In early January, a guest stayed in Room 812 at the Hotel Alex Johnson, in Rapid City, South Dakota. As the anonymous visitor wrote in the guest book the next morning, the night was a bit more than uneventful.
"The Hilton app does not warn you about ghosts when you select a room," the guest wrote. "A couple of co-workers told me I was nuts for staying there, but I don't believe in ghosts, so I figured that made me immune to them."
After a line space: "I could not have been more wrong."
Hotel Alex Johnson, a member of Hilton's Curio Collection, has several guest books, called "ghost journals," where one can record encounters with the resident spirits. Their pages tell eerie tales of midnight footsteps, phantom door knocks and, in the case above, the word "HELP" scrawled on a foggy bathroom mirror.
Alex Johnson is one of a number of hotels putting a creative spin on a centuries-old tradition. Typically now only found in small bed-and-breakfasts, high-end safari lodges and independent luxury hotels, guest books, reinvented for the modern era, are increasingly landing in larger — and often corporately backed — accommodations.
Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group Inc., for example, is in the process of creating locally inspired experiences in individual rooms at 20 of its hotel properties, furnishing the room with a guest book that goes beyond simple name-and-date inscriptions. At Kimpton Hotel Born, in Denver, blank index cards emblazoned with the words "Born to be…" have prompted responses such as "Life is either a great adventure or nothing," a riff on a quote attributed to Helen Keller. At Room 808 at Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa, in Grand Cayman, coloured markers have helped turn a guest book into a colorful tome filled with doodles, drawings and inspirational sayings. ("One of the best lessons you can learn in life is to master how to remain calm.") At Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt in Austin, Texas, an in-room lyrics book will ask guests to write a small section of a song, chain-novel style; the final version will be arranged and recorded this fall.
"We envision these very different and creative takes on the guest book to foster emotional ties," said Kimpton senior vice president of hotel operations, Nick Gregory, about the aptly titled Stay Human Project initiative. "With our fast-paced lives, it's an invitation to take pause and to create meaningful shared experiences."
That's not so far-off from the way hotel guest books were used in the 19th century, when they became popular in the United States, said Kevin James, a history professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He has extensively studied what he calls the "vibrant literary culture" of hotel guest books.
"It was about ritually joining the travelers who have also written in that book. It was about making a hotel seem less transitory, and assimilating yourself into the history of a place and into a community of users and inscribers," James said.
He said that hotel guest books were also a way for travelers to leave their mark and signify their identity and status. Today, one can use social media to do the same.
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At Moxy Hotels, Marriott's millennial-focused brand, visitors can "sign" a digital guest book by posting on Instagram from a public account, either with the hashtag #attheMoxy or simply by uploading the photo from anywhere on the property. The best photos are selectively pulled into a tiled layout that appears on the Moxy website, a dedicated guest book landing page, and lobby screens at all 44 hotels throughout North America, Europe and Asia.
Then there is Baccarat Hotel New York's near-opposite approach: 255 physical guest books numbered from 1764 — the date of the French crystal company's founding — to 2019. The meticulously ordered collection has been an interactive display, of sorts, in the lobby-level Grand Salon since the hotel opened in 2015. Their pages contain notes for unborn children, poems and sketches, and wine labels (many stored in book 1855, the year Napoleon III created a historic classification of Bordeaux wines).
With glittery Baccarat glassware fanned out every which way and massive chandeliers overhead, one can't help but "dip" into the 496-page volumes: James' term for the frivolous, pleasure-driven ritual of reading hotel guest books.
On Page 126 of the 2016 book: "Skylar! Dad loves you very much, I wish you all the happiness and good health. Today is your grandmother's birthday. She is in NYC visiting you and you are 9 months old right now."
And then: "P.S.: I am saving the bottom page for you to leave me a message one day."
Written by: Sarah Firshein
Photographs by: Ivor Prickett
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES