Hotels

Victorian splendor in Jefferson, manly minimalism in Archer City: Check into ten charter members of Texas’ inn crowd.

March 1999By Comments

I AM ALONE IN THE OLD HOTEL, THE ONLY GUEST. The innkeepers are out for dinner. My room has no phone, no television, and no radio. I am vibrating from my long drive, and my eyes are too tired to read, so I take a hot bath in the claw-footed tub beneath the chipper gaze of a framed Shirley Temple paper doll. I put on my practical pajamas and lie down on the many-pillowed bed, struggling to keep my nose above the ruffles. I admire the twelve-inch baseboards and the twelve-foot-high walls for a spell. I study the doodads covering every horizontal surface—a hairbrush-and-mirror vanity set, a teddy bear, a tray bearing a couple of wineglasses and a dainty porcelain plate (even though eating and drinking are not allowed in the rooms). I don’t feel as if I belong here. Then an antique nightgown hanging on the wall catches my eye. It looks so inviting, so delicate and appropriate. I wonder if I should slip it on. Is it allowed? It is on a clothes hanger, after all; it’s not like it’s nailed to the wall. I gently take it down and wiggle into it. Carefully, I lie down again and await some sort of epiphany. I am no longer a tourist; I am a traveler.

And here’s my epiphany: A successful adventure at a historic hotel in small-town Texas requires total immersion. You need to drown in the experience. Ideally, you should arrive in town on horseback or by rail, decked out in period costume, holding a scented handkerchief to your nose. At the very least, you should pop in a Bob Wills CD on the way to Turkey, his hometown, and listen to a Larry McMurtry audiotape en route to Archer City (I recommend Horseman, Pass By). You should haunt the harbor in Palacios and try to score some shrimp. You should wear boots, maybe even chaps, at the Gage in Marathon. Above all, you should slow waaay down.

The things you shouldn’t do? You shouldn’t expect luxury, but be grateful when you find it: Thick towels, free shampoo, and direct-dial phones are scarce. You shouldn’t go for nightlife or haute cuisine, although there’s always a chance that you might stumble onto some local festival or a great restaurant along the way. You shouldn’t forget your reading glasses, since it’s a good bet you’ll be without television, or a pair of earplugs, the best defense against rattling pipes, thin walls, and passing locomotives. And at most of these places, you shouldn’t count on the “continental breakfast”—which must be French for “rubber muffin and weak coffee”—for your morning nutrition.

This is a story about “historic hotels,” so to be included a place had to be, first, a hotel, not a restored historic home recently converted to a bed-and-breakfast. And second, it had to be historic. Although Europeans, Central Americans, and even New Englanders might snort at my criterion, I figure that any hotel built before 1939 should qualify. Let’s face it: In light of Texas’ short hotel timeline, the inns surviving from the mid-1800’s are beyond historic; they’re positively antediluvian.

Only a couple of the following ten hotels have been in continuous operation all their lives. Most were snatched from the jaws of decay by civic groups or passionate individuals. Some soar off the funky chart, a few are temples to understated style, and a couple are over-the-top studies in ruffles and flounces. And while spending a night at these unique hotels wasn’t really like stepping back in time—what with electric coffeepots, flush toilets, hot water, air conditioning, and the ever-present option of automotive escape—it sure was fun trying to turn back the clock.

Hotel Turkey, Turkey

I’M NOT SURE IF ONE HUNDRED MILES northeast of Lubbock and one hundred miles southeast of Amarillo qualifies as the middle of nowhere, but it’s as close as you’ll come without intergalactic travel. Here in the tiny burg of Turkey, you’ll find confirmation of the theory that nature abhors a vacuum: the memorabilia-packed Hotel Turkey. Built in 1927 at a cost of $50,000, the Turkey—which has never closed its doors to guests since it opened—was bought in 1988 by Jane and Scott Johnson, who undertook its restoration. After seven years, the industry standard for hotelier burnout, the couple sold the hotel to a cousin, Gary Johnson, and his wife, Suzie. Just three years into the hospitality business themselves, the Johnsons are still eager to please guests, even rising at six-thirty in the morning to make sweet-potato pancakes for their lone guest, me.

Sensory deprivation isn’t an option at this hotel. Music fills the lobby. Books are everywhere. Treasures abound: a grandfather clock, Edwardian settees, crocheted gloves and doilies, wire-rim spectacles, old photographs, crucifixes. So much stuff, in fact, that when I checked into room 6, I wondered where I was supposed to put my things. Maybe I should have sprung for room 10, a spacious suite that could accommodate Bob Wills and all the Playboys, with a view of the hotel’s patio, empty fishpond (a lightning bolt wiped out its population several years ago), and two-story cross strung with colorful Christmas lights.

