An abridged history of Mill Avenue: The hauntings of Casa Loma Building

Perhaps Tempe’s most historic cultural hub and landmark is Mill Avenue. To students, residents and tourists Mill Avenue may just look like a strip mall littered with bars, restaurants, boutiques and other shops, but a rich history lies in the 1.2 miles between Gammage Auditorium and the Hayden Flour Mill. 

In this series, I will be exploring the backstories of Mill from the perspectives of the local business owner, historians and residents. By the end of this series, my goal is to create a timeline of Tempe’s hottest spots and their humble, historical origins. 

The Casa Loma Building may be familiar to those who explore the haunted sites in Tempe or enjoy the culinary touch of Caffe Boa, but the building’s legacy far predates the scares and cuisine. Tempe’s first hotel was located on the site and the original building was one of many to transition from Victorian architecture to the Spanish Colonial Revival style it is today.

19th Century 

A recurring theme in the history of Tempe seems to be devastating, all-consuming fires. The Casa Loma Building is marked with one of Tempe’s earliest and most destructive blazes. The original structure was built in 1888 and featured Victorian architecture with a splash of porches and balconies to take advantage of Phoenix's warm weather.

C.E. Atwood owned the Casa Loma Building, and at the time the Casa Loma Building was called Atwood Hotel. In 1894, a fire burned the whole hotel to ashes and reconstruction didn’t occur until 1899.

20th Century

In 1901, the Atwood Hotel was changed to Casa Loma Hotel and C.E. Atwood handed the building over to W. J. Kingsbury after he was convicted of writing fake checks. W. J. Kingsbury was a prominent banker in Tempe and was known for the Kingsbury Senior Assistance Fund, a scholarship offered to students in need at the Tempe Normal School.

Many figureheads stayed at Casa Loma as they passed through the Valley, including President William McKinley shortly before his assassination in 1901.

In 1911, Casa Loma Hotel started a new and wildly successful marketing campaign. It guaranteed guests that they wouldn’t have to pay for days that the sun didn’t shine. 

During the 1920s, Mill Avenue was largely redesigned to fit a more “southwestern” aesthetic. The original brick of the Casa Loma Building was covered with stucco, matching its current appearance. 

Current landlord Matthew Turney said the architecture shifted to fit a Western style, given that Mill Avenue was a leg of Route 66.

“A cool little fact about the building is it had an ornate wood exterior finishes and when the Worlds Fair was in LA the town council decided to show a more regional facade," Turney said.

In the 1960s, Mill Avenue was used as a highway, so many historic buildings had severe edits. Unfortunately, Casa Loma couldn’t avoid this fate. Large metal screens were used to cover the windows in order to avoid dangerous debris on the roadway. The historic verandas and porches were also removed.


Owners of the Caffe Boa restaurant, Christine and Jay Wisniewski, along with other local residents, say that there were a few murders in the Casa Loma Building. Yet, evidence of the carnage is hard to come by. 

“There are stories of our building being haunted, I guess there have been a couple murders in the building,” Christina Wisniewski said. “One happened in the early 1900s and there was another one in the '60s where students were killed in front of Casa Loma.”

Instances of paranormal activity throughout the building have been reported throughout Casa Loma’s history, especially in Caffe Boa. The reports have always said the dining hall and the first murder allegedly took place at the bar.

“There is a lot of clinking of pans and the sound of water and coins dropping,” Christine Wisniewski said. “There was a circumstance involving a bar stool flying across the room. It has been pretty quiet the last few years here. For Halloween (one year) we had a (ghost hunter), she had a paranormal activity reader, there was a seance and we walked through the building. There was static all throughout the building and especially in certain spots.”

Spookily, the hauntings are reported in all the spaces in the building. The design firm Big Red Rooster owns office space on the second floor reported scares with the paranormal.

“We’ve had a case where a woman who no longer works here reportedly saw a dark shadow walk around the hallway and through the wall,” a leader of Big Red Rooster said.

20th Century, continued and onward

In 1981, the metal screens were removed from the building's facade. In 1984, the Casa Loma, along with many of the other historic buildings down Mill, was rehabilitated to its 1920s Colonial aesthetic.

Today, the two most popular leasers are The Shoe Mill and Caffe Boa, both located on the first floor. The Shoe Mill, which has been around Tempe for decades, opened its doors in the 1980s and Caffe Boa was established in 1994. Many firms rent office space on the second and third floors including Institute for Justice and 1-800Accountant. 

Between the hotel and the current developments, The Casa Loma Building was used as an apartment complex. 

Ultimately, the stories and past are important to its many leasers, especially the owners of Caffe Boa.

“The history is one of the most important reasons we choose this building,” Jay Wisniewski said.

Related links:

An abridged history of Mill Avenue: The Tempe Hardware Building

Gringo Star, LSD and hippies: The history of Mill Avenue's Laird and Dines building

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