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Denver's Brown Palace Hotel is a gem born out of a gold rush

DENVER

Born out of a gold rush a century and a half ago, this city now gleams like a silvery icon of the modern against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains' front range.

But Denver hasn't forgotten its past, and one of the most indulgent ways to glimpse a bit of the city's history is a visit to the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa.

Our recent stay there came after we'd spent most of a week in the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. Even arriving in Denver at rush hour after a daylong drive over the Rockies, we had no trouble spotting the hotel. Tucked amid downtown's skyscrapers, its Italian Renaissance facade of Colorado red granite and Arizona sandstone stands out.

The hotel's most striking interior feature is its eight-story atrium, rimmed by ornate cast-iron railings at each floor and topped by an enormous stained-glass skylight.

All of those features are original to the hotel, which has been open continuously since 1892. It was built by entrepreneur Henry Cordes Brown, who arrived in Denver two years after the gold rush of 1858 and cannily bought up much of what would become the city's downtown.

He even more cannily donated the land for the State Capitol — and made a fortune selling most of the surrounding real estate. He saved a triangular swatch between 17th Street, Broadway and Tremont Place as the site for the Brown Palace. Brown had seen enough cycles of gold and silver rushes to know that all those newly minted millionaires coming down out of the mountains needed someplace to spend their money, and he was happy to oblige.

Designed by architect Frank Edbrooke, the hotel cost almost $2 million to build and furnish — a staggering amount for the day. When it opened, its 400 rooms went for $3 to $5 per night.

These days, there are 241 rooms, and they cost a bit more — about $150 to more than $1,000. We passed on the several presidential suites (named for Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, all hotel guests) and stayed in one of the guest rooms.

Spacious and quiet even though it faced a busy street, the room was handsomely decorated in art deco style in rich shades of (what else?) brown. It featured a very comfortable bed, lots of closet space and a nicely appointed but miniature bathroom.

The Brown Palace is centrally located, just a block from the southeast end of the lively pedestrian-friendly 16th Street Mall. This 1.25-mile, open-air stretch, plied night and day by free shuttle buses, is chockablock with bars, restaurants and retail (including a striking number of medical marijuana emporiums). Near its northwest end is the famed Tattered Cover Book Store (see Page 5L).

Just a few blocks farther from the hotel are the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Convention Center and the spectacular Denver Performing Arts Complex.

We wanted to sample some of the hotel's amenities, though, so we spent part of a Saturday indulging in afternoon tea in the lobby and massages in the spa.

We weren't the only ones enjoying tea service. The spacious lobby was packed with groups of girlfriends or grandmother-mother-daughter parties, all dressed in their frilliest and making for great people watching.

Servers in black frocks and starched white aprons delivered the silver teapots and tiered trays of yummy finger sandwiches, scones, pastries and cookies as a pianist played the grand piano.

More pampering awaited us in the spa, where both men's and women's lounges are dimly lit and furnished with overstuffed chairs and a selection of teas and waters — perfect for relaxing both before and after 30-minute massages that took the kinks of a six-hour drive out of our shoulders.

Refreshed, we were ready for ghost hunting. The Brown Palace offers historic tours twice a week; it even has its own staff historian. We happened to be there on Halloween, so we got the special "ghost tour" available in October.

My favorite among the several spooky stories was one about a powerful (and scandalous) Denver socialite who lost her money in the Depression and lived in an apartment on one of the hotel's top floors until her death.

Guides conducting tours used to talk about her love life while they led guests through her former apartment, now a hotel suite, our guide told us. Apparently she did not approve. The hotel's switchboard operators would get calls later from the empty suite and hear only buzzing static.

The Brown Palace's less permanent but more famous guests have ranged from Buffalo Bill Cody and John Wayne to Bruce Springsteen and Kanye West. The first of many presidents to visit was Theodore Roosevelt, who paused during a bear-hunting trip in 1905 to address a businessmen's banquet, during which 1,500 cigars were smoked.

Cigars are still smoked in the Churchill Bar, one of the hotel's four restaurants. The others are the fine-dining Palace Arms, the casual Ship's Tavern and Ellyngton's, known for its Sunday Champagne brunch. There's also a handy Starbucks off the lobby.

The Brown Palace offers a Butler Brigade, which provides a personal butler and elevated amenities during the week. Alas, we were there on the weekend, but we did get to take advantage of the hotel's complimentary Mercedes town car and driver (first come, first served) to go out to dinner Saturday night.

Our gregarious driver took us across the South Platte River to the Highland neighborhood for dinner at Root Down, a restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge. Great recommendation. This high-energy spot occupies a repurposed auto repair shop — the patio is framed by the old garage door, with the "Alignments" sign still in place.

Repurposing is the theme inside, too, with a painted wood floor gleaned from a basketball court and a wall in the bar covered with colorful rotary phones.

Chef-owner Justin Cucci and staff serve up delicious and inventive food that's almost all locally sourced and really delicious. We devoured Rocky Mountain grass-fed beef steak with mascarpone-caramel demi-glace, and hoisin duck confit sliders with shoestring sweet potato fries. After that wonderful meal, it was a kick to call the driver and sit back for the ride through the sparkling city, then head up to our elegant room.

Despite its elegance, though, the Brown Palace doesn't forget its Wild West origins. Drop in during the National Western Stock Show, held in Denver each January, and you might get to see the grand champion steer, garlanded with roses, led across a red carpet in the lobby during afternoon tea to have a congratulatory drink from a silver punch bowl.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@ sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/critics.

. IF YOU GO

Nice digs and eats

The Brown Palace Hotel and Spa: 321

17th St., Denver; toll free 1-800-321-2599 or

brownpalace.com. Winter packages start at $149 a night. Root Down restaurant:

1600 W 33rd Ave., Denver; (303) 993-4200 or rootdowndenver.com.

Denver's Brown Palace Hotel is a gem born out of a gold rush 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 3:30am]

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