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Tea and Sympathy

Unit 500 of the Denver Dry Lofts will be complete in sixty days and then, if you have a million-three, you can have it all: Four-thousand square feet indoors and four thousand out on a roof garden dotted with fountains and French doors. Since most of the indoor space is living room/library/dining/cooking, with just two bedrooms, you'll want to develop a host-with-the-most lifestyle, if you don't have one already. The granite countertops alone should inspire you--or your caterer--to feats of culinary grandeur.

Don't be surprised, however, if in these upscale surroundings you suddenly develop a craving for the down-home, gluey comfort foods of yesteryear: chicken-fried steak, meatloaf--even quiche. Or if an urge attacks for an ice-cream sundae with not one, not two, but exactly three-and-a-half scoops of ice cream.

That, after all, is the sort of fare that for more than fifty years was consumed by people dining in the space now occupied by you. Until 1987, what is now Unit 500 was the Tea Room, an institution located on the fifth floor of the Denver Dry Goods department store.

"We found a whole lot of menus and artifacts during the demolition phase," says Terry Collins, project manager/superintendent on this downtown renovation for three years, the last six months of which have been spent in Unit 500, "restoring all this little stuff you don't think about. Those placards high up, with cornucopias and flowers and those animals"--griffins, playing with balls--"and the arches of the ceilings, all plasterwork. The original chandeliers and sconces, we sent them out to be rewired. The French doors, the wainscoting. We didn't want any of this stuff to look brand-new, so we had to be careful with the paint and the carpentry."

Even with all this finicky work requiring his attention, Collins sometimes gets to enjoy the major perk of being a super: poking around in the guts of a building's past. The brass tags in the elevators are all original. A strange half-floor now devoted to tenant storage once might have been used for saddles. And the Tea Room itself, if you squint, still bears a few traces of its former good looks.

My reason for frequenting the Tea Room in the early Eighties was an ignoble one. Working as an oilman during an oil recession for $600 per month, I felt starved--mentally, not physically--for a good, hot lunch. For some reason that still makes no financial sense, the Denver had issued me a credit card that was good not just for clothes, but also meals at the Tea Room. Sometimes when my niggling budget overwhelmed me, I would indulge in a time-payment lunch, inviting several friends to be my guests.

I remember the Tea Room as a genteel place, with capable, elderly waitresses serving rib-sticking food disguised as dainty-lady fodder. I generally chased these dishes down with no more or less than three beers. The best part of the meal was signing the tab, with a big-spender flourish. The worst part was realizing I had taken more than a year to pay off just one lunch--and at $3.95 per blue-plate special, they weren't exactly exorbitant.

While I was in the Tea Room, I never thought about its history, or the lives of the ladies who shopped in the four floors below; I never wondered why the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich had disappeared from the menu. In this, I was typical of many of the room's younger diners, who lunched there decked out in flea-market hats and gloves for the pure camp of it. Meanwhile, all around us, certain downtown businessmen, mother/daughter shopping SWAT teams and a tide of retirees lunched weekly, seriously, almost reverently. To them, the Tea Room was not a wacky destination full of weirdly dated atmosphere--think Graceland--but a grand tradition.

The tradition got its start in 1908, when the Denver itself was eighteen years old and had already been through two of its three remodels. "The Denver's Tea Room has a seating capacity of about 500," read a brochure from that time. "Nothing has been neglected that would help in making this an attractive, restful and wholly satisfactory place to breakfast, lunch or dine. Popular prices prevail."

The few remaining historic pictures show the Tea Room as the cavernous space I remember, able to seat 400 simultaneously at mahogany tables set with white linen and lots of heavy cutlery. Waitresses, who by the 1920s were wearing standard maids' uniforms complete with starched white pinafores, had to hustle several hundred yards between the kitchen and their tables. By 1943, a Denver ad was able to proclaim: "'Let's meet at the Denver Tea Room' has been a slogan with Colorado women for almost a century."

That the copy writer could exaggerate by 75 years was a tribute to the Tea Room's solid standing.

And even though it closed in 1987, innocent victim of a corporate sellout, people who had a connection to the place are always trying to go back.

"They come up all the time," says Collins. "Guys who worked the elevators, guys who ran the boiler room. And the week of Father's Day, for a surprise, a woman brought in her father, a guy in his nineties who'd done all the herringbone brick work. He said he was fourteen at the time, the youngest journeyman bricklayer ever. He remembered everything."

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