The land around the triangular plot The Brown Palace Hotel and Spa sits on has changed a lot since August 12, 1892: Horse and buggies have been traded for electric cars. Top hats and corsets are out; baseball caps and crop tops are in. Fortune seekers are now looking to technology and marijuana and oil (or solar) rather than silver and gold. While the Brown Palace’s granite and sandstone exterior has remained a steadfast icon in the city’s skyline, the venue—the longest continuously operating hotel in Denver—hasn’t been immune to change. In honor of its 125th anniversary (find details on how you can partake in the celebrations below), we take a look at the Brown Palace, then and now, with the help of hotel historian Debra Faulkner.
Entering the Hotel
The original grand entrance was located on Broadway. It eventually moved to Tremont Place, which was deemed safer because it saw less automobile traffic—an issue the architect never even considered in the 1890s.
“A woman’s place was very clearly defined in the Brown Palace’s early years—and clear into the ’70s,” Faulkner says. Men often signed the guest register with their name “and wife.” Women were not permitted in the Gentlemen’s Smoking Lounge or any of the bars unescorted. They also were not allowed in the Brown Palace Club until after 5 p.m., a policy that lasted until the 1970s when a group of businesswomen staged sit-ins decrying the sexism. But women did have the grand drawing room, a two-story space on the eighth floor, which served as a lounge, tea room, and changing room; staff were available to help guests change into their evening wear.
“In the early years, people wore formal touring costumes and hats,” Faulkner says. “There’s no dress code at all anymore.” But dress requirements endured for a long time: Until December 2004, gentlemen visiting the Palace Arms restaurant were required to wear jackets and ties.
Victorian-era guest rooms—there were 400 originally—were sparse, with metal twin beds, a small desk and chair, a vanity, and not much else. A $10.5 million renovation in 2015 saw lighter design elements added to the rooms (though still keeping with the building’s Italian Renaissance style), as well as modern necessities such as flat-screen TVs. They’ve grown in size, as well, with just 241 available to book today. Prices have changed even more drastically: Around the time of its grand opening, rooms were $3 to $5 per night. Today, a stay at the Brown Palace will run you $199 to $1,600 per night.
Eating & Drinking
In the 1890s, fizzes, Collins, and knickerbockers were common bar orders. An early menu offered a Grand Hotel Fizz: lemon juice, powdered sugar, orange juice, maraschino cherry juice, gin, and sweet cream shaken with soda water. Rather than sorbet, “They used alcoholic punch as a palate cleanser in the middle of a seven-course meal,” Faulkner says. Speaking of food, Faulkner has spotted mock turtle soup, littleneck clams, chicken giblets, and calves head on old banquet menus. Local sourcing was also popular, with Colorado lamb, rainbow trout, and turkey all making appearances.
The Brown Palace is currently home to three public restaurants, but when it first opened, the general public could not eat at the hotel. Dining rooms, located on the eighth floor, were for overnight or special event guests only. The Restaurant at the Brown Palace (which is now Ellyngton’s) opened in 1900.
“As you move away from the center [of the building], more changes have taken place,” Faulkner says. But that doesn’t mean the atrium lobby is untouched. The five cage elevators, hydraulically powered with pressure from the hotel’s artesian well (720 feet below the hotel’s foundation), were replaced with two electric ones in 1937. When the hotel opened, the first floor was dedicated entirely to shops, including a drug store and haberdashery (men’s clothing shop). A grand fireplace was situated where the entrance to the spa now sits. “If you stand in front of what’s now the entrance to Palace Arms, that’s the view you were supposed to get when you came into the hotel,” Faulkner says.
Join The Festivities
- For foodies: A champagne and oyster reception is being held in the atrium lobby on Friday, August 11, from 5 to 7 p.m. Get a half-dozen oysters for $18. Or go all in with the seven-course anniversary dégustation menu, available in the Palace Arms, Thursday through Saturday ($150 per person).
- For whiskey fans: Denver distillery Stranahan’s bottled a special 125th anniversary whiskey that incorporates water from the hotel’s well. Tastings are available in the lobby on Saturday, August 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. Or drink some straight from the barrel during the after-hours speakeasy in the Brown Palace Club that evening, starting at 9 p.m. (tickets are $125 for all you can eat and drink).
- For history buffs: Faulkner curated a temporary museum filled with items from the hotel’s archives, including original guest registers from 1892 to 1917, many of which have never been displayed publicly. View these treasures in the Larimer Square meeting room on the second floor from August 10 to 14.