IN WHARTON, THE OLD COLORADO RIVER—bottom town southwest of Houston, the most popular attraction isn’t the collection of big-game trophies at the county museum; nor is it the newly restored shotgun house where Dan Rather was born. It’s the weed-choked lot on old Highway 59 where ten dingy concrete cones are succumbing to neglect and time, and where a red-robed Indian on a rusty sign welcomes travelers to the Teepee Motel—the last of its kind still standing in Texas.
Whartonians would love to preserve their monument to bygone days, and so would the Texas Historical Commission. The teepees are early examples of programmatic architecture, the eccentric brethren of such roadside kitsch as hot dog stands that resemble bun-encased weenies. They’re also a reminder of “local entrepreneurs moving into commerce and working with the traveling public,” says Dwayne Jones, the assistant director of the historical commission’s National Register program. But there’s a problem: No one can locate the owner. Wharton realtor Ken Barnett sold the property in June 1995 to a man named Dan Ryan, who claimed to be a Houston investor, but the name on the tax rolls is a Delaware mortgage company that hasn’t responded to tax notices, and taxes on the property are delinquent.
In their heyday, there were at least a dozen teepee motels scattered across the country, including at least four in Texas; the ones in San Antonio, Corsicana, and Port Neches disappeared years ago. Wharton’s was built back in 1942 by George and Toppie Belcher, who owned the Plaza Theater downtown. Toppie, now 96 and living in Montana, remembers that she and her husband got the idea while on vacation in Wyoming. “We thought they’d attract business from the highway,” she says, “and they sure did.” For a few years, at $3.50 a night, Belcher’s Courts was the nicest Wharton had to offer. The furniture was handmade from Colorado spruce, and the doors had elk-horn pulls. Each room featured a painting of an Indian—the work of a young paralyzed woman who held her brush in her mouth. The Belchers sold the motel in 1955, and it quickly deteriorated. “Toward the end it got to be a rendezvous spot for affairs,” Wharton Journal-Spectator lifestyle editor Burlon Parsons says with a chuckle.
It has been almost a decade since the motel was open for business, and it looks it: A spider has begun to curtain off the front door of unit one with an elaborate web, and the linoleum floor is littered with trash. All the units are in bad shape, in fact, but not irretrievably so. Last December, director Adrian Lyne came to town and fixed them up for his remake of Lolita. And Marilyn Sebesta, a Wharton County extension agent, has big ideas about how the property could be used; she envisions festivals with a frontier theme. “We could have buffalo out there,” she says. “We could have music, art, recreation.”
But before anything can be done, Whartonians first have to find the elusive owner. Smoke signals, anyone?