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Palace Arms Reopening, but Changes Continue at the Brown Palace

"Due to low guest counts and revenue, we will be closing Palace Arms indefinitely after the dinner service on May 4, 2024," read the internal email.
Brown Palace in Queen City book.
Brown Palace in Queen City book. Karl Christian Krumpholz

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On May 8, you could enjoy a Bridgerton-like experience at the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, traveling back to Regency England.

Which came in handy if you were a fan of that era, since you couldn't "dine amongst Napoleonic artifacts and elevated decor" at the Palace Arms. The elegant, 74-year-old restaurant at the historic hotel had announced that it would be closed "until further notice" after May 4 — but then, like Napoleon, hotel management decided that the Palace Arms would stage a comeback, this one starting May 18.

The hotel was built by Henry Cordes Brown, a carpenter-turned-real estate entrepreneur from Ohio who, after several other quixotic ventures, had come to Denver just a year after the town was founded after the discovery of gold nearby.

According to the Brown Palace website, Brown purchased several acres of land, including a triangular plot at the corners of Broadway, Tremont and 17th streets, where he grazed his cow. He subsequently made a fortune selling off much of his property, donating land for the State Capitol and giving $1,000 toward the city’s first library. (The state's first library was actually built in Longmont.)

But he kept that choice triangular cow pasture for himself, hiring architect Frank E. Edbrooke to design a palace of a hotel.

Construction started in 1888. Edbrooke had designed the hotel in the Italian Renaissance style, using Colorado red granite and Arizona sandstone for the building’s exterior; for further outside embellishment, artist James Whitehouse was commissioned to create 26 stone medallions, each depicting Colorado animals, according to the Brown's website.

After spending $1.6 million on the structure — the tallest in Denver at nine stories, with a stunning glass atrium — and another $400,000 for furniture, the Brown Palace opened on August 12, 1892.

click to enlarge woman climbing crow's nest
An intrepid employee climbs the crow's nest at Ship Tavern
Brown Palace
In the decades that followed, the hotel went through many changes — as did the city itself. As Prohibition ended, one corner of the building was transformed from a ladies' lounge into the Ship Tavern. Then-owner Claude "C.K." Boettcher put an actual crow's nest in the center of the room, and decorated the space with model ships that his wife had banned from their mansion, today the Colorado Governor's Residence.

Sixteen years later, Boettcher took on the area that had been the hotel's original entrance on Broadway — by now too busy with traffic — and turned it and a neighboring space into the Palace Arms. A private dining area featured original panoramic wallpaper painted by Jean Zuber in 1834; the Napoleonic-era military prints and antiques — including a set of dueling pistols once carried by Napoleon himself — had been acquired in post-World War II France. The Palace Arms opened on April 13, 1950, and for decades was the most elegant restaurant in the city.

But even as dining habits changed, so did the ownership of the hotel. The Silver Panic of 1893 sent the country into an economic tailspin, and in 1900, Brown sold his palace to millionaire Winfield Stratton. Stratton died a couple of years later and passed the title to a charitable home. Boettcher bought the hotel in 1922, and the title passed to the Boettcher Foundation in 1963. In 1980, the hotel was sold to a group of mostly local investors involved with a company called Associated Inns & Restaurants Company of America. And in 2018, Crescent Real Estate bought the Brown Palace for $125 million; it appointed HEI Hotels & Resorts to run the iconic spot.


Internal Email Announced Palace Arms Closing

When Jana Smith arrived at the Brown last May to become its general manager, business at the Palace Arms was "dismal," she recalled, even though Ship Tavern was the only other dining option beyond tea in the lobby, since Ellyngton's was undergoing a major update after a flood. She cut the number of days the Palace Arms was open from five to three, but business remained dismal. And so on April 23, with Ellyngton's now reopened, she sent the following email to "the team":

"Due to low guest counts and revenue, we will be closing Palace Arms indefinitely after the dinner service on May 4, 2024. We are continuing to focus our efforts onto Ship Tavern, Tea and Ellyngton’s to help them flourish and provide an outstanding experience for our guests. We are even looking at the possibility of a late night option in Elly’s. Stay tuned for that!

