A match made in luxury: Cripple Creek’s Winfield Scott Stratton and Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel

c 2014 by Jan MacKell Collins

According to one legend, Winfield Scott Stratton, the first and most famous millionaire of the Cripple Creek District, traveled to Denver during a particularly nasty storm in the spring of 1900. Upon stumbling into the prestigious Brown Palace Hotel, Stratton was ordered by an imperious employee to remove himself and his muddy boots from the lobby. The temperamental tycoon retaliated by purchasing the hotel outright so he could fire the employee.

A more scathing story was that Brown Palace manager Maxey Tabor, son of former silver king H.A.W. Tabor, disapproved of a young vaudeville actress Stratton was courting while both were guests at the hotel. In fact, Tabor went so far as to suggest to the lady that she should leave the hotel, never to return. For that reason and no other, according to the Telluride Daily Journal, Stratton purchased the Brown to exact revenge, “and now they do say that Manager Tabor will be out of a job just as soon as the new owner moves into the second floor front suite.”

The third, more genteel story, is most likely a combination of the Tabor story and the truth: Stratton was in fact saving the Brown from foreclosure when he purchased the mortgage in 1900. The grand hotel had opened some years before, specifically built to cater to the rich, political and powerful men and women of the time. Carpenter and architect Henry C. Brown financed the project, naming the hotel for himself. As early as October 1, 1891, the Leadville Herald Democrat noted the hotel was under construction, but was already receiving guests on a limited basis.

The Brown Palace officially opened in 1892 and immediately became a prominent meeting spot for political conventions and important organizations of the time. Denver’s most elite hotel was constructed of Colorado red granite and Arizona sandstone outside, with decorative iron and Mexican onyx inside to create a sturdy structure that could stand for decades. Nine floors offered luxurious suites, ballrooms, meeting and banquet rooms, private clubrooms, restaurants and an expansive lobby that was visible via a wrap-around balcony extending to the eighth floor. High above, a 2,800 square-foot stained glass ceiling provided natural lighting.

There is little doubt that Stratton favored staying at the Brown for a number of reasons. Being a former carpenter himself, the mining magnate likely appreciated Henry Brown’s humble beginnings and admired architect Frank Edbrooke’s Italian Renaissance design of the hotel. Here, Stratton could easily find and meet with politicians, mine owners and other influential figures to discuss the state of affairs regarding gold mining and the future of America.

The Brown Palace also offered a safe retreat from the money-grubbing men and women of the Cripple Creek District and Colorado Springs who constantly vied for Stratton’s money and attentions. Upon staking the Independence gold mine at Cripple Creek on July 4, 1891, Stratton had literally become a millionaire overnight. Almost immediately a gaggle of newfound “friends”, gold-digging harlots and illegitimate heirs came forth, all wanting a piece of Stratton and his new fat wallet. Whether killing him with kindness or clamoring for his cash, Stratton’s fan club only served to embitter the man further and drove him to drink.

Stratton is known to have taken refuge at the Brown as early as 1896, when he joined others at a meeting to fight against silver coinage. W.H. Bush, manager of the hotel at the time, was also a mining investor and favored such meetings. Here, Stratton found colleagues whose best interests lay with the future of mining, not his own pocketbook. From his upstairs suite, he could relax in privacy, imbibe freely in his alcohol and recover from his hangovers via the hotel’s wonderfully refreshing artesian well, located some 750 feet underground. Fountains from the well once graced every floor.

Most unfortunately, running a place as swell as the Brown Palace came at a cost. The hotel happened to open just before the Silver Panic of 1893, which sent the nation into a devastating depression. By 1900 Henry Brown was struggling to make ends meet. Stratton, who had already earned kudos for extending money to friends, supplying Cripple Creek with needed goods following two devastating fires in 1896, and even assisting former millionaire widow Baby Doe Tabor with her Matchless Mine at Leadville, came to the rescue. In April of 1900, newspapers announced that Stratton had purchased the Brown Palace Hotel for a cool $1.5 million, regarded as an extremely good price even for the time.

Alas, Stratton may have saved the Brown Palace Hotel, but he could not save himself. On September 14, 1902, he died at his home in Colorado Springs. At the young age of 54, Cripple Creek’s favorite millionaire quite literally drank himself to death. The Brown Palace remained under Stratton’s estate for the next twenty years. It was then purchased by another key player in Cripple Creek history, the same Horace Bennett who platted the city, made a million dollars from lot sales, and for whom Bennett Avenue is named.

Bennett’s partner in 1922 was hardware magnate and philanthropist Charles Boettcher. The latter was already a part time resident of the hotel, which remained in the family until 1980. During the time in between those years, the Brown Palace has played host to no less than three presidents plus several dignitaries, governors, celebrities and others who have contributed to its enduring and endearing history. A favorite story: the time Zsa Zsa Gabor’s pampered puppy got lost in the heating ducts. The Queen of Slap was forced by other engagements to move on while hotel workers toiled to extract the dog and personally flew him to be reunited with Gabor.

Today, a stay at the Brown Palace Hotel continues to reflect everything Brown, Stratton, Boettcher and subsequent owners expected in a five-star, four-diamond hotel. Care of the 120 year-old structure is a great undertaking, but visitors can still relax with such amenities as Victorian rooms with modern comforts, historic décor including artifacts dating as far back as 1763, a polite and friendly staff, moderately-priced to upscale fine dining, and of course that excellent artesian water that now flows from every faucet. The four o’clock tea is an especial favorite among the ladies. For looky-lou’s, beware: the prestigious Brown does not allow anyone above the second floor to ensure the privacy of their guests.Brown Palace lobby

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