You can have your Turkey with all the trimmings if you join some 10,000 Bob Wills fans here during the annual festival held in his honor the last Saturday in April (but you can’t stay at the Turkey: It’s reserved for Wills’s family and the Playboys). If you’re seeking solitude, bike along the Caprock Canyons Trailway, a 64-mile-long abandoned railway running from South Plains to Estelline, or hike in nearby Caprock Canyons State Park, where it was so quiet one cloudy morning that my sneeze sounded like a rifle shot.

Third and Alexander (806-423-1151, 800-657-7110; www.llano.net/ turkey/hotel). Rates for the fifteen rooms (seven of them with private bath) run $50 to $100 and include a full breakfast (remember those sweet-potato pancakes?). No phones or TVs in the rooms, but you can borrow an alarm clock. AE, MC, V.

Excelsior House, Jefferson

MY BEST EFFORTS TO ADHERE TO MY IMMERSION rule were thwarted on the way to the Excelsior House last November. My mom was along for the trip, and as we barreled down the East Texas highways surrounded by logging trucks and scarlet maples, she kept the radio tuned to either—gasp—Rush Limbaugh or the House impeachment hearings. What a way to set the stage for a stay at the state’s second-oldest hotel (after the Menger in San Antonio). In continuous operation since the 1850’s, it was built to accommodate fashionable travelers (Jefferson was once the largest inland steamboat port in the Southwest). But then I made a connection. Here we had a modern-day philandering president, and we were headed for a town named after a historic philandering president. Then, on arrival, we checked into the presidential suites. Coincidence? You be the judge.

I tossed my bags on the red velvet chaise longue in the Ulysses S. Grant Room, richly decorated in jewel tones, and tried not to drool on the Eastlake rocker while my mom claimed the adjacent Rutherford B. Hayes Room, more for its walk-in shower than for its huge canopied rosewood bed. All the rooms in the hotel have been restored to their former grandeur: oriental carpets, brocade fabrics, pristine period antiques. Elegant, luxurious, even slightly pompous—but never cloying or frilly—the hotel’s atmosphere befitted the powerful and important men who once strolled its corridors and filled its ledger with their ostentatious signatures: John Jacob Astor, W. H. Vanderbilt, Jay Gould (whose private railroad car, now a museum, is parked across the cobbled street from the hotel), and even the flamboyant Oscar Wilde.

And was it rich and powerful men who saved the Excelsior Hotel when it fell on hard times in the sixties? Hell, no. It was women—specifically, the members of Jefferson’s formidable Jessie Allen Wise Garden Club. Founded in 1939, the club bought the derelict Excelsior and its contents in 1961 for $30,000. As past treasurer Elizabeth Dannelly wrote in a brief history of the garden club, “It is difficult now to imagine the condition of the Hotel then. The lobby was painted black and was as dark as a dungeon . . . there was no central heat or air. . . . Any day there were Garden Club ladies in their work clothes, refinishing furniture, scraping off old paint.” The “before” photos in the lobby support Dannelly’s contention that the hotel was not, as some suggested, a “hobby” for the club: “It was more akin to the plight of the Patriots in 1776 when they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to their cause!” That should persuade you to keep your muddy shoes off the bedspread.

Like any good little restored town, Jefferson is packed with antiques shops. When you tire of pawing through the knickknacks, take a tour up Big Cypress Bayou with Captain Nance aboard the Bayou Queen or ply the swampy mysteries of Caddo Lake aboard the Graceful Ghost, a re-creation of an 1890’s steamboat.

211 W. Austin (903-665-2513; www.jeffersontx. com/excelsior). The fifteen rooms, all with private bath, run from $65 to $100. The generous plantation breakfast—ham, grits, eggs, biscuits, and the hotel’s famous orange-blossom muffins—is $6.50. AE, DS, MC, V.

Tarpon Inn, Port Aransas

TO DESCRIBE A PLACE AS “scaly” would usually be an insult, but not at the Tarpon, where more than seven thousand scales of the inn’s namesake fish cover the walls of the lobby. The translucent disks, dating back decades to a time when the Gulf was lousy with the great fish, bear the autographs and hometowns of the happy fishermen who landed the beasts, along with the size, weight, and date of their less happy catch. The tarpon are all but gone, but the Tarpon has withstood the abuse of coastal living since 1919. (The inn, in other incarnations destroyed by fire and storm, has existed on this site since 1886.)