"While this is not forever that PA will be closed, please understand that with a tough market, and inflation, fine dining restaurants are more of a luxury than a necessity. I can also happily note that no associate was laid off during this process, as we have plenty of positions in the hotel available for all! If you have any questions, please let myself or HR know."
click to enlarge
Patricia Calhoun
That was an internal memo, but Smith repeated much the same explanation on May 1, when the notice that the Palace Arms was closing "until further notice" appeared on the website. "Fine dining is more of a luxury than a necessity," she said. "We're hearing it from our sister properties as well. The good news is we kept everyone on the team and were able to fit them into another spot."


Bellmen and Doormen Laid Off

In the process, those staffers were spared the fate of the hotel's bellmen and doormen, who were laid off in March with two weeks' notice. One had been there over forty years. "It was discourteous, to put it mildly, and offensive, to put it strongly," said concierge Adrian Kley, a former bellman. "How cheaply everyone was discarded, these people who had spent so much of their lives on the institution. It was pretty shocking."

That wasn't the only shock at the Brown. When Ellyngton's reopened this spring, in the corner of the hotel opposite Ship Tavern, regulars were surprised by the cavernous space with its marble floors — and echoing sound. Gone were the shabby chic booths that had been the site of so many power breakfasts and lunches; this look was more reminiscent of a train station.

Smith said the hotel was working on the sound, and in the meantime looking to introduce other events at Ellyngton's, which is again offering its Sunday brunch spread  — the place was packed on Mother's Day — but could add live music some evenings, as well.

The Ship Tavern had gotten a facelift a few years ago; now it will get a new menu from executive chef Kim Moyle that will give it more of a New England flavor, Smith said. "We're trying to branch out, trying to bring in not just our generational clients, but the younger crowd."
click to enlarge women in hats, man at piano in hotel lobby
John Kite was at the piano for the Swift-Tea in the Brown Palace lobby on May 13.
Patricia Calhoun
Even the traditional tea in the lobby, already a hit with all ages, is getting a twist: On the 13th of each month, it's a Swift-Tea, with pianist John Kite playing Taylor Swift's hits.

And now the Palace Arms, once the city's most elite eatery, is making a comeback with a community-wide open house.


Palace Arms Making a Comeback

Once news broke on May 1 that the restaurant was closing, the howls could be heard to Waterloo. And in the wake of the media attention, the Brown backpedaled.

Smith, who had said that "we're not saying it's officially closed forever," sped up the timeline with this official statement two days later: “I wanted to provide clarity and additional insight into the decision to temporarily suspend operations for Palace Arms. Our mission is to protect the integrity of our guest experiences to continue to deliver the exceptional service we pride ourselves on, including 'making diners feel like royalty.'"

Crescent Real Estate LLC, the ownership group, offered this:

“Specific to the Brown Palace Hotel and Spa, we’re focusing efforts on weaving in fresh and modern offerings, alongside upholding many of the time-honored traditions that the iconic hotel is known for. As we continue to evolve to best meet the interests of guests and locals alike, the proactive decision was made to temporarily suspend operations of Palace Arms while the restaurant undergoes a reimagination to better reflect the experiences diners are currently seeking. Our goal is to ensure that we can make changes to continue to offer the memorable service and quality that has made the restaurant beloved for generations, and that the guest experience is not compromised during the process. We expect to resume operations by May 18, with a community wide open house, inviting locals and guests alike to experience a sampling of the new menu items and reimagination.”

And with that, the Brown committed to hosting a gathering at 6 p.m. on May 18 "to introduce the restaurant’s reimagined menu to locals and guests alike," with live music, "action stations to sample the new dishes from the summer menu," and a meet-and-greet with executive chef Moyle. The hotel's ownership promised updates on the Brown's website, but as of late May 17, none had appeared...and the Palace Arms is not accepting reservations until May 23.

Take that, Napoleon. As Taylor Swift would tell you: "Now they're screaming at the palace front gates, used to chant my name."

The Brown Palace is located at 321 17th Street; find more information at brownpalace.com.

This story is an update and expansion of a piece originally published on May 1.
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