Royal Palace Motel’s sign has been saved as the building nears demolition

The man known as the Velvet Elvis is keeping it safe — for now.
6 min. read
Jonny Barber stands with his collection of Colfax Avenue signs. May 22, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Jonny Barber waited literal years to get his hands on the Royal Palace Motel's sign.

He'd been on the case since the building's owner filed initial paperwork to demolish it in 2021. He kept on his quest after it sold earlier this year.

His wish finally came true a few weeks ago. The motel's new owners let him park a truck nearby and haul the gaudy crown and King Arthur-styled lettering off their property at Colfax Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.

Barber, the founder of the Colfax Museum, known once as the "Velvet Elvis," was thrilled.

"Apparently, at one time, the motel sign used to revolve, which would have been super cool. And then you add the disco ball," he said, beaming. "At one time, that whole corner of Colfax would have had disco stars revolving around the whole motel."

The shuttered Royal Palace Motel at 1565 Colorado Boulevard. May 15, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Denver Community Planning and Development spokesperson Amanda Weston told us the city's Landmark Preservation board approved a plan to demolish the structure on May 9. She added that the Laramar development group, the motel's new owner, still needs to complete some paperwork to move forward.

Nobody from Laramar agreed to speak with us about their timeline or vision for the site. Formal plans filed with the city describe a six-story, mixed-use building with 153 residential units.

The signs are now in Barber's collection of misfit neon.

The Royal Palace's artifacts joined others from the Denver Diner, Aristocrat Motor Motel and Famous Chef restaurant — all Colfax landmarks that no longer exist — in a safe place that he's keeping secret.

Someday, Barber hopes these relics of Colfax's past will be available for all to see. Preserving and presenting that history has been his calling for decades after he fell in love with the wicked drag as a kid.

"The first time I set foot on Colfax was in the '80s. I was just visiting here. I grew up in Salt Lake. I'm a young Mormon kid, and I'm driving down Colfax with my mom, and I'm just like, 'What is going on?' It was a war zone down there. It was literally in front of the Bluebird Theater. It wasn't like, gee, I wonder if there's hookers. It was like, take your pick," Barber remembered fondly. "I just love Colfax and I want to see it saved."

Jonny Barber gazes upon the Royal Palace Motel's disco ball, which once revolved over Colfax Avenue. May 22, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Barber set up in 2004, a celebration of his favorite street that became the seed of a project he called the Colfax Museum.

It was more of a ragtag collection than an actual museum for a long while. In 2017, Barber was finally able to set up his historical ephemera in a physical space in the Ed Moore flower shop at Colfax and Kearney Street.

It showed off photos and stories of the odd creatures and happenings along the corridor, like a portrait of the thieving Hub Cap Annie and a decorative plate adorned with Schuyler Colfax's face.

He later moved the display west into Lakewood before a 2019 flood ruined his setup and a lot of his archive. Barber said that loss, plus the pandemic, helped him find his place in this preservation work. Running a nonprofit, with boards, governance and money, wasn't it.

"I'm more the Indiana Jones figure in this. I had to know myself," he told us. "I like finding stuff, recovering, the adventure of it. And then, 'It belongs in a museum.'"

But Barber needs a Marcus Brody to his Indy, he said, who can catalogue everything and move them to safe preservation.

The old Denver Diner sign is now in Jonny Barber's collection of Colfax Avenue neon. May 22, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Barber's now searching for that special someone who will help him find forever homes for all the stuff he's saved.

He said he gets DMs and texts all the time from people who've spotted signs and arrows in parking lots and hope he might rescue them from a dumpster. He's still dedicated to the saving part of all this.

Barber said he's been on the lookout for someone who might help display the collection in perpetuity.

"I want to do something more where the signs are put in some kind of public trust, or there's some kind of entity that's established that will be the benefactor and look out for them and have some kind of ownership, but more as a steward," he told us. "Let's find the ultimate home that's really going to work."

It could be something like Las Vegas' Neon Museum, he said, though he knows Vegas has way more signage to salvage.

He said he'd ultimately prefer that the signs stay where they are, though he knows that's not a possibility.

"Unfortunately, that's not the world we live in, and development is driving so much of all these changes," he said.

Colfax Avenue signs that Jonny Barber has saved for posterity. May 22, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Development aside, most of these signs are in rough shape, even if they look OK from the street.

"A lot of the signs look like they're in really good shape, when they're up on a pole from a distance. Then you get close and you tear that thing apart," he said. "Literally, some of the signs I've recovered have had four feet of petrified pigeon crap in them and body parts. I even found, one sign we recovered, there was a guy living in the sign. He had turned the sign into his own little small apartment."

Barber said he knows it'll cost a lot to rehab the collection, and more to fix them in some public place. But he's holding out hope that someone comes around to help. For him, there's no worthier cause.

"If we're talking about that era of Colfax, it's over. It's dead, it's done. It's never to return," he told us. "I'm trying to save what's left of it."

For now, you can see part of the Royal Palace sign at the CounterPath community space in Denver's East Colfax neighborhood, whenever they're open or just through the fence.

The old Royal Palace Motel sign is now in storage at the CounterPath community center in East Colfax. May 22, 2024.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

Correction: This article initially stated that the Driftwood Motel, whose old sign is in Barber's collection, no longer exists. It still does.

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