Built in 1871–72 by brothers Henry M. Teller and Willard Teller, the Teller House is one of the oldest and most important buildings in Central City. It has served as the town’s main hotel for more than sixty years. The four-story brick hotel played host to Central City’s most important visitors, including President Ulysses S. Grant during his tour of Colorado in 1873. Today the Teller House is home to several businesses and serves the community as a museum showcasing Central City’s history as one of the most profitable mining towns in the Centennial State.
Staying in Splendor
Henry M. Teller was one of Central City’s most prominent early residents. A lawyer by trade, Teller came to Colorado to take part in the Colorado Gold Rush, arriving in 1861. Teller was not a miner, but rather used his knowledge of the law and his innate business acumen to accumulate wealth and make connections. Teller’s investments ranged from telegraph companies to fruit farms, but his most notable business accomplishment was to help organize the Colorado Central Railroad, bringing Central City its first rail connection. Teller would go on to become Colorado’s senior US senator from 1876 to 1909 and serve as secretary of the interior under Presidents James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur between 1881 and 1885.
As a resident of Central City during its peak boom years, Teller recognized that the mining town desperately needed a hotel. In 1871 Henry Teller and his brother Willard offered $60,000 of their own money for the hotel if Central City residents would buy $25,000 worth of stock. A deal was struck, with construction beginning in the summer of 1871.
The hotel was completed in just one year, opening its 150 rooms to guests in July 1872. At the time, the Teller House was one of the most opulent buildings in Colorado Territory and ranked as the territory’s largest hotel outside of Denver. The four-story brick building featured a flat, concrete-covered roof, a beautiful flagstone terrace, and a wooden balcony overlooking the street on the hotel’s west side, while the historic Romanesque construction and arched windows on the first floor showed off the grandeur and wealth of Colorado’s mining frontier.
The Teller House served Central City when the town was at the height of its fame and wealth between 1870 and 1890, and its finely furnished sitting rooms served as gathering places for Colorado’s high society and visiting elite. When Ulysses S. Grant visited Central City in April 1873, the president was invited to walk into the hotel along a sidewalk covered in silver ingots, and he was served a luxurious eight-course meal in the hotel dining room.
The Teller House nearly burned to the ground in 1874, just two years after its completion. Fortunately, the hotel’s brick construction helped spare it from the destruction that claimed most of Central City’s business district, and may have even helped stop the fire from spreading through a town built mostly from wood. Central City was wealthy enough to rebuild almost immediately, and a new town made from brick and stone sprang up from the fire’s ashes. The Teller House and the Tellers themselves helped facilitate this rejuvenation, and many of the buildings still standing near the hotel were constructed during the postfire building boom.
In addition to the hotel, the Teller House was home to several other businesses, including a jewelry store, an eyeglass emporium, a barbershop, and the Rocky Mountain Bank. After the 1874 fire, the bank moved around the corner to a new building, but other businesses continued operating from the Teller House throughout the twentieth century.
The Face on the Barroom Floor
Though the Teller House was famous for its opulence, the hotel entered a period of decline along with the rest of Central City in the early twentieth century. While Colorado’s admission to the union in 1876 initially spurred investment in Central City’s mining operations, many of the town’s wealthy and influential residents moved to Denver after it was selected as the state capital. As Central City lost its elite residents, more lucrative and productive mineral lodes in Aspen, Leadville, and the Cripple Creek District outshined the former Front Range boomtown. By the turn of the century, Central City had been almost totally eclipsed by these other towns in terms of its cultural and economic relevance.
But Central City’s cultural and historic roots ran deeper than the veins of ore that had propelled its rise to prominence in the 1860s. The revival of the Central City Opera’s summer opera festival during the 1930s brought new hopes of economic prosperity to the former mining town, spurring a period of citywide restoration during which much of the Teller House was renovated. Restoration crews even uncovered original frescoes painted by English illustrator Charles St. George Stanley in the hotel’s bar, the Elevator. The frescoes were restored to their original glory by artist Paschal Quackenbush in 1932.
As stunning as the frescoes were, the hotel bar’s main attraction is the face painted on the barroom floor. In 1936, after one too many drinks, Denver Post staff artist Herndon Davis painted a woman’s face on the floor as an homage to French poet Hugh d’Arcy’s poem “The Face in the Barroom Floor.” What began as a joke has become one of Central City’s biggest tourist attractions, and visitors to the bar must now peer through a protective enclosure to see Davis’s work.
Since its restoration in the 1930s, the Teller House has continued to serve Central City as a cultural hub. The old building still benefits from its proximity to the Central City Opera House, which has maintained offices in the Teller House since the 1990s. While Central City and nearby Black Hawk are both National Historic Landmarks, the towns’ main attractions today are their many casinos. Indeed, gambling is Gilpin County’s major economic engine. Taxes on gambling revenues help support the historic preservation of Central City, and the hotel’s $10 million renovation in the early 1990s was funded by a private casino operator who installed twenty slot machines in the old hotel (the machines were removed in the early 2000s due to declining revenue). While no gambling takes place in the Teller House today, games of chance would have been familiar to hotel guests during its heyday in the nineteenth century.
The Teller House building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It is now maintained as a museum, where visitors can learn what life was like when Central City was a rough-and-tumble frontier mining town. The Teller House is dwarfed today by the shiny new hotels and casinos that dominate Central City’s skyline. But the grand old hotel stands as an ancestor of those modern casinos, a reminder of Gilpin County’s living heritage.