The Rathskeller in the Seelbach Hotel, Louisville, Kentucky
The 1907 addition to The Seelbach in Louisville, Kentucky, included a German rathskeller made of Rookwood Pottery created in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio, by workers hired from the Art Academy. Rookwood Pottery was founded by Maria Longworth Nichols (later Mrs. Bellamy Storer Jr.) in 1880.
According to "The Seelbach Hotel, A History of Louisville Tradition" by J. Theriot in August, 1988, "In making this expensive type of pottery, decorations were drawn by hand on the clay before firing, making the design part of the ware. After baking, various glazes were added in subsequent firings. The floors, columns and walls of the eighty-foot square room were made of the pottery. The ceiling is fine-tooled leather."
To complement the room, The Seelbach Realty Company’s president, Charles C. Vogt, presented the hotel with a $10,000 gift, a Rookwood-faced clock. Such a collection of Rookwood was very rare and, today, The Rathskeller is one of only two surviving ensembles of this art form.
The Rathskeller (ratskellar, a German word meaning restaurant in the town-hall cellar) was built in Bavarian tradition. The Seelbach’s Rathskeller menu offers this description: "As a matter of fact the Rathskeller in every essential, artistic detail, is a reproduction of the underground drinking and council hall of one of the famous castles on the Rhine."
The graceful arches supported by noble columns give a cathedral-like effect. The archway pillars are encircled with Rookwood pelican frescoes, a symbol of good luck, and the ceiling above the bar is covered with hand-painted 24K gold leaf leather detailing the signs of the zodiac.
The Rathskeller achieved immediate popularity. The July 1912 edition of Hotel Monthly describes it as having a "seating capacity from 300 to 400." Not only was it a beautiful nightspot, conveniently located for the after-theater crowds, but it was also one of the first air-conditioned rooms ever built. The Seelbachs vowed to keep the room at least 10 degrees cooler than the outside summer temperatures. To do so required 40 tons of steam-produced refrigeration every 24 hours.
When the hotel was sold to Abraham Liebling, one of the first improvements was for the managers to lease a corner of the first floor to Walgreen Drugs. The Seelbach welcomed this renovation. Since prohibition and the nationwide ban on alcohol sales, the first floor bar had closed and The Rathskeller was little more than an extension of a restaurant. With the drug store on the main floor, the restaurant simply found a home downstairs in the basement. Several years later after prohibition ended, management moved the restaurant back up to the renovated first floor and closed The Rathskeller for extensive changes. In April 1934, it re-opened with a 56-foot bar staffed by six bartenders. With these renovations, the basement bar moved into a new era. Instead of simply providing a stopping place for late-night theater patrons, The Rathskeller would now offer its own musical and dramatic entertainment featuring local bands and occasional first-run theater.
When Walgreen’s lease expired in 1941, management opted to open a new nightclub, tentatively called The Seelbach Café-Bar. The club took away from The Rathskeller and in 1945, when the Legionaries offered to rent the basement, including The Rathskeller, for a members-only club, the managers agreed. Today, The Seelbach’s most treasured heirloom, The Rathskeller, with its dramatic design, lighting, and hand-carved architectural details, is again operated by The Seelbach and is available for private events.
The RathskellerThe Rathskeller is the only surviving room in the world completely encrusted in Rookwood pottery. Rookwood pelicans pervade the area, and although the Hotel’s tourist information likes to cheerfully note that the pelicans are there “for good luck,” it’s also true that the pelican is regarded in some occult mythologies as a symbol of resurrecting one’s children after having killed them oneself, by anointing them with one’s own blood. The pelican has also long been synonymous with the Phoenix (the mythological bird of occult initiation, wherein one is reborn into a new awareness or gnosis) and with Henet (a pelican goddess from pyramid-era Egypt, who appears on walls of ancient tombs and in royal funerary texts).
The Seelbach Hotel was the dream of two German immigrants, and over the past century it has gained the reputation of one of the finest hotels in the area.
"They opened the doors in 1905, the original cost was approximately $990,000 dollars," says Larry Johnson, who is now the lobby concierge at Louisville’s Seelbach Hotel.
"The poker room had the distinction of being where Al Capone came to play poker," Johnson says. "He probably would have stopped here on his way back to Chicago from being in eastern Kentucky, where he picked up his moonshine." It was the era of Prohibition and Al Capone played it safe at the hotel, always facing a mirror in the poker room to keep an eye on his competition … and on his back. And Johnson says there were "lookouts" throughout the hotel. "Whenever the police came into the lobby, somebody would step on the button and the doors going into the poker room would automatically close and he would know to get out."
And secret passageways — now sealed up — allowed just that. "One of the doors went out and down to the street, and the other door went downstairs to the tunnels underneath the hotel. They would go down into the tunnels and he could go anywhere from a block to a mile away form the hotel without being seen."
Louisville police never caught up with Capone, whether he was escaping a card game or from another room he favored: the Rathskeller. Now a backdrop for corporate events and other parties, Johnson says the Rathskeller was a "big night club back in the 20s and 30s, it was a USO in World War I and World War II. During Prohibition, it was a dinner club."
Capone wasn’t the only well-known character to frequent the Seelbach. An Army captain stationed at Camp Taylor also gained quite a reputation at the hotel. F. Scott Fitzgerald, he frequented the bar and supposedly he was kicked out on several occasions for being a booze hound and being a little rowdy," Johnson says. Despite his brushes with the law, Fitzgerald loved the opulent hotel. So much so he wrote about it years later in the Great Gatsby.
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