The sun was almost penetrating the autumn Ozark mist as we looped around yet another turn on exceedingly curvy old Prospect Road on the Historic Loop around Eureka Springs. Suddenly, high on West (or Crescent) Mountain, we found ourselves at the entrance of imposing Crescent Hotel gardens and grounds. A surge of expectation and excitement went through me, as I’d read the hotel was supposed to be haunted. Bob does not believe in ghosts but badly needed to use the bathroom, so we quickly parked, and as he strode purposefully into the lobby, I meandered around the perimeter of the Crescent, taking it in slowly. The large Victorian hotel, completed in 1886, has been renovated but still holds an aura of the elegance of days gone by. A large metal crescent moon stands on an ivied trickling fountain in front of the entrance. A plaque near the entrance informs that the hotel was constructed of limestone quarried from nearby White River. Irish masons fitted the Crescent’s 18-inch thick walls without mortar. Towers, balconies, and chimneys abound in a busy architectural style of some question, but undoubtedly Victorian, combining Gothic and Chateauesque elements.
The Crescent has a mysterious and varied past. For its first 20 years, it flourished, easily attracting and filled by tourists and health seekers. No wonder, for besides its imposing exterior and luxurious rooms, it enjoyed all the modern conveniences of its time, such as electric lights and indoor bathrooms and plumbing. Business started to slide somewhat, though, and in 1908, the Crescent underwent a yearly transformation at summer’s end, becoming the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women during the school year. High tuition charged to these wealthy young ladies was not enough to pay for running, heating, and keeping the Crescent in tip-top shape, and she continued her decline. The college closed for good during the Depression but was occasionally leased as a summer resort.
Enter "Dr." Baker. In 1937, the Crescent was bought by a dubious character named Norman Baker, who’d been run out of Iowa for practicing medicine without a license. He had no medical training but claimed to have a surefire cure for cancer: his own home remedies augmented by Eureka Springs spring water. At best, his "cures" did no harm, and the pure water and mountain air could have been healthful for his cancer patients. At worst, the tales whispered about this man paint him as an insane killer. There are rumors about surgical experiments on his patients that killed them, after which he would either incinerate their bodies or "bury" them within the walls of the Crescent. It’s said that human skeletons have been found inside the walls during remodeling over the years. Others whose death was impending were transferred to an asylum, with an admitting diagnosis of "insanity" rather than cancer to hide the fact that he wasn’t curing anyone. Whether there’s any truth to these tales isn’t known, but these two facts are true: 1.) Norman Baker was charged and convicted of mail fraud and false medical claims in 1940 and served 4 years in Leavenworth Prison. 2.) Norman Baker had terrible taste in interior decorating and fashion. During his residence in the Crescent, he tore out wooden hand rails and balconies; painted the woodwork bright red, orange, yellow and black; and decorated his penthouse and himself in shades of purple and lavender.
Crescent Reborn: The Crescent was closed until 1946, when efforts were made by investors to reestablish the venerable old building as a hotel. I wasn’t able to find much documentation of the goings-on at the Crescent for the next 50 years, but somehow it remained standing, a credit to its sturdy construction. In 1997, Marty and Elise Roenigk, a most interesting couple from Ohio in "semi-retirement" purchased both the Crescent and downtown Basin Park Hotel. Marty is chairman and CEO of highly successful CompuDyne security systems and collects and deals in mechanical musical instruments. The Roenigks apparently have the resources, capital, and vision to return both hotels to their full original glory. New Moon Spa on the ground floor of the Crescent provides a wide range of treatments, including two types of water massage, Hydrotone Therapy Tub ($60) and Vichy Shower ($55), and even a heated bubbling volcanic ash mud treatment ($30). The 68 guest rooms have been renovated with new wiring, plumbing, beds, and carpeting, done using traditional Victorian features and color schemes. The skyline of the hotel, which had been damaged by fire in the 1960s, has been restored to its original appearance, including a crescent moon weather vane and lightning rod.
And that’s not all… Before digressing along historical lines, I left myself standing by the entrance marveling and trying to pick up ghostly vibes. Far from being a ghost hunter or avid believer, I’m open to all possibilities and just try to stay attuned to them. Indoors, I walked up to the lobby desk and asked about nightly rates (from $159 to $279 for a Jacuzzi suite) and casually inquired about ghostly presences. The young desk clerk answered she hadn’t noticed anything even though she’d spent the night here several times. As I looked around, my gaze was caught by the lovely furnishings, elegant velvety chairs, rich burnished glossy wood antiques, and intricately cast black iron gas heaters against wall. The color scheme in the large lobby consisted of rose, maroon, and an indefinable almost-teal blue. Playful, friendly live cats added the perfect accent. Too bad it wasn’t time for us to eat. The Crystal Dining Room looked so inviting. I perused the menus for lunch and dinner. Lunch examples: artichoke and cheese quesadilla, $4.95; Ozark trout cakes, $7.95. Dinner was very gourmet-sounding. My pick would have been quail stuffed with caramelized leeks and wild mushrooms, $19. But I was getting too hungry too fast, so I tore myself away from there and continued on through the lobby out back.
Saint Elizabeth Catholic Church: Imagine my surprise after stepping outside, walking down the steps across the lawn, to find I was practically standing on top of a church. Saint Elizabeth’s, just down slope east of the Crescent, has made Ripley’s Believe It or Not fame because the entrance is in the bell tower. The red-tiled roof, round dome with cross, many archways, and beautiful stained-glass windows make this a very soothing and pleasant church to visit. Entering through the bell tower, you walk down an outdoor ramp with statuettes of the Stations of the Cross to your right. In the gardens around the church are many more statues looking very natural among ferns, flowers, bushes, and trees.
Ghostly presences had not yet been felt, but ascending the hill from Saint Elizabeth’s, I came to a gazebo below the Crescent’s back balconies. Next to the gazebo was an unusual sight: a brightly colored bathrobe sash tied in a knot and loop from a tree limb at eye-level. On the stone bench next to the gazebo, someone had left a full bag of Bugler tobacco. My attention kept being drawn up to the Crescent, to the windows in the annex next to the balconies. I began to feel almost like I was being watched. There were very few others around on this cool, misty afternoon. I stood there wondering why the sash, why the tobacco, in an otherwise immaculately kept garden. No idea… ghost or trickster, I’ll never know.
Who are these ghosts? Eureka Springs Ghost Tours, with an office in suite no. 212 of the Crescent, will eagerly provide you with the tools to make your own conclusions about the hauntings and paranormal events that apparently have taken place with great regularity at the Crescent. Their Crescent Hotel Tour ($15, adults; $7, children) will even take you down to the basement room that served as a morgue in Doctor Baker’s Cancer Cure Hospital and tell you about the veritable army of ghosts that make appearances here. One is a stonecutter who fell to his death while working on building the hotel where room no. 218 is now. He makes the most appearances, and room 218 is the most requested room in the hotel. A middle-aged man with a mustache and beard, dressed in formal clothing, is often seen sitting quietly in the lobby and bar areas, suddenly disappearing. Sometimes a nurse is seen wheeling a gurney down the hallways. Guests have given countless reports of strong feelings of being watched, unexplainable footsteps when no one was there, doors opening and closing, flashing and fluttering lights, and objects being moved, even broken. Ghost guides explain that ghosts return to places they liked best, or to places where they need to resolve something that happened while they were alive. We could certainly have stayed longer to continue exploring this fascinating hotel and surroundings, and it was with some regret that we got back in our car to continue on the Historic Loop.