The Arizona Biltmore’s Mystery Room Was a Prohibition-Era Playground
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.
“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.”
Arizona Biltmore Hotel, Phoenix, hilton.com/en/hotels/phxbmwa-arizona-biltmore. Bookcase design and construction: insideaoa.com.