When Wash Park swung to a Big Band beat

A grand hotel once supplied the neighborhood with glamour

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The jazz was hot, the martinis were cold. From the dance floor, fox trotting couples watched the sun set behind a sweeping 200-mile vista of the Rocky Mountains.

All this was just a short walk away — if you lived in Washington Park during the 1930s, `40s and `50s.

A portal to this glamorous past is located inside a cluster of apartment towers one block north of Washington Park on South Marion Parkway. Although these tall brick buildings bristle with early 1970’s modernism, the hallways and common areas bear testimony to the elegant era of the Park Lane Hotel, which occupied the site from 1928 to 1966.

The entrance lobby is hung with framed scraps of vintage wallpaper. A framed yellowed ticket promises nightly dancing to Joe Mann’s orchestra. A black and white aerial photo from 1930 shows the old hotel flanked by its ornate grounds and 12 luxury bungalows.

General Manager Brian Mergl’s office is a museum of hotel memorabilia, including swizzle sticks; matchbooks; a monogrammed, silver-plated bowl; and an ornate room key. Based on that key alone, the Park Lane Hotel was a pretty special place.

It also boasted a special location. In the 1920s, Smith Lake in northern Washington Park drew thousands of visitors with its sandy bathing beach, boating and winter skating. Most Denver hotels were located downtown, but newly-arrived Chicago architect and hotel manager Paul Stein decided to take advantage of Smith Lake’s resort-like atmosphere and bought a site just one block away. The new 12-story, brick-clad high rise, in a style influenced by architect Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School, opened its doors in 1928 as “The Friendliest Hotel in the West.” The hotel provided 225 rooms and apartments, and reigned over five acres of landscaped grounds, which boasted — at various times — a swimming pool, two nine-hole golf courses, tennis courts and a 200-car garage where pampered guests and residents could park their Duesenbergs and Bugattis. The Roaring Twenties were drawing to a close, but the Park Lane was blissfully oblivious.

Although the hotel regularly hosted travelers, it mainly catered to year-round residents with its bungalows and numerous apartments. In the 1930s, the hotel “was considered the best address in Denver and was known as `the darling of Denver’s high society,’” according to research by Judy Marks, retired director of archives at the American Institute of Architects and a current resident of the apartment towers. Today, working parents stuck at home with their kids during the pandemic can only dream of life in one of these civilized relics of the past, where every day the staff arrived to make the beds and the only meal prep required was dialing room service.

In 1935, after being treated for tuberculosis in Colorado Springs, famed Broadway composer Vincent Youmans retired to a bungalow at the Park Lane with his wife, Broadway dancer Anne Varley. In the 1920s, Youmans won acclaim for such hits as the musical comedy, “No, No, Nanette,” with its enduring song, “Tea for Two,” and his music for “Flying Down to Rio,” which was Fred Astaire’s first film with Ginger Rogers. Youmans also won acclaim — or at least notoriety — for racing around Denver in his “wide array of fancy sports cars,” according to historian Phil Goodstein, local author of The Haunts of Washington Park.

In the first half of the 20th Century, American city-dwellers flocked to residential hotels. “Hotels gave … residents an instant social position, and interaction with some of the wealthiest residents of the city,” states The Encyclopedia of Chicago, citing architect Louis Sullivan, who “lived in hotels most of his life.” In New York, Kay Thompson’s fictional heroine Eloise lived at The Plaza, while a pair of very real young actresses named Joan Crawford and Grace Kelly stayed at the more affordable Barbizon. In his history of residential hotels, Living Downtown, author Paul Groth explains, “at the most practical level, wealthy people loved hotel life because it eliminated the routine responsibilities of managing a large house.” And it wasn’t only the wealthy who appreciated hotel life. In the 1920s, Chicago sociologist Day Monroe interviewed female doctors and businesswomen “who could pursue their professional lives only because hotel life freed them from household duties.”

