Colorado History — The Windsor Hotel: the age of opulence
Denver’s first true luxury hotel, the Windsor House, opened June 23, 1880, with fanfare befitting a great lady. Touted by local newspapers as “the largest and most complete hotel between Chicago and San Francisco,” the five-story beauty became Denver’s symbol of the sometimes rocky transition from a dusty gold rush town to a commercial center and rail hub of the Rockies.
A veritable Disneyland for anglophiles, the gothic Windsor was modeled after England’s Windsor Castle and the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, at that time the largest hotel in the world. Built with Fort Collins sandstone and rhyolite from Colorado Springs, the hotel sported a price tag around $750,000, financed by an English syndicate calling itself the Denver Mansion Company, Ltd. The politically correct hostelry flew the Stars and Stripes from its main turret and the Union Jack and Windsor castle flags from smaller turrets.
The hotel’s main entrance fronted Larimer Street, while a special “ladies entrance” faced 18th Avenue. An iron porte-cochere and two elegant lampposts adorned each entry. Once inside the Windsor, no lodger ever had to go outdoors. A corridor along Larimer Street led to exclusive shops, and three tunnels supposedly led from the building, one to Union Station, one to a car barn on Arapahoe Street, and the third to palatial marble baths. The spa featured tile and marble Turkish, Russian and Roman baths, some the size of swimming pools, fed by deep artesian wells. According to an early brochure, a chiropodist, barber and ladies’ hairdresser were always available.
The Windsor was famous for fine cuisine. The hotel had its own farm with imported cows, and even its own hunters, who brought in wild game. The wine cellar was the best, stocked by bartender Harry Tammen, who later founded The Denver Post with his partner, Fred Bonfils. The cost of a stay in the Windsor was $2 on the “American plan” and $2.50 for a room with a bath.
One of the Windsor’s owners, silver king Horace Tabor, housed mistress and soon-to-be second wife, Lizzie (Baby Doe) McCourt, in the hotel’s premiere luxury suite. Supposedly, Baby Doe was the only woman allowed to use the underground tunnels, for obvious reasons. The legendary triangle involving Horace, his first wife Augusta, and Baby Doe, later became Colorado’s best-known love story, the source of several books and later an opera.
The fabulous Tabor suite boasted a bathroom with a gold leaf bathtub, said to be the first in Denver. The hotel may not have had modern plumbing when it was first built, since Baby Doe had special maids to carry in her bath water. Her 1,500 lb. bed and matching dresser were hand- carved walnut and the marble on the fireplace and the living room, plus many of the vases and knickknacks, came from Italy. Baby Doe’s fancy work chair in the sitting room survived long enough to be featured in a 1932 movie loosely based on the Tabors’ lives, called Silver Dollar.
Tabor also built Baby Doe the first floating grand ballroom in the United States. The $50,000 dance floor, made of white ash with black walnut, was suspended at each end by cables. The floor gave slightly from the weight when several people were dancing, making them appear more graceful, as though they were floating. It was also easier on the feet.
The hotel’s Bonanza Bar entertained gamblers coming from the adjoining Cattleman’s Room, which was the gaming room open to the public. Members of the state senate often conducted their legislative work at the bar. One of the hotels interesting legends, probably fictitious, says that western heroine “Calamity Jane” fired a gun when she was refused service at the bar and had to sit down at a table like a “lady.” Another tells of a socialite who dropped a diamond and platinum necklace down a toilet because she was angry with her husband.
The wall murals by artist Herndon Davis (known for The Face on the Barroom Floor at Central City’s Teller House) were added in 1920 and restored by Davis in 1935. When the building was torn down, entire walls had to be removed to preserve the paintings of local celebrities, including Baby Doe and daughter Silver Dollar. The murals were later relocated to the Oxford Hotel.
One of the Windsor’s interesting oddities was the front stairway, or “suicide staircase.” During the hotel’s early days, gambling rooms on the top floor were restricted to “high rollers,” who could afford the $5,000 prerequisite for entrance. Supposedly many miners, businessmen and prospectors lost their entire fortunes and leaped down the stairway in despair. Interestingly, the light behind one of the stair posts cast the shadow of a devil’s head on the wall. Although the superstitious Tabor refused to use that particular staircase, it didn’t do him much good. He lost his fortune in the Silver Crash of 1893 and died in one of the hotel’s smaller rooms. Former friends who had ignored him when he went broke spent a fortune on flowers for his funeral.
Over the decades, the grand old lady of Larimer Street entertained innumerable celebrities, including Sir Henry M. Stanley, Mark Twain, John L. Sullivan, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Marie Dressler, Sarah Burnhart and Lillian Russell. Four presidents stayed at the hotel – U.S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The portly President Taft made headlines when he got stuck in Baby Doe’s tiny bathtub (she was living elsewhere at the time) and required rescuing by bellhops.
By the 1930s, the Windsor was labeled “the only flophouse in the world with a marble fireplace in every room.” A restoration during the 1940s brought the hotel briefly back to life, but by the 1950s the once-beautiful building had reacquired flophouse status. Numerous plans for restoration fell through, and in 1960 the hotel fell to the wrecking ball to make way for a parking lot. Many of the Windsor treasures had been sold out in before the last owner, Arthur Garrett of the Garrettt Lumber and Wrecking Co., acquired title to the property. A grand auction in late 1959 disposed of the remainder. Although the gold-leaf bathtub was long gone, scores of bargain hunters paid $25 for fineries including a baby grand piano ($325) and a life-sized nude statue ($10). The owners sold all of the building materials including hand cut stone, marble flooring and brick and lumber. According to a brochure distributed at the sale, buyers could purchase 10,000 bricks from the hotel, “enough to build a nice large three bedroom home, delivered to your site for only $425.”