The Crystal Palace
A look at the western gentrification of a British gem


by Katie Clancy

Inquire about a Durango bar’s history over a shot of whiskey, and you’ll hear stories about the old west. Bars brought over on horse-covered wagons. Cowboy shootouts in dingy saloons. While most bars in Durango carry dust from the Wild West, only one bar has maintained its Royal glow.

The Industrial Revolution roared in 1836; Britain was at its zenith as a major global power. Feeling secure and superior, a wealthy bachelor, the sixth Duke of Devonshire, concocted a plan to build one of the most grandiose atriums in history. He commissioned Sir Joseph Paxton to design and build an iron and glass goliath, encasing over 27 acres of exotic trees and birds. Built in less than ten days, it was named the Crystal Palace.

The corner of the emporium housed a private bar. Its style was royalty at its finest: crystal mirrors, gold leaf coated lettering, and mahogany panels. It was a private bar, fit for the finest of the Duke’s drinking buddies.

“There is a phrase, ‘Free Drink’, that is beveled on the bar back mirrors. This served as a reminder to all the Duke’s guests that they would never have to pay to drink,” said Jim Custer, the current owner of the Crystal Tavern’s bar. The Duke’s drinking buddies included Queen Victoria and her cousin/husband Albert.

At the height of the Victorian era, a fire started inside the Crystal Palace, destroying the entire building – except for the bar. After the Palace was rebuilt, the bar was sold to a New Yorker, who kept it in storage until he was able to sell it at an auction. At the turn of the century, the bar was sold, for the third time, to a man from California, who had it shipped across the country on a freight train.

In the late 1970s, a Durango radiologist named Pat Nelson attended an auction held by Wilson Auctioneers in Los Angeles. He bought the Crystal Tavern, fully assembled, for $75,000.

“There was money in antiques,” Nelson said.

In 1979, the bar was trucked to 809 Main Avenue, where Nelson fashioned the narrow, street-level space to suit the royal motif. Wine-colored carpets and chandeliers glowed against the mahogany panels. An oil painting of a nude – a local gal who was endearingly referred to as “Crystal” – hung above a big black grand piano.

Nelson ran ads in The Durango Herald that read “Step into Old England.” College-kids and men with gem-studded cowboy shirts crowded the bar to listen to a talented clarinet player and a singer called Big Daddy bang out tunes over the piano.

“We heard this guy [Big Daddy] was a hit in Denver, but when he got here, we realized he didn’t know how to carry a tune or play more than a few southern classics,” Nelson said.

Wild times in Nelson’s Crystal Tavern only lasted for less than 6 years, until he sold the bar and it declared bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

“Like all good bars, the cops ruined it,” Nelson said. He also blames the bar’s downfall on Durango’s rampant inflation and interest rates during the era of Reaganomics.

In New York, California, and finally, the basement of Durango’s United Bank – the Crystal Tavern gathered dust in storage, serving only cellar rats. In 1987, the bar back and was exhumed for the last time by Jim Custer.

“All the mirrors today have been intact since they were made,” Custer said. Sporting a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, and a gold and diamond plated horseshoe ring, he embodied a 21st century cowboy equivalent to British Royalty. “We delicately padded each mirror with blankets to make sure they would survive the trip to Vallecito.”

True to his image, Custer polished the bar to fit the finest – or at least today’s high society – at Wit’s End Ranch. A dude ranch since 1893, Custer converted an old barn on the property into a fine dining restaurant. He separated the gold-leafed beveled mirrors with Douglas fir logs; installed the original swinging doors next to an old western-style piano. Drinks began flowing again in 1988.

Now almost 200 years old, the Crystal Palace bar sits regally (with an old western flair) among stuffed lynx and curly-horned sheep. It’s a resilient piece of history, now having survived two fires – the Crystal Palace in 1936 and Missionary Ridge in 2002.

There is still an unsolved mystery, however. Custer only bought the bar back, all six glass cabinets, and the mirror panels. The tables and chairs had been sold off before The Crystal Tavern opened at 809 Main. Now, only the front bar remains unclaimed.

Rumor has it that the front bar of the Palace was moved to 636 Main Avenue, where, among the myriad of renovations to the space, thrived the Buffalo Bar, a local favorite during the late 1960’s.

“When the Buffalo Bar was in full swing, Durango still felt like wild west,” said Greg Fryback. Born and raised in Durango, Fryback recalls the days before its streets seethed with tourists. Before cell-phones had replaced face-to-face intimacy over drinks at the bars. When a beer cost a quarter and most store-fronts on Main were boarded up.

“The ski patrol staged food fights in the Ore House, and a jealous drunk shot his lover dead out in front of The Silver Slipper Saloon on a hot Sunday afternoon,” he recalled.

If you were around at midnight in the Buffalo Bar, you’d watch the live band interrupted by chaos. Lights went out and the dance floor separated in the middle, opening to the sounds of an organ which then rose from the basement.

“Don Hartley, the owner of the bar, was a real character. He pounded out some of the weirdest music on that organ. None of us could relate, of course, but it was quite entertaining,” John Lawson, a Durango native, remembered.

After Hartley had jammed for several songs, he descended below the floorboards again. The party resumed, unruffled, shortly thereafter.

The front bar remained after The Buffalo Bar closed and was replaced by two consequent bars. Now, Ken and Sue’s Place restaurant does business above the hole in the floor (where the organ was stored). If you go to the restaurant and examine the brass footholds and mahogany under-panels, resemblance to The Crystal Palace is hard to ignore. •