Clearly Wash Park’s new hotel had much to offer — except good timing. A year after it opened, the stock market crashed inaugurating the bitter years of the Great Depression. Denver lost a third of its banks and jobs but somehow, Park Lane owner and manager Paul Stein managed to keep his hostelry going. Embracing the kind of glamorous escapism found in the Astaire-Rogers movies, he opened the hotel’s Marine Deck in 1936, which offered a rooftop garden where summertime visitors danced under the stars. Relying on views of Smith Lake to evoke the mighty ocean, the decor included lifeboats, fishing tackle and a pilot’s wheel, according to Goodstein. Martinis were once again available at “the world’s smartest cocktail lounge,” as a brochure proclaims, since Prohibition had ended three years earlier.

In 1937, Stein pulled out all the stops — so to speak — and installed a pipe organ in the hotel lobby. At the time, mechanical marvels such as the Wurlitzer were status symbols and widely regarded as good for business. Still, the organ failed to do the trick. In the 1940s, the Park Lane ran aground financially and changed hands several times. Once again, the hotel responded by upping its glamour quotient. In 1948, the new owner, Kansas City hotel investor Benjamin F. Weinberg, added a glass-enclosed top floor including a supper club called Top of the Park. According to Marks, it was “an elegant, beautiful room overlooking a 200-mile panorama of the Rocky Mountains … All the waiters wore white gloves, the menu was Continental and … the band played romantic music.” In that era, she added, “more marriage proposals took place on the Park Lane dance floor than any other place in Denver.”

Ironically, as the hotel’s economic footing steadily worsened, Top of the Park gained increasing fame. Marks cites Rocky Mountain News writer Marjorie Barrett: “`the list of stars who strutted across the Park Lane’s stages read like a who’s who of entertainment of the 1950s.’”

Such well-known comedians as Henny Youngman, Sheckey Greene and the acerbic Lenny Bruce, also known as Mr. Bruce, cracked up the crowds at Top of the Park. Liberace and his brother George played side-by-side pianos and during Stock Show week, and singing cowboy Tex Ritter trotted out his twang. Songstresses included Rosemary Clooney’s funny and beautiful younger sister, Betty; and stunning Hollywood actress-singer Dorothy Dandridge, a Cotton Club alumnus who went on to star in two films opposite Harry Belafonte.

Although the hotel’s finances were no better by the early `60s, Top of the Park patrons kept dancing. From 1961-1963, big band leader and TV-radio personality Lee Barron took the stage with his orchestra. Denver radio station KTLN, installed on the hotel’s first floor, broadcast the music five nights a week and began each show with “Live from the beautiful Sky Room at Top of the Park,” according to Marks.

Denver urban lore claims that musicians of a different stripe turned up at the hotel in August of 1964. At the time, the Beatles were in Colorado to play Red Rocks Amphitheater — the sixth stop on their U.S. and Canada tour. Although they didn’t sell out at Red Rocks, the mobs of fans around their downtown hotel were overwhelming and reputedly, they fled to the Park Lane Hotel.

By 1966, Weinberg had owned the Park Lane Hotel three times, a result of multiple sales and foreclosures. His elegant swan of a lodging, a grand relic of another time, was proving too frail to survive. According to Goodstein, Weinberg sold the property to local investors Bell & Hewson, which auctioned off “furniture, fixtures and memorabilia, including sheets upon which the Beatles had once supposedly slept.” Next, the new owners invited the Denver Fire Department to set fires in the building in order to practice high-rise rescue skills. For a couple of weeks, smoke billowed from the old structure. Then the Park Lane Hotel, Wash Park’s monument to bygone glamour, breathed its last.

In 1972, Bell & Hewson finished erecting a new apartment complex on the site — the three interconnected Park Lane Towers, designed by Joseph T. Wilson Associates. The apartments were converted to condominiums in 1979, and a fourth tower just to the north, similar but under separate ownership, was completed in 1974.

Architect and University of Colorado lecturer, Ron Faleide, a resident of Wash Park, describes the style of the 20-story buildings as “New Formalism,” in the spirit of influential modernist designer Louis Kahn.

From the outset, some neighborhood residents disliked these tall, modern additions to the landscape but the apartments proved wildly popular. From the upper floors, residents enjoy the same views that wowed patrons at Top of the Park. Park Lane residents also enjoy organized social activities, including live music. No martinis and fox trots, perhaps, but a small reminder of what used to be.

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