Skip to main content

A Silverton Treasure: Theater and Bar

the Next Stage of Grand Imperial’s Makeover


 Summer/Fall 2021

For discovering lost secrets of your historic hotel, rolling a keg down the basement stairway is not the preferred method. But when an employee at the Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton accidentally did just that, he and owner/proprietor Jim Harper were stunned to see the keg lodge in the basement wall. What?! They pried the keg off the wall and discovered to their amazement a previously hidden double doorway.

grand imperial remodel

Between surprises like this and, of course, the ghosts, Harper is never quite sure what the three-story jewel will reveal next.

The Harper family, which operates the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and other enterprises under its American Heritage Railways umbrella, is already proud of the work done since 2015, when it became the 14th owner of the 138-year-old building on Greene Street, the mountain town’s main drag. With Jim, president of American Heritage Railway Hotels, in charge, the Harpers are now focused on finishing reconstruction of the basement bar and theater.

When the Harpers purchased the hotel, Jim, who holds a history degree from Fort Lewis College, dug up the legend of how this place came to be.

Grand Imperial Hotel

Connecticut native William Sparks Thomson (1823-1907) established The Crown Perfumery Company in the 1870s, and the London-based business quickly grew worldwide. In the fashion of the times, the Eastern gentleman tycoon invested in the boom-or-bust mining industry, purchasing mines and a mill around Silverton.

In 1882, as the legend goes, W.S. Thomson stepped off the train in Silverton with his cane and top hat. Discovering that he’d landed in an uncivilized mining camp, Thomson immediately commissioned a hotel. He sent a telegram: “Spare no expense. When I return next year I want to stay in my own hotel.”

Grand Imperial Theatre

Built with “Second Empire” architectural style, the massive structure opened as The Grand Hotel in 1883. It was renamed the Imperial and then changed to the Grand Imperial in the 1940s.

The first major renovation occurred after Winfield Morten, a Dallas oil tycoon and developer, purchased the hotel in 1951. Central air conditioning and telephones were added for every room. The first floor, once home to a post office and other businesses, including the Silverton Standard newspaper, now housed the hotel lobby. A 70-seat theater, with velvet ropes and curtains, was added in the basement, once home to The Hub bar and saloon and Miners Hostel.

A paradox of historical preservation is the great amount of work and money it takes to keep things looking old.

theatre remodel

Jim Harper set a renovation budget of $1 million for the hotel in 2015. After hidden defects were discovered and other improvements made, several times that amount has been spent since. Jim’s mother Carol and sister Melanie helped return the first-floor lobby to its upper-scale mining-town heyday. The rooms were modernized with flat-screen TVs while keeping Old West touches. Rod Barker, owner of Durango’s historic Strater Hotel, shared his vast experience with the Harpers.

“It’s a wonderful property,” says Barker, whose family was once part-owner. He appreciates how the authentic look of such old hotels captures visitors’ imaginations, and he lauds the Harpers for their efforts.

The Grand Imperial reopened with a big bash in May 2016. For its work, American Heritage Railways Hotels was honored in 2018 by the Colorado Historical Society.

With the major part of the historic preservation and reconstruction successfully concluded, work dropped belowground to the noticeably cooler basement. But the onset of COVID-19 brought progress on the theater and bar to a sudden halt on March 15, 2020. The hotel opened in June 2020 for a remarkably successful summer season, but the theater was ignored for more than a year.

Harper explained during a spring tour that their hope is to open the refurbished space to the public this summer. A small bar will serve “adult beverages,” and the theater space will offer a relaxing hangout, particularly on hot summer days. A big screen is wired for TV, or, for those in the mood, perhaps one of the 20 or so movies that have featured the Grand Imperial since the 1940s. Bands and theater productions are other possibilities.

Harper pushes aside a curtain behind the stage, and his elbow bumps something unseen, spilling coffee on the floor. Was an upset ghost the culprit? Harper calls himself a skeptic who was convinced after hearing stories of employees having nails and drywall mysteriously thrown at them, and his own observations as a part-time resident. A team of paranormal investigators visited in 2018.

“We don’t do anything that will disrupt our long-term residents,” he says of the hotel spirits.

grand imperial 21  remodel

The original tag line for the Grand was “The social center of the San Juans,” Harper says. He sees the theater as a valuable space, another way to contribute to the community, which he already does as a town trustee in this politically tricky community, and as a member of the Silverton Film Office, created to attract moviemakers to the area.

The double doors, sans keg, have been restored, the window frames rebuilt, the three-foot-thick stone wall lacquered to a shine. The theater’s finish line is in sight.

“It’s been fun,” Harper says. “This is going to be one of the last puzzle pieces of bringing the Grand back to its former glory.”

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This