Historic Denver Hotel’s History, Elegance Offer Luxurious Retreat

Posted By Mike Padgett

July 11, 2010

DENVER ­– The startling sights inside the 1892 hotel’s onyx lobby quickened our heartbeats. High enough for eagles to fly is this soaring eight-story atrium topped with original stained glass.

There are other upscale hotels with large atriums, but many are of austere, contemporary design. However, this hotel is unique. It is neither plain nor ostentatious, and its massive stone design gives it the strength of the nearby Rocky Mountains.

The Brown Palace Hotel & Spa, with 240 guestrooms and suites, is a historic structure in the Italian Renaissance style. It surrounds an expansive inner space topped with a 2,800-square-foot ceiling of stained glass maintained by the fourth generation of its designer.

History fans as well as architecture aficionados will enjoy the visual treats offered by the Brown Palace. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

We signed in at the hotel’s original onyx-covered front desk. The lingering spirits of our vacation getaway’s history distracted us when the concierge reminded us that our corner room on the eighth floor was ready.

A friendly bellman in a tailored uniform was ready to help with our luggage. Originally, the eighth floor was designed for the hotel’s ballroom and separate clubrooms for men and women.

The bellman accompanied us to our room, where we left our luggage for unpacking later. We returned to the lobby. We were anxious to learn more about the hotel and its place in Colorado history. We felt the same excitement when we stayed at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco earlier this year.

The Brown Palace is a fascinating architectural creation in downtown Denver. This stone-and-steel hotel rooted in the American West is ruggedly handsome outside, elegant inside. It is managed by Quorum Hotels & Resorts.

The Brown Palace Hotel & Spa in downtown Denver has a history that offers a glimpse into Colorado’s past. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

The exterior is Arizona red sandstone and Colorado red granite. The lobby is covered with white Mexican onyx. Intricate cast-iron balcony railings on guest floors surround the atrium, except for the eighth floor, which is enclosed from the atrium by a wall of glass blocks.

The hotel, according to its walking tour handout, “is listed on The National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Denver Landmark.” In Denver’s early days, this hotel was a political and social hub of the city’s wealthy and powerful.

The hotel literature also says that the hanging lamps “on the second floor and the lights in the arches are said to be original light fixtures from the time when the hotel generated its own electricity, a system which operated until the 1930s.”

A giant U.S. flag hanging several floors from the ceiling is appropriate for our July 4th visit. A woman at the front desk says the flag is displayed from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In the lobby, a grand piano highlights the arrangement of tables, chairs and sofas set for high tea.

Henry C. Brown, a carpenter and architect from Ohio, built the Brown Palace in the early 1890s. The construction cost was $1.6 million, according to the 2010 Historic Hotels of America directory.

Photographs of businessman Henry C. Brown, who built his hotel on land that once was a cow pasture, hang in the hotel. Today, the Brown Palace is a key feature in downtown Denver. Photo by Mike Padgett

Architect Frank Edbrooke designed the Brown Palace. It was constructed of iron, steel, concrete and terra cotta tiles, making it virtually fireproof. The unique construction was featured in the May 21, 1892, issue of Scientific American magazine.

To boost business for his hotel, Brown donated other property nearby for a future state capitol. The seat of state government then attracted wealthy business owners, who built their luxurious homes in the area.

Brown was 85 when he died in 1906 in San Diego. It was because of his role in the location of the state capitol that the Colorado governor gave permission for Brown’s body to lay in state in the capitol.

Opposite the lobby elevators is a wall mural painted in 1937 by a local artist. According to hotel literature, the man in a trench coat in the mural walking to the waiting plane resembles billionaire businessman Howard Hughes. And the woman exiting the plane is said to look like Babe Zaharias, a pioneer in women’s professional sports. She died in 1956.

A hotel plaque near the piano says the concept of the National Football League’s Denver Broncos was first discussed in the lobby.

Historic photos of the hotel decorate walls on the guest floors. A mail tube, linked to brass slots near the elevator on every floor, is functional.

The lobby entrance to the hotel spa, opened in 2005, originally was the fireplace. Soft lighting on the second-floor archways sparkles like jewels. Two silver drinking fountains in the lobby offer water from the hotel’s 750-foot-deep artesian well.

The Brown Palace has been a favorite of dignitaries and celebrities from around the globe. The hotel’s slogan, “Where the World Registers,” and a sketch of the triangle-shaped hotel dominate the breakfast menu door hanger.

Comfortable hall seating is available on the second floor of the Brown Palace Hotel. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

This grand hotel in Denver has a history brightened for more than a century by the arrivals of U.S. presidents, visiting royalty, rock stars, movie stars and sports magnates.

When they arrived in Denver in 1964, the Beatles used the hotel’s service entrance to avoid injuries from fans mobbed at the main entrance on the other side of the hotel.

According to author Corrine Hunt’s book, The Brown Palace: Denver’s Grande Dame, many entertainers and heads of state, including Russian President Boris Yeltsin, stayed at the hotel. They included Buffalo Bill Cody, Lionel Barrymore, John Philip Sousa, Lillian Russell, Jack Benny, Peter Lorre, Robert Taylor, George Jessel, Helen Hayes, Jimmy Durante, Red Skelton, John Wayne, and Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

Hunt was the hotel’s historian for 20 years. She retired in 1997. In her book, she mentions a murder in the hotel in 1911. Two men fought in the bar at the Brown Palace. One pulled a gun and fatally wounded the other. The murder is the focus of another book, Murder at the Brown Palace, written by Denver Post journalist Dick Kreck.

Many original photographs of the hotel can be viewed in cyperspace at www.denverlibrary.org. The earliest photos show horses and buggies on the streets.

Throughout our stay at the Brown Palace, we were impressed by the high level of service, from the wait staff in the Ship Tavern to housekeeping and the concierge. And the food, either in the restaurant or delivered by room service, was excellent. The other restaurants are Ellyngton’s, Palace Arms, and Churchill Bar.

The Ship Tavern, opened in 1934, has a nautical theme of models of sailing ships on shelves, antique lithographs of sailings on the walls and a mockup crow’s nest in the middle of the dining area.

Our favorite meals included the buffalo burgers, Angus burgers, skewered shrimp in salad spiced with jalapeno, and Maine lobster salad.

In the Palace Arms restaurant is the Independence Room. Its walls are covered with wallpaper similar to that in the Diplomatic Receiving Room in the White House, according to the hotel’s handout.

Leaving the Brown Palace for our return to Arizona was difficult. Our stay was too short. We lingered in the lobby, just as we did when we arrived a few days earlier. While we waited for our ride to the airport, we stood and admired the inner urban space. Other guests were enjoying high tea.

The original stained glass ceiling of the Brown Palace’s atrium is maintained by the fourth generation of the designer. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett

I wondered about business deals made and political secrets shared, starting in 1892, under the stained glass ceiling eight stories above the lobby. If ghosts of previous visitors could talk, their words would be as valuable as the gold and silver mines in the nearby Rockies.

My Best Friend, squeezing my hand, shared my thoughts. We’re coming back, she said.

(See my post about our visit to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco here.)

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Jul 11th, 2010

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