Hotel Case Study: Bringing The Past Into The Present

Photo: The Oxford HotelBy Chad A. Safran
Published in the October 2011 issue of Facility Executive

The city of Denver rose from the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in the late 1850s after William “Green” Russell and Sam Bates made the initial significant gold discovery in the Rocky Mountains in July 1858. The city—originally named Denver City after former Kansas Territory Governor James W. Denver—emerged as a mining and supply settlement to assist the needs of the nearly 100,000 gold seekers who had arrived by the early 1860s.

However, it was not until railroads arrived in 1870 that the town blossomed into the regional hub of the Rocky Mountains and High Plains. By 1890, Denver was the third largest city in the West, after San Francisco and Omaha, boasting a population of over 100,000 permanent residents—not transient prospectors.

A Chat With Mike Michna,
Chief Engineer, The Oxford Hotel

Mike Michna, Chief Engineer, The Oxford Hotel

What are your responsibilities for the hotel? My responsibility is to oversee all maintenance, construction, and renovation operations.

What notable changes have occurred in facilities management during your 37 years in the profession?
Technology has improved systems and tracking mechanisms for preventive maintenance efforts. Additionally, the engineer has to be on top of new regulations and code changes.
In the last two decades, we have had to educate ourselves and comply with the ever changing regulatory and building code enhancements. Many of these changes come from the EPA, water departments, OSHA, ADA, and the fire and building departments.

What challenges have these changes presented to you? Keeping on top of technology changes is very important in our industry. There are new products coming out all the time that can save money, time, and resources. There is also constant improvement in the tools and products to help us maintain our facilities.
The changes that occur in regulation and building codes need to be understood and applied. Sometimes the changes can simply be implemented by training staff and changing procedures, and other times it requires physical or technological changes to a facility to comply with them.

How have the changes made your work easier? The changes have made my job easier and harder. There are many technological tools that help us track and analyze systems in our properties. These advancements help us track work, equipment, and manpower. The technology changes have also helped in significant decreases in our energy and water usage. Conversely, all of the added technology throughout our buildings must now be checked and maintained for it to work properly.

Need A Place To Stay

During this growth period, Adolph Zang, owner of Zang Brewing Company—the Rockies largest producer of alcohol in the pre-Prohibition era—recognized the city’s need for a first class hotel near Union Station. Zang, with partners Philip Feldhauser and William Mygatt, hired Frank E. Edbrooke, who later became known as the “Dean of Denver architecture.” Edbrooke was tapped to design the five story, brick structure that is now known as The Oxford Hotel, which opened on October 3, 1891 during the crest of the region’s silver boom, with rooms costing $1 ($2 with a bath) a night.
The hotel was a city within a city. There was a barbershop, library, pharmacy, Western Union office, stables, and a saloon serving Zang’s spirits.

The facility was a modern and opulent marvel when it debuted. Antique oak furniture, marble and carpet floors, silver chandeliers, and stained glass decorated the interior.

The Oxford had its own power plant and a system of steam heating and electric and gas lighting. The bathrooms had separate water closets with the newest sanitary appliances. The kitchen was located in an area that would prevent its smells from possibly permeating through the facility. There was even an elevator that carried guests to the upper floors, enabling them to see the bustling activity of vendors, families, businessmen, and hobos on 17th Street below.

Changes Over Time

In the 1930s, the hotel was remodeled in Art Deco style by Denver architect Charles Jaka. This is when the Cruise Room, the hotel’s bar opened.

During World War II, military troops who came in via rail at nearby Union Station filled the Oxford. Mothers of local servicemen often stopped in to serve food and drinks to the soldiers.

Charles Callaway bought the Oxford in 1979 and later closed it for restoration. During that time, many of the original features were recreated and restored, thanks to the discovery of the hotel’s original blueprints. After three years and $12 million, the hotel reopened in 1983.

Throughout the ups and downs of Denver in the 120 years since the hotel debuted, the Oxford has remained one of the city’s top hotels, hosting the likes of Bill Clinton, the Dalai Llama, the French Ambassador to the United States, and Robert Redford. The grand lobby is decorated with antiques, marble, elegant furnishings, and a fully operational wood burning fireplace.

The Oxford Hotel is located in the middle of Denver’s LoDo (Lower Downtown) historic district.
The Oxford Hotel is located in the middle of Denver’s LoDo (Lower Downtown) historic district.

Works exemplifying Western Art can be found throughout the hotel and include items from notable and anonymous artists. More than a few of the pieces were donated by those who needed to pay off their room tabs.

The facility has 80 guest rooms, including one Presidential Suite. All are accentuated with French, English, Victorian, and classic early 20th century American décor.

There is also 10,000 square feet of meeting space in six rooms of a restored carriage house next to the hotel. The adjacent Oxford Club Spa & Fitness center is the oldest of its kind in Denver

Old And New

In recent years, newer upscale luxury hotels have entered downtown Denver, and the owners of the Oxford were committed to keeping the hotel competitive in the upscale boutique market. They recognized that they needed to invest capital to continue to stay ahead of the hospitality curve.

While the Oxford has often been in a state of renovation due to its historic nature, the hotel underwent major changes in the past eight years in order to improve its public spaces and guest rooms.

Since opening in 1891, the hotel has been known for the fine and elegant detail throughout the facility.
Since opening in 1891, the hotel has been known for the fine and elegant detail throughout the facility.

