Berkeley’s sprawling Claremont Hotel—a 22-acre Tudor Revival complex with views of San Francisco Bay—has been the choice of the well-heeled for well over a century, counting among its guests celebrities from Louis Armstrong to Frank Lloyd Wright, from Joe Biden to Brangelina.
But behind the sun-splashed tennis courts, state-of-the-art spa and decadent brunch service lingers a dark history.
Some believe spirits started haunting the property in the wake of a 1901 wildfire that razed the original estate where the Claremont stands, an English-style castle built in the mid-19th century. The blaze left only the horse stables standing. The owner, John Ballard, was so devastated he sold off the property.
It took a group of investors a decade to develop the Claremont Hotel, which opened to the public in 1915. Ever since, its history—and its location—have fueled speculation about ghostly encounters, said Laura Christensen, the hotel’s loyalty concierge supervisor.
One frequent sighting is a woman in a high-necked Victorian dress, who some believe to be the ghost of the wife of Bill Thornburg, the settler whose home burned to the ground there around the turn of the 20th century. Mrs. Thornburg mysteriously died—allegedly of a broken heart—after her daughter ran off to Europe to marry an Englishman she met at a party.
“We think she just doesn’t want to leave her castle on the hill,” Christensen said.
One recent guest said he spotted the apparition in a mirror while tying his bow tie, but when he took out his phone to snap a picture, the ghost had disappeared.
Christensen has for years been trying to organize a tour of the hotel that focuses on its haunted history, but previous managers were worried it would scare away guests. Under new management, Christensen finally got the greenlight for her Halloween tour, which she began last year and is expanding this October. She also gives general history tours of the hotel.
Longtime employees of the Claremont have recounted all sorts of spooky tales: people being mysteriously pushed or poked from behind, bursts of cold air, elevators being called to floors with no guests, even buckets of water spilling on their own.
One of the more recent—and famous—suspected hauntings happened when San Antonio Spurs players Tim Duncan and Jeff Ayres stayed at the Claremont. They reported hearing a child crying in Ayres’ room, which later proved to be empty.
The Los Angeles Times published a piece on the spooky experience, and late night host Jimmy Kimmel did a segment on it with comedian Wanda Sykes playing the ghost in question (the bit includes real footage from the resort’s seventh floor, where the encounter occurred, which is said to be the most haunted in the 279-room hotel).
Many of the Claremont’s mysterious happenings include reports of young children crying and unidentified smoke smells, which could stem from another sad chapter in the area’s history. In 1875, the Victorian Gothic building that housed handicapped children at the California Deaf, Dumb and Blind Asylum, which was catty-corner to the Claremont, burned to the ground. (The children were inside but reportedly managed to escape.)
There are more mundane unexplained encounters, too: A fire alarm mysteriously went off in the middle of the night and evacuated the entire hotel in 2011.
You can indulge in more of the Claremont’s ghostly lore by taking a haunted history tour, in which attendees are given access to areas not usually open to the public, including what’s reputed to be the most haunted room in the hotel, where a century ago, a young woman is said to have tragically drowned herself in the bathtub after being jilted by her fiancé. Christensen declined to disclose the room number.
The haunted tours take place Fridays and Saturdays in October (including Friday the 13th) as well as a special Halloween tour Oct. 31. If you get too spooked, the tour concludes with libations to take the edge off in the Claremont’s historic Lobby Lounge.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at email@example.com