Hotel Boulderado is a Classic Colorado Landmark
By Brian E. Clark
On a Backroads bicycling trip that included Havana, Cuba a few years ago, I rode in a rickety, 100-year-old elevator – complete with a human operator. It clanked and groaned to the top of a crumbling, six-story building to get to its five occupants to a rooftop club.
I stuck around for a while to listen to music, had a drink and then walked back down the stairs.
I was reminded of that evening recently during a stay at the classy Hotel Boulderado in downtown Boulder, Colorado on the corner of 13th and Spruce streets. The hotel is home to “Otis,” a 114-year-old electric elevator. It, too, has a (part-time) operator.
A friend and I rode Otis a several occasions during our stay on the fifth floor of the red-brick hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic places and has an ochre-colored sandstone foundation. The rest of the time, we trotted up the Boulderado’s cantilevered, Cherrywood staircase.
Opened on New Year’s Eve with a gala ball in 1908 with 90 rooms, the hotel’s attractive design mixes Italian Renaissance elements with Mission/Spanish Revival features. Most impressive is an Italian stained-glass ceiling that covers the interior lobby and mezzanine.
Otis is actually one year older than the rest of the building, hotel historian Laurel McKown told me on a recent tour.
“That’s because they didn’t make new elevator models every year back then, if they ever did,” mused McKown, who said Otis took its name from the company that built it.
“And no stay at the Boulderado would be complete without checking out Otis, who used to have his own dedicated operator,” she said.
Now the front desk will take guests up higher floors on the, ahem, well-maintained, antique lift.
McKown said the creation of the hotel was a community effort from the get-go.
“The Boulderado was a civic project of leading citizens – not something proposed by an outside developer – who thought Boulder needed a luxury hotel to grow,” she said. Though town was home to the University of Colorado (this writer’s alma mater), it only had a population of less than 10,000 residents at the time.
Promoted as the “Athens of the West,” McKown said Boulder “really wasn’t a whole lot more than a small mining and farming town, but the location was exquisite and the townspeople thought it was a special place that could be a cultural center with a thriving business climate, too. But, they believed, it needed a fancy hotel.”
In 1905, The Boulder Commercial Association began selling stock in the hotel and investors large and small put their money behind the project, McKown said.
“They charged $100 a share, which was quite a bit of money back then,” she said of the Boulderado, which was designed by local architects William Redding & Son, who modeled it after San Francisco’s Palace Hotel.
Construction of what boosters said would be a “grand hotel” began in October of 1906 and was completed in late 1908, in time to accept its first guests on New Year’s Day, 1909.
Major decisions about the new hotel were made democratically by the local community and stockholders voted on the hotel’s site, name, and design. One of the initial proposals was to call it the Flagstaff, but the Boulderado – a combination of Boulder and Colorado – won out.
The total cost for the hotel was $131,000, up from an initial projected budget of $100,000. The initial costs to stay overnight ranged from $1 to $2.50 and only the more expensive rooms – about 25 percent of the total – had private bathrooms, McKown said.
Early guests included actress Ethel Barrymore, actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., evangelist Billy Sunday, famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, Helen Keller, Robert Frost, Benny Goodman, and Louis Armstrong.
The rates currently range from $200 to $500 a night, depending on the season. The hotel now has 160 rooms, thanks to construction of two annexes. History buffs should ask to stay in the historic part of the hotel, McKown advises.
They might also want to check out the Spruce Farm and Fish Restaurant, where I had a delicious dinner of Rocky Mountain trout and my ski patrol buddy Dave Cushman feasted on prime rib. The Corner Bar in the hotel is a popular gathering spot for Boulder locals and visitors alike.
Back in 1909, McKown said the dollar rooms were rather small and didn’t have a private bathroom. “Nor did the medium-sized ones, but for top dollar, you could have your own private bathroom with a claw tub. Moreover, rooms with a private bath and three meals a day in the dining room were $50 a month.
“That’s the equivalent of around $1,000 today, so it was a pretty good deal,” she said.
McKown noted that the fifth floor had four of what she called salesman’s sample rooms, which were long, narrow and were used by traveling salesmen to display their wares to potential customers. They have since been reconfigured to include bathrooms. The main, historic section now has just 42 rooms.
Like Otis, many of the hotel’s original features remain. The front desk and cubby holes for keys and messages are still off the main lobby. In the basement, visitors will find the catacomb-like License No. 1 Bar, which is reputed to have been a speakeasy. Though Boulder has a long reputation as a cutting-edge community, it went dry in 1907 and alcohol could not be purchased in the city limits until 1967.
McKown said Frank Day and investment partner Arthur Wong bought the then-tired hotel in 1980 and soon began efforts to restore it to its former glory.
“Frank is now 90 and it’s through his efforts that the Boulderado remains such a wonderful place to visit, dine, have a drink and ride a classic old elevator today,” she said.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.