Online Feature: Throwback charm

Tom Hess
November/December 2017

What memories do you have about a day or weekend at the Brown Palace? The oldest continuously operating hotel in Denver is celebrating its 125th year, and with all those years, Colorado residents must have many stories to tell: some sentimental of a simpler time, others a cherished family tradition. (Email your story to the Editor,

Talk to the hotel’s historian, Debra Faulkner, and she can delight you with tales of Christmases past.

Molly Brown (no relation to the hotel’s founder), the Titanic survivor and Denver socialite (1867–1932), spent many days later in life at the Brown. Each Christmas season, she would buy and decorate a small tree for display at the front desk, and buy gifts for the staff—bellmen, doormen, servers, and maids.

More recently, during the annual Champagne Cascade in the lobby, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper swung a ceremonial sword in front of cameras and repeatedly failed, in his imitable goofball way, to slice the cork off the first bottle of champagne—until finally freeing the bubbly that started the flow of fluid down a 6,000-glass pyramid.

The magic of a Brown holiday is most evident at Holiday Tea, surrounded by classic decorations, the air filled with live tunes. Tea around Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day is booked solid nearly a year in advance on a single day—on Jan. 2. That’s the day in 2018 to call for reservations next holiday season (303-297-3111). (If you miss your chance, try again in April, when some people who got through begin cancelling.)

Rest assured. The Holiday Tea is not the only way to experience the Brown’s throwback charm.

During a recent weekend at the hotel, we awaited our seating for tea by sipping on a cocktail (The Grand Manhattan, with barrel-aged cherry bitters and house-brandied cherries) at Ship Tavern—a nautically themed bar festooned with intricately constructed models of sailing ships. The ships were a gift of the hotel’s then-owner to his wife, who preferred that the models clutter someplace other than home. The tavern houses them, and also serves some of the best bar food in town.

Once seated at tea (I chose the Brown Palace Signature Tea, with the Crown Jewel blend of Assam and Ceylon leaves, accompanied by homemade scones served with Devonshire cream, preserves, finger sandwiches, and pastries), our polite and sophisticated server invited us to suggest jazz tunes to the four-piece band. I requested anything from the late Thelonious Monk, a renown jazz pianist. After a bit of research on their cell phones, they improvised a perfect, toe-tapping rendition, to my delight.

For a late dinner, we chose the AAA Four Diamond rated Palace Arms. Its menu is split—classics such as Beef Wellington listed on the right, befitting a place where a Boomer feels underdressed without a coat and tie; and small plates such as Heirloom Tomato Salad listed on the left, better suited to a Millennial in a pearl-snap Rockmount shirt. We picked from the left, electing the three-course chef’s tasting menu: the tomato salad, plus the line-caught halibut with zucchini vichyssoise, and the wagyu ribeye.

Afterward, the waiter led us into what seemed like a secret chamber—the Independence Room, with panoramic, woodblock-printed wallpaper by 19th century artist Jean Zuber et Cie in Rixheim, France. This is one of several famous places where the artist’s work survives. The others: The Louvre in Paris, and the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House (Jacqueline Kennedy’s project). Henry Brown, who built his namesake hotel with the fortune he earned from his mining supply business, spared no expense. The wallpaper once faced guests as they checked in, but as Denver grew, guests could no longer be unloaded safely at the original Broadway entrance, and the space—between Palace Arms and the Pappy Van Winkle-and-cigar bar Churchill’s—became a reservation-only dining hall.

Faulkner, the historian, offers a private tour ($60) that provides more detail on this and other fascinating history. After all, this place has hosted nearly every president since Teddy Roosevelt, along with celebrities from the Beatles to Taylor Swift. President Eisenhower’s love for the Brown Palace may have helped persuade him to locate the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

On the walk from the art deco elevator to our room, we could still hear the band downstairs playing, the music rising through the atrium. The room itself bears the gleaming evidence of a $10.5 million renovation of all 241 rooms, with fresh furnishings that befit a legacy property. The effect reminded me of Coors Field—an artful blend of both modern and retro.

Our weekend ended most appropriately with a highly indulgent champagne brunch at Ellyington’s.

Between the bar food, the tea, the music, the history tour, the fine dining, and the brunch, there was no reason to leave the hotel the entire weekend. If we had decided to extend our stay, we would have made time to exit the main entrance on Tremont, cross the street to the American Museum of Western Art, and spend several hours studying rare cowboy-and-Indian classics from billionaire Philip Anschutz’s collection. Some of the paintings he’s purchased spend time on the walls of The Broadmoor, the AAA Five Diamond rated hotel he owns in Colorado Springs.

At a time when Denver is trying to recover its lost history, restoring places like Union Station and an 1880s foundry on Brighton (now The Source), there’s no deeper, more charming history to be experienced than at and around the Brown Palace.

Tom Hess is Editor of EnCompass.