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In the upper-level bowling alley, a kicky color palette and wood paneling contribute to the midcentury-modern vibe. Photo by David Lauer

Denver Icon: Stapleton Air-Traffic-Control Tower

Punch Bowl Social's brand-new Stapleton location channels the site's past life.

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The air-traffic-control tower at Stapleton International Airport has sat dormant ever since its former occupants guided the last flight off the runway 22 years ago—until now. A massive remodel transformed the first two floors of the iconic 12-story structure into the flagship restaurant (and corporate headquarters) of Punch Bowl Social, the “eater-tainment” concept from local entrepreneur Robert Thompson. Here, carefully considered design elements pay tribute to the building’s former life while also playing up the restaurant’s bold, quirky personality.

The iconic Stapleton air-traffic-control tower looms large. Photo by David Lauer.

Built in the late 1920s and abandoned in 1995, the Stapleton tower required a complete overhaul, but Thompson and the team at OZ Architecture knew from the start that they were working with a gem. “The tower is the last vestige of the old Stapleton, and we want to preserve that,” Thompson says. Doing so took nearly three years; during that time, the structure was painstakingly restored and rejiggered, with every decision—down to carefully removing and re-hanging the exterior’s retro terrazzo panels—respecting the integrity of the building.

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Vintage-style tufted vinyl barstools and pendants that riff on classic Sputnik light fixtures are highlights of the bar. Photo by David Lauer.

DESIGNER TIP: The key to pulling off a bold design like this at home is to not overdo it. Punch Bowl Social design director Megan Freckelton says. Study your space, consider your intentions, and find the balance. If you go too far, sophistication falls away and you’re left with kitsch. Small spaces that are tucked away are ideal for surprise and creativity. “Corridors and bathrooms are great places to have really strong design,” Freckelton says. “They also yield the most bang for your buck because you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get big impact.”

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Tables fabricated from Colorado beetle-kill pine by Denver’s Black Hound Design Company and yellow barstools from BluDot define the eating space in the upper-level dining room. The colorful glass pendants, inspired by fixtures of the ’60s, were custom-designed. Photo by David Lauer.

The golden age of air travel inspired key elements of the restaurant’s interior design: geometric shapes, bright contrasting colors, and repeating linearity to represent the movement of travel. The trick, says Punch Bowl Social design director Megan Freckelton, was incorporating these design drivers without getting too kitschy.

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The arcade is a prime spot to play old-school video games. Photo by David Lauer.

DELAYED DEPARTURE: The 800-square-foot air-traffic-control tower that’s perched above Punch Bowl Social is not open to the public. “There may be a time in the future when we consider it,” CEO Robert Thompson says. For now, you’ll just have to ogle the icon from below.

The resulting combination of thoughtful details yields a distinctive look: a vintage-inspired light fixture that subtly incorporates the date when Stapleton opened; dining room tables that, when pushed together, offer an abstract image of the runway; metal railings with tiny airplane cutouts, custom-designed by Punch Bowl’s team; arrival and departure signage; shoe cages (for bowlers) crafted out of old-school luggage; karaoke rooms with color palettes inspired by 1960s living rooms; and wall coverings that look like monochromatic circles from afar, but are actually aerial landscape photos. The design gives viewers the sensation of standing in the past and the present at the very same time, which seems a fitting ode to the once-abandoned, now-reinvigorated space.

AND DON’T MISS… The sprawling year-round patio with two bocce courts, a shallow “pool” of AstroTurf, a giant Jenga game, a beer garden, stadium seating, and fire pits could inspire your own backyard renovation—or just a few hours of fun.

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The shoe cage showcases colorful vintage suitcases and signage inspired by airport wayfinding. Photo courtesy of Amber Boutwell / Punch Bowl Social.

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