THE AMBASSADOR HOTEL

The infamous Cecil Hotel's twin in downtown Jacksonville

View from the back of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Jacksonville | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

The Ambassador is located smack dab in the center of downtown Jacksonville, surrounded by towering buildings, the office of the State Attorney, and the city courthouse, which makes the prospect of getting in there without being seen almost impossible. The broken windows and courtyards blocked by brick walls and barbed wire look both out of place amidst the modern cityscape yet appropriately forlorn for the atmosphere that hangs heavy over the urban center of all large cities.

The Ambassador opened under the name 310 West Church Street Apartments in 1923 as the first upscale apartment building in downtown Jacksonville. The brick, six-story building was designed in the Georgian Revival architectural style and housed 110 residents in 50 units. Architects Hentz, Reid and Adler designed the building in an H-shaped pattern so that all the units would have windows.

View from the back of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Jacksonville | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

After 20 years as an apartment building, the building was converted into a hotel, operating under a revolving door of names over the following decades. In 1944, it was known as the Three-Ten Hotel, the Hotel Southland in 1947, the Griner Hotel in 1949, and finally the Ambassador Hotel in 1955. As time went on and Jacksonville's downtown began to decline, so did the Ambassador Hotel. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 but that did little to assuage the building's decline. In contrast to the upscale apartments that it originally boasted, the hotel was eventually converted to a low-rent single room occupancy with rooms rented by the week before finally being closed for good in 1998.

We’ve been referring to it as the Jacksonville Cecil because of its almost eerie resemblance to the infamous Cecil hotel in Los Angeles. I’ve been fascinated with the morbid history of the Cecil since the Elisa Lam story went viral. The Cecil, also located in the middle of a large city, has a long history of death, suicide, and violence dating back to the first documented suicide in November 1931 when Manhattan Beach resident W.K. Norton was found dead after ingesting poison capsules.

Main Street versus Julia Street, the Cecil and the Ambassador seem cut from the same cloth | Left Photo © Robyn Beck & Country Living, Second Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

In September 1944, 19-year-old Dorothy Jean Purcell was sharing a room at the Cecil with 38-year-old shoe salesman Ben Levine. Purcell, who had apparently been unaware that she was pregnant, went into labor. She later testified that she did not want to disrupt a sleeping Levine, so she went to the bathroom where she gave birth to a baby boy. Thinking the baby was dead, Purcell threw him out the window where he landed on the roof of an adjacent building. Purcell was charged with murder and was found not guilty by reason of insanity in January 1945 after three psychiatrists - then known as “alienists” - testified that she was “mentally confused” at the time of the incident.

Elizabeth Short, more famous known as “the Black Dahlia”, was seen at the Cecil’s bar in the days shortly before her murder in January 1947. The Cecil was also home to the “Nightstalker” Richard Ramirez in 1985, and copycat killer Jack Unterweger in 1991.

But the macabre story of the death of Elisa Lam is what really began my fascination with the Cecil. It’s a combination of gross, mysterious, and downright creepy. Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old Canadian student, went missing on January 31, 2013. Three weeks later, guests had begun complaining about low water pressure and that the water had a funny taste. On February 19, 2013, a maintenance worker went to check the water tanks on the roof of the hotel and discovered Lam’s decomposing body inside.

Emergency personnel gather on the roof of the Cecil Hotel on Main Street, where the body - believed to be that of Elisa Lam, 21 - was discovered about 10 a.m. by a hotel worker responding to a complaint about low water pressure | Photo © 2013 Los Angeles Times

Authorities ruled the death an accidental drowning, despite the many suspicious and unexplained facts surrounding the case. The oddest piece of evidence in this case was the security footage of Lam in the elevator right before her disappearance. In the tapes, she is seen acting strangely; pressing multiple elevator buttons, waving her arms wildly, and even hiding in the corner of the elevator at one point.

Even more odd - and relevant to our experience at the Ambassador - was the behavior of the Cecil’s elevator itself. Despite her repeated attempts to press buttons and activate its sensors by waving her hands around, it refuses to move and its doors open and close apparently at random. Lam herself moves in and out of the lift at one point and appears to be jumping about playfully.

The Ambassador Hotel - There was a staircase here. It's gone now. | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

These creepy Cecil stories were what Flowerbomb and I were discussing as we parked in the garage near the Ambassador. We parked on the fifth floor and got into the elevator, pressing the button for the ground floor, and not thinking anything of it until the elevator stopped randomly on the third floor.

 

There was another man in the elevator with us was also going to the ground floor and the third floor button hadn’t been pressed. We looked out of the doors and saw that no one had been waiting to board the elevator. After a moment or two, the doors began to close again, only to spring back open as if someone had activated the sensor in the door. No one had. This process repeated a few times, the doors opening and closing, and pressing the “door close” button did nothing to stop it. Pressing buttons for other floors had much the same effect - namely, none.

 

This is about when we mutually agreed that this situation was way too Elisa Lam-y for us, especially since we just happened to be on our way to a hotel that looked like the Cecil’s twin. We took the stairs down to the ground floor.

 

Not today Cecil-Satan.

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