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A history of the Biltmore, Miami's best-known creepy hotel

This article was originally published on Oct. 30, 2014.

The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables wasn't always a hotel. 

It was built in 1926 by a young developer named George Merrick, who's known as the founder of Coral Gables. 

The hotel became a place to host glamorous fashion shows, galas, golf tournaments and water shows in what was then the largest pool in the world.

At a loud party on the 13th floor of the hotel in 1929, a gangster named Thomas "Fatty" Walsh was shot and killed by another gangster. That murder yielded a lot of ghost rumors over the years.

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Credit Julia Duba
Betsy Skipp in her Coral Gables home. When Skipp was growing up, she and her friends would sneak into the abandoned Biltmore Hotel.

Then World War II happened and the federal government transformed the Biltmore into a military hospital. Once the war was over, it continued being a hospital for veterans. In 1952, the University of Miami made the Biltmore its first home.

When the hospital closed in 1968, the Biltmore became an abandoned shell. That's when neighborhood kids started sneaking in.

"All the kids would always talk about how there must be ghosts in there," says Betsy Skipp, who grew up in Coral Gables and would sneak into the Biltmore with her friends. "You'd sneak out of the house and we all had flashlights."

So many kids were sneaking into the shuttered building, that the City of Coral Gables decided to hire a security guard.

Kim Dunn-Zocco also grew up in Coral Gables and would sneak into the shuttered building. Sneaking past the guard, whom they nicknamed "The Greenie" after the guard's green golf-cart, was part of the fun, she says.

"Once you got in, that's when it started to get a little creepy and quiet and creaky," says Zocco. 

Check out this 1988 student documentary called "The Biltmore's Strange Guest List" produced by Kathy Bolduc as a final project for a University of Miami class.

Because the Biltmore had been a veteran's hospital and a medical school, Zocco says her friends' worst fear was the possibility of seeing a dead body inside the building. One time, her friend swore he saw a severed limb.

"I remember we just ripped it out of there and hauled ourselves all the way home."

In 1983, Coral Gables put $55 million into renovating the Biltmore. The hotel reopened in 1987 and was restored to glory. Ten years later, the Biltmore was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

Credit Julia Duba
Linda Spitzer shares a photo of herself telling ghost stories in the Biltmore Hotel lobby.

Still, the ghost stories kept swirling. Starting in 1994, Linda Spitzer told ghost stories every Thursday night in the Biltmore's lobby. She was a staple for 10 years, before she moved to Lake Worth. 

"The guests loved it," says Spitzer, who would wear sun hats reminiscent of The Roaring Twenties. "I would tell them I'm here from 7 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. and it would drag on until 8 p.m."

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She did her research before telling her stories, but she says her best material came from the hotel guests themselves.
Today the Biltmore is far from the creepy place that once terrified the children of Coral Gables. 
For Zocco, it's been an inescapable part of life. Her husband's uncle was a veteran patient when it was a hospital, her father went to medical school as a University of Miami student, she and her sister both had jobs at the hotel. And now she takes her family there for brunch. 

"It's such a beautiful building with so much history and so much mystery that you can't help but be drawn to it whether it's empty or living and breathing."

Credit Courtesy: Kim Dunn-Zocco
Zocco was 17 years old when she worked at the Biltmore's banquet.

Browse more photos of the Biltmore Hotel on the Miami Herald's Flashback Miami archive.

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