Welcome to the Congress Plaza Hotel

A visit to one of Chicago’s most haunted hotels.

Welcome to the Congress Plaza. Image provided by author.

Chicagoland supernatural connoisseurs hold the Congress Plaza Hotel in high esteem. Many claim it is one of—if not the most—haunted locations in the city. Sure enough, the sheer number of apparitions sighted intrigues even the skeptical. That’s why, when recently given the chance, I spent a few nights there. And in a way, Chicago’s Congress Plaza Hotel deserves its reputation.

It didn’t hurt to arrive on a blustery autumn evening. The Windy City owning its nickname, chilly air sliced along the street. Walking the stretch from the parking lot to the lobby, I tried not to have any expectations. However, as city twilight turned quickly into night, I found it hard not to have horror-centric thoughts. Some places possess a palpable presence, and the Congress Plaza Hotel is one of them.

front view of the Congress Plaza Hotel with red neon letters declaring its name
Welcome to the Congress Plaza Hotel. Image courtesy of the author.

Built in 1893, the location was originally known as the Auditorium Annex. Meant to house those visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition, its façade complimented Louis Sullivan’s nearby Auditorium Building. Not far from the fabled White City, hotel developer R. H. Southgate constructed the first section, or north tower, as conceived by Clinton Warren. The south tower, designed by Holabird and Roche, arrived between 1902 and 1907. In 1911, new owners renamed the building the Congress Plaza Hotel due to its location on Congress Parkway (now Ida B. Wells Drive) near Grant Park’s Congress Plaza.

As such, the hotel is a part of the city’s most recent history, particularly the Great Rebuilding following the Chicago Fire. It’s a piece of the past but still very much alive. The Congress Plaza Hotel belongs to a period of renewal when folks reached out of the ashes to build a bright future. Perhaps that’s why ghosts inhabit the place. Every presence which passes through leaves a touch of tarnish, and that underlying optimism, still visible when viewed from the right angle, means tragedy stains the place permanently.

Not seven years after the hotel opened, Captain Louis Ostheim from the First United States Artillery, veteran of the Spanish-American War, checked in. He arrived alone, on the eve of his wedding, and shot himself with a revolver. He left no note, and no reason was ever deduced for the suicide. However, many believe his spirit haunts the halls, manifesting in the form of a frequently seen Shadow Man.

The ornate lobby of the Congress Plaza Hotel
Checking into the Congress. Image courtesy of the author.

This apparition appears in various parts of the Congress Plaza Hotel. There’s even an account of a security guard chasing the shadowy specter up to the roof where the ghost vanished. Unfortunately, it isn’t the only suicide to fuel stories of paranormal encounters.

In 1939, Adele Langer fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia with her two children. While her husband stayed behind to sell what he could to fund his family’s escape, the refugees received rooms at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Depressed and terrified, particularly at the too real prospect of deportation back into the hands of Nazis persecution, Adele threw her young children out the window of their 12th floor room. She soon rushed out the same window to the pavement below.

Baroque elevator doors of the Congress Plaza Hotel
Going up? Image courtesy of the author.

This tragedy has since sparked sightings of ghostly children scampering through the halls of the Congress Plaza Hotel. Reports appear to be confined to the north tower. Those staying there have blamed Adele’s boys for windows opening at random, elevators skipping floors, and the sound of children’s laughter coming out of thin air. Over its 125-year history, the Congress Plaza Hotel has seen a fair share of murder and suicide. Many incidents, such as those above, possess a palpable humanity which encourages ghost stories. The phantoms are more real because they stem from real people. However, not every specter can be linked to a specific individual.

The apparition known as Peg-Leg Johnny owns no origin. Still, that hasn’t stopped various visitors over the years seeing him all over the hotel. The haunter is easy to identify given his peg-leg. Most often observed in the South Tower, Peg-Leg Johnny tends to frighten guests by snapping off lights and making electronics malfunction.

In the hotel’s roster of paranormal regulars, not every spook is lucky enough to have a title. Nameless spirits fiddle with the televisions, turning them on and off or changing channels. Rumors of a construction worker accidentally buried in the walls have spawned reports of a ghostly hand seen reaching out from within. Additionally, general specters have been witnessed in the ballrooms of the Congress Plaza Hotel where various supernatural activity abounds. 

Black and white photos of the hotel hallway on the fifth floor of the Congress Plaza Hotel.
This way to your room. Image courtesy of the author.

Guests and hotel staff have heard piano music in the Florentine Room, though the instrument stands alone. The mysterious ghost hand is frequently reported reaching out from the wall in a Gold Room closet. Wedding parties gathering for photos in this ballroom have also said bridesmaids sometimes don’t appear in the pictures taken.

