What once was a crude mining town attracting citizens with the prospect of gold, Denver quickly grew to become Colorado’s cultured capital. The movers and shakers behind this growth left their mark and sometimes even their homes as evidence of times past.
Historic Denver Inc. was formed in the 1970s to keep the history of Denver alive. Its first project was to protect the house of Margaret “Molly” Brown, who earned the nickname “Unsinkable” after she was one of 700 survivors when the ocean liner RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk off the coast of Newfoundland on its maiden voyage in 1912.
The Browns purchased the house in 1894. Now called the Molly Brown House Museum, it stands in almost-original glory near downtown Denver on Pennsylvania Street.
The mansion used to be one of only two houses on Pennsylvania Street, now a crowded two-way street three blocks from the Capitol. It faces west, meaning before all the office buildings and crowded skyline, the view from the porch and the sunroom above was a magnificent panorama of the Rocky Mountains.
Margaret Brown (never called Molly in her lifetime) and her husband J.J. were “new money.” They made their start in Leadville, Colorado, as a mining family. J.J. had become a supervisor by 1893, specializing in silver. After digging deeper than thought possible in one of his mines, J.J. discovered the largest vein of gold ever uncovered in Colorado. He and Margaret became instant millionaires.
They moved to Denver where Molly Brown would become influential in civic, cultural and humanitarian arenas.
Inside the preserved home is a mixture of Brown-family originals and true-to-era pieces ranging from furniture, to artwork, to umbrella stands. The lighting is fairly dim, with re-created 40-watt electric bulbs installed in the historic light fixtures. The house was very modern for its time, equipped with electricity, plumbing and running water.
The entryway is the first glimpse visitors had of the home and the wealth of its inhabitants. The walls are lined with decorated wallpaper, coated in gold paint, which gives the place a palace-like ambiance. To the left is a Turkish-style corner with a bench in the window where guests could wait for their hosts.
If the Browns were home, guests would be shown into the parlor. This room, like most of the rooms, is partially roped off, protecting the historic décor. But gathering on the fringes and hearing the stories of how Denver’s society partied here animates the room in our imaginations.
Public rooms were important to show status, wealth, culture and hospitality. Little glimpses into the past are present with furniture and artwork the Browns purchased. Centered above the large mantelpiece is a painting of the Platte River with the Rocky Mountain backdrop, a scene all too familiar to the Browns and one that local Denverites can piece together.
The parlor is adjacent to the family library, with the original bookcases restored to the house after being sold during the early 1900s. Margaret Brown was the first woman to attend Carnegie Institute in 1900. Versed in English, French, German and Russian, education was important to her, and the library showed this to outsiders.
Through the dining room and up the stairs that creak under foot, we learn of Molly’s involvement in the Denver Dumb Friends League (an animal protection society) and her major role in developing the current juvenile justice system (the second in the nation).
Upstairs, the more intimate meeting space of the sunroom, as well as individual bedrooms paint an even clearer portrait of family life during the end of the 19th century. We also learn of additions to the third story, though the second staircase is roped off.
Down the wide hallway, framed newspaper clippings, photographs and White Star Line menus introduce the intertwined histories of Molly Brown and the Titanic. Returning from her travels in Africa, Molly’s fateful trip on the ocean liner proved her humanitarianism.
As one of the first-class passengers aboard the “unsinkable” ship, she was one of the lucky ones to make it in a lifeboat. A photo, taken from the rescuing liner Carpathia, shows lifeboat No. 6, the craft Molly Brown was in. After boarding the Carpathia and before reaching New York, Molly had raised $10,000 from the ship’s passengers for Titanic survivors. She was also last to exit the ship, making sure every one of her fellow shipmates had a place to go.
Passing from the luscious living quarters, the tour winds down the narrow servants’ staircase and into the kitchen. This ends our tour after we learn more about Historic Denver’s efforts to restore the original state of the mansion from what had become a boarding house.
A gift shop out back sells Titanic paraphernalia, fool’s gold, Victorian period reproductions and antiques. The Women’s Vote political campaign is also represented here with buttons, sashes and posters. Old photographs from Molly Brown’s travels to Florida, Japan and Egypt line the walls. All sales go toward maintaining the house and supporting Historic Denver’s educational programs.
The Molly Brown House Museum is part of a larger initiative to keep Denver’s history alive through the Denver Story Trek program launched by Historic Denver and the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs.
The museum is site No. 6 of more than two dozen Denver Story Trek locations. Trekkers can build their own journey (through brochures or website) by choosing specific destinations, or follow a featured trek. The Brown House is part of “Shedding the Frontier Rawness: A Rush to Respectability.”
A Denver Story Trek sign on location indicates trek sites, giving the phone and site numbers so trekkers can hear an oral history and highlights of the location on their cell phones.
The Denver Story Trek not only features museums but also includes, parks, street corners, businesses, communities and even the Governor’s Mansion.
If You Go
The Molly Brown House Museum
1340 Pennsylvania St.
Denver, Colorado 80203
Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. (the last tour begins at 3:30 p.m.) Sunday, noon to 4:15 p.m. (the last tour begins at 3:30 p.m.) Tours are also available on Mondays during June, July and August.
Tours: All tours are guided, last about 45 minutes and start on the hour and half-hour. Tickets are available in the Carriage House Museum Store (gift shop). Prices are $8 for adults (13-64), $6 for seniors (65+), and $4 for children (6-12)
Denver Story Trek
Oral histories and highlights can be heard by dialing 303-562-2407 plus the site number followed by the pound sign, or downloaded onto an mp3 player from the website.
Trek sites can be accessed by car, bus, bicycling or walking depending on the route.
Visit denverstorytrek.org/ for information about featured treks and historic locations.