Sunday, May 8, 2011

Like a Phoenix, rising out of the District's ashes











Some places, you can just feel the history, maybe even before it happens. The National Hotel in Cripple Creek might have been such a place. After “the Great Fires” of 1896, residents of the district were anxious to show they had bounced back. The National Hotel was emblematic of the resurgence, rising like a Phoenix out of the ashes to prominence on Bennett Avenue.

“The most impressive addition to the skyline, by all odds, the National Hotel at the corner of Fourth and Bennett Avenue,” wrote Mabel Barbee Lee, in her famous account of life in the district Cripple Creek Days. “ It was said to be fire proof and ‘the cost, maybe as much as $150,000’ was the talk of the town.”

Lee noted that there were skeptics (including her own father) that such high-flying hotel had found its place in the rough and tumble district.

“I often went down an watched the four-story building taking shape. It was of red pressed brick with a brown stone trim and topped by the gabled penthouse of W.K. Gilett. Many of the rooms were en suite, with private baths and service bells; telephones were installed on every floor, and an elevator, the first in the District, would operate 24 hours a day. When word got around that W.S. Stratton had signed a 50-year lease on the swankiest apartment in the building, ‘to show his faith in the District’s future,’ town’s people nicknamed the hostelry ‘the Brown Palace of Cripple Creek,’” wrote Lee.

Raymond G. Colwell worked there for a time in its heyday.

"It was four stories in height, with the help quarters and storage in an attic. Although I hopped bells there in 1907 and 1908, I don’t recall how many rooms it had, but it was a big hotel and would have been a credit to any city. The ground floor was a big lobby, dining room and of course, commodious and finely appointed barroom. The ‘ladies parlor’ on the second floor, and I think there were private dining rooms there also. The hotel had elevators and electric lights and the electric bell system, but no room phones. I don’t remember how many of the rooms had private baths, or hot and cold water basins in them,” wrote Colwell in an account for the Denver Westerner’s in 1960.

“You must remember that the most prominent mining men in the whole wide world came to Cripple Creek at one time or another, as well as bankers, investors, and world travelers, not to mention politicians and men in public life. They were used to the best in accommodations and the National Hotel was equipped to take care of them. After I graduated from High School in 1907, I worked as a bell boy in the Antlers in Colorado Springs and later at the National in the Creek, and I know my tips were better and the clientele at the National," Colwell said.

Lee described the inaugural banquet at the opening of the fine hotel.

“It was chilly that October evening, but the glow in the sky above the hotel made the surroundings seem warm and bright. Festoons of colored lights draped the front of the building, clear up to the illuminated penthouse and flags billowed from all the windows. Stains of “The Sidewalks of New York” drifted through the transom of the barroom which opened on the street corner, and beyond, a large sign over the main entrance flashed WELCOME, in electric bulbs,” according to Lee.

“The lobby hummed and buzzed with a clatter that almost drowned out Professor Schreiber’s stringed orchestra. Everybody in the District, except my father, must have been there, hailing friends and exclaiming over the luxurious furnishings. We strolled among huge pots of ferns and tall vases of American Beauty roses, sniffing their fragrance and touching their velvety petals… The doors to the dining hall had just been opened and we hurried over with several others to watch the banquet that was in full swing. What a sight to feast the eyes! Immense bowls of bronze and yellow chrysanthemums alternated with twinkling crystal candelabra on the tables. Negro waiters in starched white jackets were deftly removing plates and filling glasses with sparkling wine. Two or three hundred men and women crowded the room, ” Lee wrote.

The District had bounced back big time.

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