On March 18, 1894, Denver’s original Union Station burned. It had been built just 13 years earlier to consolidate several lines that had been using separate depots throughout the city. During the rebuild, the wooden clock tower was replaced with a stone structure, which in turn was replaced in 1914 with the Beaux Arts building that stands today.
During the rail station’s heyday, 80 trains passed through the terminal daily. They carried such dignitaries and celebrities as Queen Marie of Romania and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and up until 1958 more travelers passed through the station’s doors than the nearby (and since decommissioned) Stapleton International Airport.
It wasn’t to last. Like the majority of the country’s great train depots, Denver Union Station slid into decline in the late 20th century. Even the Ski Train to Winter Park discontinued operation in 2009 after 69 years of service. The outlook was bleak for the building that had helped make Denver one of the American West’s great cities.
Hope came in 2012, when the Union Station Alliance — a cooperative of real estate and hospitality investment and management firms — announced it would renovate the 1914 building with a focus on preservation.
“It was extremely important to us to honor the many amazing historic elements of this landmark building,” says Sage Hospitality president and CEO Walter Isenberg. “We preserved everything that we could.” Indeed, the 2,300 original detailed plaster columbines — Colorado’s state flower — adorning The Great Hall remain, as does the orange neon “Travel by Train” sign that was installed on the building’s façade in 1952.
After 18 months of painstaking restoration and construction efforts, Denver Union Station celebrated its grand reopening on July 26, 2014. The Great Hall is once again a vibrant public space that welcomes commuters and visitors via eight light-rail and Amtrak lines, as well as droves of buses (a rail line connecting Union Station with Denver International Airport is slated for completion in early 2016). People line up for hot beverages at Pigtrain Coffee or congregate after work for a pint at Terminal Bar, a Colorado craft-beer haven housed in the old ticketing office.
The $54 million project boasts a number of other unique tenants, including James Beard Foundation Award recipient chef Jennifer Jasinski’s seafood restaurant, Stoic & Genuine; Milkbox Ice Creamery; and the latest outpost of the city’s beloved Tattered Cover Book Store. Wi-Fi is available throughout the building, and conversation is easy because there is barely a hum from the tracks thanks to the work that went into the 65-foot ceiling.
Hiding in plain sight near the edge of The Great Hall is a small desk at which a sharply dressed clerk provides access to The Cooper Lounge, a cocktail bar on the third-floor mezzanine overlooking The Great Hall. The climb up the stairwell near the south wing’s elevator bank to the bar is a trip through cowboy literary history. Lining the walls are 50 small portraits taken from a poster commemorating the poets who participated in the 1987 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
The cornerstone of the renovation is The Crawford Hotel, named in honor of Union Station Alliance partner, noted preservationist, and founder-CEO of Urban Neighborhoods Inc., Dana Crawford. The 112-room boutique hotel melds present-day luxury with eclectic Western artworks, which are part of a Cole.Evansction of more than 600 pieces curated by Denver’s Nine dot Arts for the restored depot. The Cole.Evansction includes vintage family pictures and travel postcards, as well as a collage of ephemera — 1940s celebrity trading cards, sales tax tokens, and wallet photos — discovered under the station’s benches during construction.
The guest rooms themselves reflect Denver Union Station’s 100-year-plus history. The Crawford’s Pullman rooms are modeled after the private sleeping cars of train travel’s golden age. The Classic layout is inspired by the building’s Victorian era beginnings with soaring ceilings and expansive windows. Meanwhile, the modern Loft rooms on Union Station’s fourth floor feature exposed timber beams and vaulted ceilings. It’s in a Loft room that you’ll find Mai Wyn Schantz’s Seneca Deer, a print on aluminum featuring a two-headed white deer, hanging over a bathtub.
Dana Crawford couldn’t be more pleased with the re-energized landmark, which has been rocking since its reopening. “It means Denver has a new way to define itself by reusing a monumental building representing the l9th, 20th, and 21st centuries,” she says. “For me, The Great Hall of Denver Union Station serves as our contemporary city’s living room 24/7/365 and as a gathering place for several generations. It is the historic gateway to the West. Two decades ago it was threatened with demolition; now people love it again.”
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