“The broad objective was for The Oxford Hotel to be Denver’s only truly authentic historic hotel; a place where the unique character and charm of the past merged with 20th century personalized luxury service, technology, and amenities,” says general manager Ed Blair. “Specifically, the project set out to invest approximately $3.5 million dollars in both cosmetic improvements as well as major mechanical systems.”

Modernization was an important part of the upgrades, with additions such as Cat6e cabling for both wired and wireless high speed Internet access as well as adding flat screen TVs and Bose Wave radios with iPod docs to all rooms. But maintaining a connection to the past was equally important. Blair adds, “The Oxford management and ownership desired to renovate the property in a manner that was consistent with the historic nature of the hotel as well as sustainability considerations. It was imperative to maintain the historic uniqueness of the hotel, like ensuring that antiques were kept in guest rooms, while driving toward modern amenities.”

One of the challenges Blair and the hotel faced was completing the project but still keeping guests and visitors happy. The Oxford’s chief engineer, Mike Michna, operated as the general contractor on the renovation so the hotel was able to isolate areas and plan the renovation work to minimize guest disruption.

Michna and his team did much of the work as well. Complicated and intricate projects, such as the bathrooms, were handled a few at a time to limit guest and revenue issues.

“As in any renovation there were guest complaints for noise and disruption,” says Blair, who offered suggestions on design and amenities, worked with ownership on funding, and helped manage the operations side of the renovation. “But we worked hard to try to keep those to a minimum.”

Chiller Challenge

The largest single project in the Oxford’s renovation, the installation of two new 141 ton rotary chillers, began in March 2009 and was completed in April 2009, when Denver was faced with record high heat. With a budget of $525,000 for the retrofit, Blair and Michna faced a set of roadblocks (besides guest complaints), especially since they had to do this in a building designated on the National Register of Historic Places.

First they had to decide the size of the equipment so they could physically get it into the existing basement mechanical room. They then looked at several chiller options and evaluated how they could get each type and size into the basement. There were two choices: excavating a hole into the basement and dropping in the chiller, or dissembling a chiller, moving it to the basement mechanical room, and reassembling it.

In the end, they chose to dissemble and reassemble the chiller. “This option actually saved us $100,000 in addition to the time it would have taken to excavate and reconstruct the area,” says Blair.

Two chilled water systems were installed to help ensure continued service; each included dual compressors for both system redundancy and flexibility. The back up chiller and secondary compressors operate as needed during high demand times. Additionally a plate and frame heat exchanger was installed in the chilled water system to provide free cooling during winter months, reducing the need to operate the new electric chillers as often.

The chiller project has produced the desired benefits the hotel team wanted. Combined with the installation of reset controllers on boilers and temperature and humidity sensors controlling boilers, pumps, chillers, and cooling tower, the hotel has reduced energy expenses by over 30% and now maintains the building temperature and humidity at a more comfortable level for guests and helps better preserve the painting collection. “The guest room, lobby, and public space has allowed the Oxford to compete better in the downtown Denver market, driving a higher average rate and gaining the hotel stronger market share—even during the economic challenges of the past several years,” adds Blair.

Welcome To The Oxford

The renovation also included upgrades to the exterior of the building. The Oxford invested more than $125,000 to recreate the original wrought iron canopy visitors saw when entering downtown Denver and the hotel. The canopy was completed in July 2009 and required approval from the Colorado Historic Society and the Colorado State Historic Fund, which supported the effort with a $35,000 grant written and managed by Historic Denver.

A new, green ready roof was recently installed as well. However, a timetable for that project has not been set.

“To complete the project we would need additional roof sheeting and would need to install vegetation trays,” says Blair. “We would also add some additional structural framing in our attic to support the extra weight.” This leaves an open ended future for the roof’s development.

Haunted Hotel

Despite the changes, one detail that has remained is the hotel’s “ghostly” reputation. Reportedly, the spirit of an early 1900s postal worker who was never able to deliver the Christmas gifts he was carrying to nearby Central City has visited the Cruise Room. Meanwhile, another tale claims that a young woman haunts room 320 after an incident in 1898 when her husband murdered her when he caught her there with her lover. Visitors are said to have seen faint images of the woman’s face as well as the sight of her standing in the room.

“Paranormal activity remains about the same,” says Blair. “There are no new issues or changes to existing activity with regular areas including guest room 320, the most ‘haunted’ area in the hotel.”

With all the improvements and changes, the Oxford has kept its identity as a link to Denver’s past while keeping an eye on the future—something that pleases everyone involved with the hotel. “Our guests consistently comment about the comfort and beauty of the hotel and appreciate the attention given to the historic nature of the property,” says Blair. “We wanted a high quality finished product that maintained the heart and soul of The Oxford Hotel.”

This article was based on an interview with Blair and Michna.

Project Information:

Project: The Oxford Hotel. Location: Denver, CO. Type of Project: Renovation. Function of Facility: Hospitality. Owner: Sage Hospitality. In House Project Management Team: Sage Hospitality. Square Footage: 140,000. Construction Timetable: 2004-2011. Budget: $3.1 million. Architect: JG Johnson Architects. Electrical/Mechanical Engineer: Hadji and Associates, P.E. Structural Engineer: Lorin Lieberman, P.E. General Contractor: Trane. Interior Designer: J. Kattman Associates. LEED Consultant: Jake Sloan, AP.

Product Information:

Building Management/System Services: Trane. Fire System Components: Edwards. Elevators: Hollister Whitney; Elevator Controls Corporation; Yaskawa. HVAC Equipment: Trane. Plumbing: Kohler; American Standard. Lighting: GE, TCP, Philips. Roofing: Versico. Window Treatments: Charles Calloway.