All of this, though, is just an appetizer for the most infamous rooms of the Congress Plaza Hotel. Spots where the odds of seeing something supernatural get guaranteed. Depending on the teller, it’s either a room screwed shut on the 12th floor, a different sealed room numbered 666, or the less eye-roll-inducing 441. It’s entirely possible all the rooms have been the scene of rampant paranormal activity. Since the hotel sealed off, at the very least, room 666, perhaps that inadvertently focused paranormal investigators on the still available 441.

Whatever the case, guests and ghosthunters alike have witnessed objects moving around that room. Poked and kicked while sleeping, occupants awake to find a shadowy woman staring at them, either beside the bed or hovering above them. Electronics don’t work, disembodied voices, banging noises—the whole spectrum of supernatural doings is concentrated in room 441. While similar stories circulate about the 12th floor and 666, the fact alone that those rooms are sealed off drips with urban legend potential.

Stairway at the Congress Plaza Hotel featuring decorative white banisters
Going down? Image courtesy of the author.

There’s a multitude of stories perfect for the campfire, any of which would be splendid to tell with the lights down low, such as the slain lawyer found naked, bound, and strangled, or the cyanide murder-suicide pact. Unfortunately, not all of them can be confirmed through outside sources. So, it seems prudent not to include every macabre event associated with the Congress Plaza Hotel. That’s not to say any are outright fiction, but the details have changed with tellers over time. And when investigating the paranormal, it’s important to have the facts rather than sensational information.

Consider how many ghosthunter sites commonly allude to H. H. Holmes when talking about the Congress Hotel. The notorious serial killer who prowled the White City luring victims back to his Englewood “Murder Castle” may have visited what was known as the Auditorium Annex at the time. However, the idea that his ghost still stalks the Congress Plaza Hotel seems more like a movie pitch than a paranormal truth. Although, being able to associate a haunted site with a serial killer is sensational solid gold.

That said, embellishment is unnecessary when it comes to the eeriness of the Congress Plaza Hotel. It doesn’t feel like a place that’s incorporated modernity so much as had the modern inflicted upon it. The elder aspect of the place predominates with its true visage behind ill-applied makeup; however, that mix reveals a wonderful strangeness. That’s because here the past feels just as alive as the present. Checking in can mean standing in the same place as Capt. Louis Ostheim. The view out a window may be the same that Adele Langer pondered despondently.

Service area at the Congress Plaza Hotel. Dark, concrete, and off limits to guests.
This is not the way back to my room. Image courtesy of the author.

The idea that buildings possess a personality is hardly original. And although urban legends can tint the lens, it’s easy enough to see horror story seeds. The cracked paint leaving decay veins in the rooms and halls, myriad scarred doors—fertilizer for nightmare notions.

Plus, there’s always a sense of another presence. The aroma of the last passenger lingers in the elevator. Whether perfume, sweat, or takeout, ethereal hints whisper of others.

Walking the halls, the odd acoustics of the place are immediately apparent. Nearing room doors, sounds inside become more distinct then swiftly fade to whispers. Muffled conversations disappear entirely once around a nearby bend; it’s easy to comprehend how one might get the impression of disembodied voices.

In fact, the whole hotel is acoustically paradoxical, brimming with sounds yet intensely silent as well. Most noises lack an immediately obvious source. Wandering the place, I frequently strayed into pockets of sound which were silenced simply by turning down another hallway. Raspy groans resonate through the plumbing infrequently without warning. Dead silence in the hotel room, then you are entirely aware of a nearby doorknob turning outside as guests and staff come and go. Not to mention, the wind whipping around the building possesses a distorted howl, which I’m sure anyone unaccustomed to Chicago may mistake for something supernatural. The Windy City can be a bit of a banshee.

A strange, twisting hallway on the fifth floor of the Congress Plaza Hotel.
The fifth-floor hallways have many twists. Image courtesy of the author.

Again, I wouldn’t be the first writer to pontificate on the inherent creepiness of hotel rooms. To paraphrase Stephen King’s “1408,” hotels provide fertile creature comforts fostering a reassuring familiarity which visitors invariably see through, infecting them with a subtle sense of discomfort. For although the room seems familiar, it is alien. And it’s hard not to think about the dozens who’ve come before, slept in the same bed, showered, and stared at the walls wondering if this is all there is to existence.

Hotels are communes designed for isolation, so although surrounded by people, they can still feel markedly lonely. Yet, COVID restrictions have made the place feel even more isolated and empty. For instance, there is no housekeeping service except by request. This is to limit interaction, social distancing, and such, but it becomes troubling when a stray knock hits the door. Sorry, wrong room, but for a second, the heart skips a beat—a strange fear seasoned that hope the unexpected arrival is a ghost.

