- Historic Sites
Palaces Of The People
Americans invented the grand hotel in the 183Os and during the next century brought it to a zenith of democratic luxury that makes a visit to the surviving examples the most agreeable of historic pilgrimages
April 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 2
The only way to ensure such quality in Denver in 1892 was to build an oasis of self-sufficiency. The Brown Palace served meat, vegetables, and cream from its own farms. It made its own ice, because it generated its own electricity, and in fact, whenever Denver had a blackout, the hotel serviced parts of the city. It also had an incineration system for garbage and—taking self-sufficiency to an extreme even for 1892—a crematorium for guests who died. No one ever partook of that feature, and it was dismantled in the twenties. The hotel still has its original artesian well, with startlingly good drinking water because of it.
Surrounded now by shiny skyscrapers, from the outside the Brown Palace is a dowdy triangle of red-brown stone. Inside, the lobby itself offers a surprising commodity: air, rising seven stories to a stained-glass ceiling. From below, each floor is a continuous balcony behind a green and gold rail; it means to be gorgeous, and it is. As one looks across from the door of a guest room, the balconies and the broad stair threaded through them could be the set in an opera.
Mr. Brown’s Palace is not palatial; it is not like an Austrian castle, an old English mansion, a gentleman’s club, or any of the other fantasies commonly perpetrated by vintage hotels. If anything, it is a theater in a grand way: stage and boxes turning around each other, depending on who is gazing down, up, or across at whom.
Ouray, Colorado, in the San Juan Mountains, spit up $130 million more in precious metal than Denver ever did, but it never rated a grand hotel. Instead it inspired a little puppy of a hotel, the St. Elmo, full of appeal and free of delusions. It is a plain brick building that opened in 1898, eye to eye with the wall of a mountain. The Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, Arizona, is another small mining hotel, dating from the prosperous copper days of 1907, and it certainly did have delusions—with a surviving Tiffany window to show for it.
The first “Palace Hotel” in San Francisco was a basement flophouse for hundreds of Chinese workers in the Barbary Coast. As a building the second Palace Hotel was more accurately named: built in 1875, it was the second-largest hotel in the world, with conveniences in every room. Richard D’Oyly Carte was so impressed by it that he resolved to build an American-style hotel where it was needed most—overseas. He went home and opened the Savoy Hotel in London in 1889.
The Waldorf is at its best when it’s busiest, still seeming to judge itself on how fast the carpets can be worn out.
In 1906, on the morning of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, the guests at the Palace thought they had escaped, even as the building was still shaking. Out on the sidewalk, though, as a guest recalled, “the air was filled with falling stones.” Six hours later, as the fire swept up Market Street, one of the last telegraph messages to come out of the city during the calamity read BACK OF THE PALACE HOTEE IS A FURNACE .
In the aftermath a looter was hanged off a beam protruding from the entrance of the Palace; meanwhile, at the corner, a singer on tour from the Metropolitan Opera was having hysterics and practicing random snippets of song. Even as a burned-out hulk, the old Palace was full of diversions.
The new Palace Hotel, which opened in 1909, was never quite forgiven for not being the old Palace Hotel, for daring to replace the irreplaceable. That was misguided loyalty. The Sheraton Palace (as it is called) has been recently restored with terrific integrity. The workers buffed the whole place to a shine, without taking away the patina of eighty-five years.
The heart of the hotel is the Garden Court, one of the most beautiful rooms in the country. And when I am in it, I can’t remember the others. Somewhere just short of the sky, there is a delicate leaded-glass ceiling, with pillars leading out of the marble floor to it. The Garden Court has an Edwardian look: the potted palms, the judicious use of gilt, and an unharried arrangement of furniture. The hotel knows what it has; the Garden Court is used daily for breakfast, lunch, tea, cocktails, dinner, dancing, and late supper.
A wide central hall, running oast the Garden Court, from one end of the building to the other, has four large cases of souvenirs from both Palaces, including a program printed for President Warren G. Harding’s visit, “July thirty-first to August first, Nineteen-twentythree.” Sadly enough, illness forced Harding to stay on at the Palace until August 2, when he died.
The cases also contain an ornately engraved siphon from the old bar, a relic of the days when perhaps too much importance was placed on such things. As if to prove it, there is a little card from a later date: “Strict compliance with the provisions of the Prohibition laws is expected and will be appreciated by the management.” Honest hotels lost good business to speakeasies during Prohibition. As one executive said, “The difficult thing was to smile like a ninny when some other ninny was telling me about a gin trap a few blocks north.”