back to top
Homepage / Architecture  / The Arizona Biltmore’s Mystery Room Was a Prohibition-Era Playground

The Arizona Biltmore’s Mystery Room Was a Prohibition-Era Playground

Hidden behind an unmarked doorway on the Arizona Biltmore’s second floor, the Mystery Room was reportedly a favorite of the powerful and famous during Prohibition. Actor Clark Gable and his wife, Carole Lombard, are said to have requested Room 1201 during their frequent visits because it was the closest guest room to the secret alcove.

For those in the know, the Arizona Biltmore’s Mystery Room was a Prohibition-era playground.

Photography by Kevin Kaminski

On the second floor of the Arizona Biltmore hotel, down an unremarkable, low-ceilinged hallway punctuated with nondescript administrative office doors hides a gilded jewel box accessible only by invitation. The historic resort is steeped in legend and rumor spanning its 93-year history, and like an ace hidden up its velvet tuxedo sleeve, a secret has been whispered about since the property opened: the Mystery Room. 

Although frequently—and erroneously—attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, the Arizona Biltmore’s architect of record was Albert Chase McArthur, who worked for two and a half years as a draftsman for Wright. The resort was completed in February of 1929—eight months after the stock market crash and nine years into Prohibition, the nationwide law that banned the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol from 1920 until 1933.

In 2021 a bookcase—which opens to reveal a hidden bar when two volumes are moved—was built to re-create the Mystery Room’s original double function. “There have always been rumors that they had some kind of a bookcase in this room in order to confuse the police that this was just a library,” historian Ashley Johnson says.
Opposite the fireplace, stairs originally led up to a room used for playing poker behind a black curtain. The opening has since been sealed, and that space now serves as an administrative office.
1. Still functional, the fireplace brings cozy atmosphere to the small space, which measures just 540 square feet. Bridging the hotel’s second and third floors, the ceilings are 16 feet high. It is believed that food and drink were brought in from the hotel’s kitchen, which is in close proximity. 2. Johnson reports that the Mystery Room features seven different variations of the Arizona Biltmore’s signature blocks, which were made from desert sand and water from the nearby canal. “Organic architecture, using the material from the property to build on site, was part of what Frank Lloyd Wright had taught McArthur,” Johnson says. 3. When the Arizona Biltmore opened in 1929, it was the only structure for miles around. Camelback Mountain’s Praying Monk formation can be seen in the background. 4. Originally, the room’s entrance was on the left-hand wall. Doors flanking the fireplace were added in the 1980s. “You couldn’t just show up and get in—you had to be invited,” Johnson says.

“What we understand from the stories that have been passed down is that there were no official descriptions of this room because it was illegal,” says historian Ashley Johnson, who guides historic tours on the property. “It was called the Mystery Room because no one was supposed to know about it.”

Also referred to as the Men’s Smoker, where male guests ostensibly went to enjoy cigars but were also known to play poker, the Mystery Room rises from the second to third stories on the hotel’s northwest side, virtually unseen from the building’s exterior. While it is difficult to imagine today, in its early years, the resort was the only structure for miles around and accessible by a lone road. Legend has it that if police were spotted heading toward the property after dark, a sentinel would pivot rooftop spotlights to shine onto the room’s skylights, thus alerting anyone inside to quickly hide the hooch and clear out. Official records or documentation of raids or arrests have not been found.

“It can be challenging to separate fact from speculation—or downright fantasy. I think from the get-go it was going to be a men’s smoking room, but, wink wink, nudge nudge, it was also going to be a place to serve alcohol, to party and enjoy yourself,” says architect James Abell, who worked on restoring the hotel after it was damaged by fire in 1973. “I was a 22-year-old draftsman on the project running around with a tape measure verifying dimensions, looking at the water damage. If I had known I’d end up hooked on the history of the resort, I probably would have played hooky more often, crawled through the entire hotel and learned every inch of it.”

Today the Mystery Room is still the subject of whispers and folklore. It can be booked for private events of up to 40 people, is part of the hotel’s history tours, and is the setting of seasonal cocktail classes and other small-scale happenings. “We want to keep this room exclusive, as it always has been,” says Johnson. “When visitors come through the door after walking down the hallway, they always have the same reaction: Wow.”

The original skylights are the chamber’s primary light source. “The ambience in this room is incredible, especially in the evening when the sun is going down,” Johnson says. “There is kind of like a natural dimming of the light.”

Arizona Biltmore Hotel, Phoenix, Bookcase design and construction:


Sign up for the Phoenix Home & Garden Newsletter

Stay up to date with everything Phoenix Home & Garden!

Our newsletter subscribers will have early access to things like:

  • Upcoming Events & Pre-Sales
  • Special Promotions
  • Exclusive Giveaways!