Steel, spiral stairway in the Congress Plaza Hotel.
Take the spiral. Image courtesy of the author.

Twice I went exploring the premises. Both times I got lost. Although there isn’t anything overtly labyrinthine about the Congress Plaza Hotel, the place feels maze-like. It only takes one wrong turn to end up twisted around. More than once, I ventured down a flight of stairs only to find myself not on the floor immediately below—skipping from five to three before backtracking to four.

Part of this is a simple unfamiliarity with the building. However, it’s hard not to think of getting lost in the Overlook from The Shining or the Sedgwick Hotel where the Ghostbusters encountered Slimer. (The overall vibe of the Congress Plaza Hotel puts it closer to the latter.) Still, it doesn’t help that certain corridors are chained shut.

A doorway chained shut at the Congress Plaza Hotel.
Why is this doorway chained shut? Image courtesy of the author.

In addition, floors don’t seem to have a universal layout. The fourth is not arranged the same way as the fifth where I stayed. It even looks different. The carpeting, wall décor, and room doors are all unique to the fourth floor. This only intensifies any sense of discombobulation since leaving one floor is like stepping into an entirely different building.

Lighting only worsens the creepiness permeating the premises. Exploring the fourth floor in search of 441, I kept turning down halls shrouded in shadow, finding entire passages drenched in darkness save for a lone light at the end of the corridor. A friend in the hospitality industry suggested a bulb could’ve burned out, perhaps that night, and had yet to be replaced. While plausible, it doesn’t erase the eeriness that hits like a truck, turning from a well-lit hall into an ink-stained nightmare tunnel.

I can easily imagine a guest getting lost like I did and the overall aura of the Congress Plaza Hotel steering their imagination. Disoriented, growing anxious, it seems like something at the end of the hall is moving. Add the strange acoustics of the place, passing a door in the dark seeds the notion of disembodied voices. While that doesn’t explain away other ghost sightings, I can’t help but suspect that the atmosphere there is partly to blame.

Dark hotel hallway with only one door lit at the far end.
Exploring the dark halls of the hotel. Image courtesy of the author.

The Congress Hotel is cinematically perfect for horror. The look of the place begs a person to imagine ghosts. That same aesthetic is ideal for noir, as well. Shadowy specters are as easy to picture as burnt-out detectives trudging through the halls. Sometimes it all comes down to what a person wants to see.

Consider, I noticed staff are practically ninjas, slipping out of sight through various doors and stairways. It would be easy to mistake housekeeping for a ghost as they hastily exited a shadowy hall through a service exit. My room housed me near such a portal which meant I sometimes heard service personnel moving around. Unaware of the sounds’ source, it could give off the impression of a specter moving about.

That said, during my stay, I never encountered anything I would label as unexplainable. The room door sometimes stayed open, occasionally closing on its own. A brief examination revealed a slight lump in the carpeting. Open the door far enough, it caught and wouldn’t close. The next time, though, opened less wide, it would drift shut, offering the impression something closed the door. A similar incident occurred with a nightstand drawer, which I discovered open when I returned from a trip to grab takeout. The sight unnerved me at first, but a little logic deduced the cause as a faulty magnetic catch.

The unique edifice of the Congress Plaza Hotel which seems like a series of concrete jars stacked together.
The unique edifice of the Congress Plaza Hotel. Image courtesy of the author.

I won’t pretend I never felt apprehensive. There’s an eeriness to the place I think even those unfamiliar with the ghost stories will feel. The thing is that some accounts of the Congress Plaza Hotel have the sour taste of sensationalism about them. Witnesses claim to have seen Al Capone and various presidents, which is interesting since none of them died in the Congress Hotel. Although, it makes one wonder just how nice the luxury suites must be if folks are returning for a visit from beyond the grave.

Furthermore, certain associations are, in all likelihood, downright false. For instance, Ursula Bielski started the rumor that the Congress Plaza Hotel inspired Stephen King’s “1408,” but she never cited any specific source, opting instead to use the vague insinuation that “some researchers” came to that conclusion. Since she never elaborated on who said what or how they developed their conclusions, and Stephen King has never acknowledged such a supposition—it’s doubtable, to put it mildly. Yet, time and again, paranormal sites make mention of the claim because it means being able to use Stephen King as a keyword, boasting search engine attention.

The point is that some claims about the Congress Plaza Hotel muddy the waters. Debunkable assertions about apparitions overshadow what may be credible accounts. The only truth then is personal experience. I was only there for three days, but perhaps on a return visit, something supernatural might occur. The paranormal definitely feels possible in the Congress Plaza Hotel.

Black and white tinted blue photo of the front view of the Congress Plaza hotel standing along Michigan Ave. with several other skyscrapers.
Please come again. Image courtesy of the author.

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Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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