Brown Palace Hotel fascinates in-house historian

Debra B. Faulkner relishes her job at hotel packed with Colorado history, personalities and ghosts

Kirsten Dahl Collins
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 10/4/22

Under the eaves of the historic Brown Palace Hotel, historian Debra B. Faulkner works out of a cramped office with a rooftop view of the HVAC equipment. She wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. …

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Brown Palace Hotel fascinates in-house historian

Debra B. Faulkner relishes her job at hotel packed with Colorado history, personalities and ghosts

Posted

Under the eaves of the historic Brown Palace Hotel, historian Debra B. Faulkner works out of a cramped office with a rooftop view of the HVAC equipment.

She wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“It’s my dream job,” she said. “Super fun.”

Filing cabinets crowd the space, filled with yellowed guest registers dating back to the hotel’s opening in 1892. In that era, the guests were “checked in” with actual check marks. The signatures from 1908 include HRH Prince of Wales, the future George the Fifth. President Woodrow Wilson signed the book in 1911. In 1912, Margaret “Molly” Brown — no relation to the hotel’s founder, Henry Cordes Brown — requested a sixth-floor room, since she had just escaped the Titanic disaster in Lifeboat No. 6.

Faulkner said it’s unusual for a hotel to have a dedicated historian — but then, the Brown Palace is no ordinary hotel. Like a Denver version of the British Museum, the red sandstone edifice on 17th Street is stuffed with history. In 1937, Work Projects Administration-era artist Allen Tupper True created the murals in the elevator lobby, still stunning — though darkened with age. Glass cases lining the hotel’s eight-story atrium document the glamorous big band era, when Ellyngton’s restaurant served as a nightclub. The Palace Arms, the Brown’s formal restaurant, displays authentic items from Napoleon’s campaigns, including a plumed hat and period swords. In the restaurant’s private dining room, the exquisite French-made wallpaper dates from 1834. The Ship Tavern, which opened after Prohibition in 1934, celebrates maritime history with a collection of hand-carved models of 19th-century clipper ships.

A magnet for the famous

Life at the Brown is rarely dull, in part because of all the celebrities who keep checking in. Multitudes of Hollywood stars have visited, from Zsa Zsa Gabor to George Clooney. When the Beatles spent a night there in 1964 before performing at Red Rocks, the hotel arranged for a decoy limousine to distract the crowds of fans waiting out front, while the Fab Four snuck in through the service entrance and up a service elevator to Room 840. More recently, the hotel has welcomed such pop luminaries as Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.

The Brown has also hosted numerous U.S. presidents and political dignitaries, including Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, Hillary and Bill Clinton and many Kennedys. When Ethel Kennedy visited the Brown during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, she confided to Faulkner that decades earlier, she and her husband, Bobby, had been turned away from the hotel. The young couple were on a cross-country road trip and arrived late for their reservation. Crestfallen, they were leaving when they bumped into an old college football buddy of Bobby’s. He owned a store in the hotel and offered to let them camp out. The young Kennedys happily spent the next four nights on the shop floor in sleeping bags.

Anecdotes like this are a never-ending source of delight for Faulkner, who has a front row seat to history’s more unusual byways.

A childhood spent exploring Colorado history

Unwittingly, Faulkner probably prepared for her dream job as a child. She grew up in Loveland, where her mother taught history in elementary school. Her mother often planned family camping trips to venerable sites like the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and the mining boomtown of Leadville.

“All the kids in the family would explore them and learn the background,” Faulkner said.

Digging into the past became a habit and then a passion. Faulkner went on to earn her master’s in history at University of Colorado. She joined the Brown Palace as hotel historian and archivist in 2008. There she manages the voluminous archives, gives historic tours and presentations, and curates historic displays. She has also managed to write nine books — some with Thomas Noel, aka Dr. Colorado — about Colorado history. One is the delightfully gossipy, “Ladies of the Brown,” an inside account of many notable women who worked, lived or stayed at the hotel. Her children’s book, “Henry’s Denver Palace,” inspired by a real canine visitor, is narrated by a golden retriever.

As hotel historian, Faulkner followed in the footsteps of Corinne Hunt, who created the position in 1977. In “Ladies of the Brown,” Faulkner wrote, “no hotel archives existed when Hunt came on board. Old guest registers, architectural blueprints, scrapbooks, menus, photos and ephemera were haphazardly stored in boxes, cabinets and dusty corners…” Hunt also initiated the hotel’s historic tours, which are open to the public.

Phantoms flock there, too

Hunt once told a reporter she might be “coming back as a ghost when I die.” Apparently, she’s not the only one. The Brown Palace seems especially popular with the spirit world — some because they died untimely deaths, others because they’re just fond of the place.

One notable ghost, Faulkner said, is Dr. James Mullen who was accidentally killed in the Ship Tavern restaurant in 1946 by a drunken WWII veteran who embarked on a shooting rampage. According to Faulkner, Dr. Mullen’s reflection — undoubtedly reproachful — sometimes appears in the mirror behind the bar.

Other phantoms seem less traumatized. A cheery quartet of vaporous musicians are said to play late at night in Ellyngton’s. Sometimes, guests and staff report childish laughter and running feet in the halls when there are no kids to be seen. In October, visitors can learn about these and other apparitions on Faulkner’s bi-weekly tours. They can then adjourn to the atrium for a Witches Tea.

A mysterious fraternal order

Ectoplasm aside, Faulkner comments that the hotel has a mystical quality built into its very structure by original owner Henry C. Brown and architect Frank Edbrooke. She said both Brown and Edbrooke had deep roots in the Freemasons, a fraternal order known for its symbols and secret rituals. Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Winston Churchill and Voltaire were all members.

“I seriously believe there are Masonic secrets hidden in the hotel,” Faulkner said.

She speculated that the Brown’s elegant triangular shape — it occupies a lot between Tremont Place, Broadway and 17th Street — is no accident. A right triangle enclosing an all-seeing eye is one of the best-known Masonic symbols, appearing on the dollar bill, among other places.

More Masonic symbols turned up recently when carpeting was replaced in the hotel’s Onyx Room, which is used for meetings. Underneath, Faulkner said, the mosaic floor was framed by a pattern of symbols associated with the Knights Templar, a medieval branch of Freemasonry. Other secrets probably wait behind other alterations. Many different owners, including three generations of the Boettcher family, have made changes to the old hotel over the years.

In fact, the Brown Palace is a bit of a museum, guarding a trove of historic treasure within its fortress-like walls. Some of that treasure may still be undiscovered. One more reason for Faulkner to view her job as a historian’s dream come true.

Brown Palace Hotel, Denver, historic places

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