Historic Hotel Road Trip: The Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado

Welcome to the Strater Hotel in Durango, Colorado, founded in 1888.

(Photo by Deb Erickson)

The streets were dirty and rutted.  Horses and wagons kicked up billowing clouds of dust.  Indians congregated in small groups, selling ponies, blankets and trinkets to folks who passed.  Miners, rich investors, and eventually their families, flocked to the area, drawn by the abundance of silver and gold.  When William Palmer built the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad to serve this mining district in 1881, the town of Durango was born.

(Photo courtesy of the Strater Hotel)

THE BIG DREAM OF A VERY YOUNG MAN—Enter Henry Strater, a 21-year old Cleveland pharmacist with a vision of prosperity for this mining town.  But, he had no money, he was too young to apply for a building permit, and he knew absolutely nothing about building and running a hotel.  Yet, as was common in men and women who settled in the West, dreams often overtook common sense.  Construction on Henry’s hotel—the Strater House—began in 1887 with an illegal building permit, funds from generous relatives, and its owner’s infectious enthusiasm.

The hotel opened on August 31, 1888 without the usual gala that accompanied the opening of other Colorado hotels of the era.  An advertisement in the local paper simply stated that the Strater House was ready to receive guests.  The four-story, red brick establishment’s 50 guest rooms were furnished comfortably and a few of the fancier quarters even had pianos.  However, Henry’s lack of experience was evident when none of the guest rooms were built with closets.  Washbowls, pitchers and chamber vessels were available in each room.  Guests could also choose to use the backyard three-story privy—with strategically placed holes—as modern indoor plumbing wasn’t included in the new hotel.

The lobby, parlors, basement saloon and other public areas were richly decorated with velvet draperies and heavy Victorian furniture.  A harpist often performed chamber music concerts in the hotel, to the delight of ladies and gentlemen staying at the Strater House.  Durango’s social set frequently held balls in the hotel and enjoyed fine meals in the dining room.  Often, during the cold winter months, townsfolk moved into the hotel to enjoy the warmth provided by in-room fireplaces.  Indeed, the grand Strater House soon became the hallmark of this progressive city.

HENRY CHANGES DIRECTIONS—It wasn’t long before young Henry became aware of his shortcomings as a hotel manager.  He felt he would be a much better pharmacist than innkeeper, so he leased the Strater to Mr. H.L. Rice.  Unfortunately, the lease neglected to specify that there would be space provided free of charge for Henry’s drug store.  Strater manager Rice charged an exorbitant rent, an action which infuriated Henry, to the point where Strater decided to  build a competing hotel next door.

The Columbian Hotel and the Strater House were both owned by Henry, but the Silver Panic of 1893 put an end to his dreams as he lost both establishments and found himself in very deep financial trouble.  This economic crisis changed the direction of many hotels of the era and the Strater was no exception.  During the dark days of frequently changing management and economic ups and downs, the hotel’s prosperity waned.

A NEW LIFE FOR THE STRATER—In 1926, a group of prominent Durango business men, led by banker Earl Barker Sr., purchased the hotel and began a many-years-long effort to restore the Strater to her former glory.   By the mid-1930s and with the end of Prohibition, business at the Strater began to increase.  So much so that a 40-room addition was constructed on the west side of the original building.

(Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In 1954, Earl Barker Sr. purchased all shares of stock in the hotel, making the Strater a family-owned operation.  Plumbing and electrical wiring were updated, bathroom fixtures received much needed attention, and all rooms were renovated with modern furnishings.  And, yes, all the rooms now had closets!  No area of the hotel went untouched.

(Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor)

As the 20th century progressed, American tourism gained momentum.  Earl Barker, Jr. knew that entertainment was what travelers craved, so he—against the advice of his father and while Dad was vacationing in Hawaii—converted a corner office building into what today is the Diamond Belle Saloon.  Live music, costumed bartenders and dance hall girls, good food and cold beer are why visitors and locals alike frequent this Durango gathering place.

THE SAGA OF THE BARKER FAMILY—Thus began the Strater’s journey towards the Victorian charm that greets guests today.  Earl Jr. and wife Jentra made a cross country journey searching for antique furniture with which to personalize each room.  The result of their quest is the largest collection of American Walnut antiques in the country, providing furnishings for each of the 93 individually and uniquely designed guestrooms.

(Photo by Deb Erickson)

The hotel’s current president and CEO, Rod Barker, has continued the vision of his father and grandfather by making sure the hotel stays true to her rich heritage by mingling her past charms with modern amenities.  He invites visitors to browse the public areas’ showcases, brimming with antique collectibles, as they further explore the history of Durango and the Strater Hotel.

(Photo by Deb Erickson)

Master woodworker Charles Schumacher and Rod Barker worked together to preserve and add to the history of the Strater.  The two gentlemen commissioned hand-made wall paper for each guest room.  Some rooms have four or five wall paper patterns, even on the ceiling.

(Photo by Deb Erickson)

When a piece of walnut furniture was needed but did not exist, Mr. Schumacher designed and built it.  Mr. Barker and Mr. Schumacher have triumphed in their quest to transport guests back to another century, a romantic time in our country’s history.

(Photo by Deb Erickson)

LONG LIVE THE STRATER—From its beginnings as a mere twinkle in a young man’s eye to the dominate feature on Durango’s Main Avenue, the Strater Hotel has received more than two million guests during her glorious history.  She has served her public since 1888 and thanks to the dedication of three generations of the Barker family, she continues to welcome guests with unfailing grace and hospitality.

Next stop on the road trip . . . . .The Grand Imperial Hotel in Silverton, Colorado.

The Strater Hotel

699 Main Avenue
Durango, Colorado 81301

Website:         www.strater.com

For information about the town of Durango:  www.durango.com

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad operates an historical train between Durango and Silverton:  www.durangotrain.com



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