A Stay at Union StationSubscribe Now!
Lower Downtown Denver has seen incredible change over the past century, but throughout it all, Union Station has remained one of the few constants.
It was Friday night in Denver, and my husband, Ryan, and I had big plans: We were going to spend the entire weekend inside an old train station.
Under normal circumstances, spending the weekend at a train station means your travel plans have gone seriously awry. But this wasn’t any train station – it was Union Station. The 120-year-old Denver landmark just got a $58-million renovation, complete with new shops, restaurants and a fancy hotel. We wanted to know if the revamped Union Station offered enough to keep us content and entertained for two days without leaving the premises. We’d soon find out.
We arrived by rail, the same way millions of travelers have arrived at Union Station since 1894, except we took the light rail rather than a steam locomotive. We stepped off the train, and after a quick underground walk, an escalator deposited us at the station’s back door. Above Union Station’s big double doors, a sign caught my eye: The Crawford Hotel. This new hotel was to be our home for the next two nights.
We had been to this station a handful of times before, and I happily noted as we crossed the threshold that it looked the same – only better and busier. The station was filled with people, some pulling luggage and others clutching fancy handbags or pushing baby strollers.
Our fourth-floor hotel room combined Victorian charm – complete with claw-foot tub – with modern décor. After oohing and aahing over our room for a while, Ryan and I set out to explore the “new” Union Station. Just outside our room we stopped at the balcony to gaze down on the Great Hall. I fought the urge to start singing “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”
We decided to investigate all the nooks and crannies of the station to plan out our weekend. Our first official stop was the Cooper Lounge. Like the view from outside our room, it is located above the fray of the Great Hall and is a mid-century haven where pearled patrons sip fancy drinks. Since this is Denver, there also were a few folks in jeans.
We settled into high wingback chairs and perused the menu. While the scene had a glamorous, 1960s feel, like something out of Mad Men, the electronic tablet on which I read the drink specialties felt more like a Jetsons cartoon. This was my first digital menu experience, and I was in a trance, flipping through the options on the brightly colored screen.
We ordered expensive drinks, and they arrived on a silver platter with a side of nuts in a small, silver cup. For some reason the price of our drinks wasn’t as vexing now that they had been served in this manner. A couple of days of this treatment and I’d be loath to go back to a perspiring pint glass on a cardboard coaster.
To top off an already fancy cocktail hour, we ordered oysters from the raw bar on wheels provided by Stoic & Genuine, the seafood restaurant downstairs. Biting into a sweet and salty oyster from the Pacific Northwest, my childhood home, I was transported to a rocky beach where the cries of seagulls perforate the gray misty air. Who says you can’t taste the ocean in Colorado?
We continued our opulent evening of seafood at Stoic & Genuine, where a giant, pink octopus artistically climbed along the outer wall. We dined on crab and bacon-wrapped halibut followed by a peanut butter dessert.
Back inside the Great Hall, heels clicked on stone floors as gangs of young ladies in stylish short skirts held on to each other, giggling from a fun-filled Friday night and one-too-many cocktails. We wanted to grab a drink at Terminal Bar, where patrons can order from a pass-through window or elbow their way inside the dark, wood-paneled pub, but it was too crowded. We saved it for another day and retired to our room.
Day two, and we were up early watching the sun illuminate the city. Brick and steel turned a lovely shade of pink before the scene became blindingly crisp, as if someone had turned the “sharpen colors” knob to the highest setting.
The elevator doors opened to a quiet Great Hall, but as we walked towards Snooze, a breakfast restaurant, the squeals of children greeted us.
After breakfast we crossed the hall to the new Tattered Cover, a smaller version of the independent bookstore. With a delightful literary selection, seemingly handpicked for this location, the collection included a large bookshelf titled “Trains in Fact & Fiction.” I selected a travel book, and Ryan purchased a newspaper. The iPad in our hotel room had a selection of newspapers available, but my husband’s preferred newspaper-reading experience includes the smell of ink and black smudges on his fingers.
Back in the Great Hall we sank into a low, comfortable green sectional. I settled in to read, but I was distracted by the smack of a puck hitting the backboard of the table shuffleboard set up in the middle of the hall. Laughter from the game drifted over us. Families walked by in packs. A gathering of train enthusiasts toured the station like a band of excited school children, except with white beards, floppy hats and film-loaded cameras.
Somewhere behind me a woman was telling the story of riding the train alone from Denver to St. Louis in 1963 when she was just 14 years old. I missed the end of the story because a weary man in a rumpled suit with a loosened tie slumped onto the couch next to us, his luggage in a heap at his feet. A scene from Death of a Salesman flickered briefly in my head. Eventually we wandered off to find lunch, stopping briefly to browse a few shops along the way.
After a cheese plate for two on the patio at Mercantile Dining and Provisions, we headed back to our room. I longed to soak in the claw-foot tub, and Ryan wanted a nap – two midday luxuries we never indulge in at home.
By now it was Saturday night, and the station was abuzz. We’d finally made it to Terminal Bar for drinks. The Amtrak train from Chicago was delayed, and the Great Hall was full of passengers on pause.
It occurred to me that staying at The Crawford is akin to being a boulder in a flowing river as travelers spin by like twigs borne by the water, occasionally getting caught in an eddy before the current pulls them onward.
The night swirled around us – happy voices, twinkling lights, the din of a city evening. If you squinted your eyes and looked around, it could have been 2015 or 1915, and I grew wistful for a time when life moved at the pace of a train instead of a commercial jetliner.
The next morning I awoke to the smell of coffee creeping into our room like a ghost. Ryan was still asleep, so I left our room to follow the aroma to its source. By now it was 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, and music played over the speakers in the Great Hall, but there was no one around to hear it except for me, a security guard fiddling with a lamp and a beagle ardently guarding a backpack at the feet of his sleeping master. I shuffled across the vacant hall toward a cafe, and I wondered how the old ghosts of Union Station are getting on with the new ghosts.
Our self-appointed mission was nearly complete, and in this place of constant motion, this place of travel, of coming and going, we’ve managed to find stillness. During our stay, time ceased to exist, and I silently wished that we could remain motionless in this current, forever trapped in a moment long ago, but not quite past.