep to yourself” for very long, with tempting gathering areas calling your name. The center court space made it easy to socialize with the other guests, and turned into a bit of a party when everyone offered to bring items from their travel coolers to share.
That nice shady oak tree and large rock (it’s called the “Hoot Owl Rock) in the courtyard hail back to another set of owners, Charles and Mary Beth Stavely – the second owners.
Walk through the passage by the office to the side yard, and you’ll make the unexpected find of a school bus. The current owners have re-floored the interior of the bus and created a shaded area outside to provide other secluded spots for the guests to enjoy the outdoors.
Why a bus? It’s a reasonable question, and the answer ties back to the third owners Merv and Gerri Degraff who left the motel to their son Scott. A musician and motorcycle enthusiast, Scott drove the bus (loaded with his gear) from Florida to the motel, parked it out back, and there it stayed. Luckily the new owners Nick, Sara and Joe took pity on the bus and fixed it up to serve a purpose for their new venture. Pretty cute, huh?
I promised you a bit more info about the Kerr Brothers Store. Technically a hardware store, it isn’t usually something that I would add to my itinerary, but this one is definitely unique. Yes, it’s probably the BIGGEST hardware store you’ll sever see, but it also has, well . . .
Yup! Dinosaurs. And every type of metal “yard art” that you can think of and a LOT that you can’t! One step inside the door will make you stop in your tracks to try to take it in, but just take your time and wander. You’ll find things that make you laugh, things you might actually consider taking home, and things that will have you gaping in confusion. Even if you’re only driving through Sanderson and not staying, this is well worth the stop.
It was eventually time to check out of the Desert Air and get back on the road, but we’ll definitely be back.
There was one more touch that I appreciated while getting ready to leave. Each room is provided with an envelope with the name of the member of the housekeeping staff, in case the guest would like to leave them a gratuity. To me it shows how much the owners appreciate their staff, and let’s be honest…it’s so easy in the rush of packing to forget this gesture. The envelope was a nice reminder and made it convenient as well.
Next stop: Alpine and a couple of surrounding towns. You won’t want to miss riding along to see what we found!
“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.