Big, breezy porches run the length of the blue-and-white clapboard building both upstairs and down, furnished with the requisite rocking chairs. And while the view through the palm trees to the harbor is now sadly blocked by a restaurant and a parking lot, the Tarpon’s atmosphere sure beats a characterless condo, even one on the beach. Yes, the rooms are tiny, but so stylish that you enjoy the close proximity to such cool stuff. (When I told the clerk that our bright white chapellike room, number 26—with its iron bed, matelassé coverlet, lace curtains, and weathered dresser—reminded me of that bastion of shabby chic, the Homestead in Fredericksburg, she said, “The owners do shop there a lot.”)

If you need to be told what there is to do in a coastal getaway like Port Aransas, you’ve got no right to leave home. I like to pass my time riding the free ferry back and forth, watching the dolphins arching in its wake.

200 E. Cotter (512-749-5555, 800-365-6794; www.texhillcntry.com/tarponinn). The 23 rooms, all with private bath, range from $50 for a cozy but stylish room to $125 for a spacious upstairs corner suite. No phones, no TVs, no breakfast—who cares? AE, MC, V.

Dabbs Railroad Hotel, Llano

YOU MAY SWEAR YOU’RE TALLER AFTER staying at the Dabbs, on the Llano River; proprietor Gary Smith has a penchant for pulling legs. A natural (and professional) storyteller, Smith will spout straight-faced lies about reported sightings of the Llano Booger Toad or how Jacques Cousteau once sailed the Calypso up the river. These whoppers are easier to swallow when they’re washed down with a cup of Smith’s cowboy coffee (“guaranteed to get you ready for drivin’ them dogies to Cowtown”) and held in place by a couple of his homemade buttermilk biscuits.

Smith was raised in nearby Mason and traveled extensively (“Yes, I’ve been as far north as Brady, honey”) before returning to the Hill Country to rescue the Dabbs, Texas’ last remaining railroad hotel built in the era of steam trains. When he discovered the rat-and-cat-infested clapboard building in 1987, it was used to store hay and had become an embarrassment to the city. He didn’t even get all the hay out before guests began arriving.

Determined not to overgentrify the old rough-and-tumble hotel—once a hangout for Bonnie and Clyde and the site of a Nazi spy hanging—Smith stuck with “the original floor plan, menu, and service of the Dabbs . . . when it opened its doors in 1907.” This means that the rooms are small, the furnishings spartan, and the bathroom is down the hall, but that is made up for by a list of amenities seldom flaunted by B&Bs: moonlight swims in a Llano River lagoon, campfires and s’mores, walks down the railroad tracks to the spooky train bridge, romantic “roll to the middle” beds, and—how’s this for relaxed?—no check-in or checkout time. “The lack of structure cures everyone who comes here,” says Smith.

112 E. Burnet (915-247-7905; www.io.com/~dkb/ dabbs/dabbs1.htm). Rent the entire ten-room hotel (sleeps up to 25) for $750 Fridays or Saturdays, $650 weekdays. Rooms, none with private bath, phone, or television, are $75 Fridays and Saturdays, $65 weekdays. A real breakfast—buttermilk biscuits, cream gravy, hash browns, and sliced tomatoes, plus cowboy coffee brewed in a big porcelain pot and served in a jelly jar—comes with the room. Personal checks accepted; no credit cards.

Gage Hotel, Marathon

I LIKE THE INSIDE OF THE GAGE, BUT I love the outside of this 1927 hotel. During my stay, I could hardly wait to get home, not because I didn’t enjoy the Pancho Villa—meets—Pottery Barn ambience the hotel’s owners, J. P. and Mary Jon Bryan, have perfected with a mix of saddlery, leather chairs, iron beds, and woolen blankets. No, I couldn’t wait to get home because I was so eager to start landscaping my courtyard to mimic the Gage’s. Let’s see—if I just cut down my lumpy cedar tree and plant a twisted Mexican elder, spend a fortune on punched-tin lanterns, antique mesquite doors, and iron garden gates, and hire a couple of full-time gardeners, I think I can recreate the magic.

I first stayed at the Gage about ten years ago, before the addition of the twenty-room Los Portales wing and its inspiring courtyard. (The extent of the landscaping then was a couple of potted cacti alongside the rockers on the front porch.) After three days of camping in the sun and the wind in Big Bend National Park, my husband, Richard, and I stumbled into the last available room that evening, so grateful for its cool, dark calm we could have wept. On our most recent visit, we were again near tears when, after driving through a hair-raising lightning storm to get there, we discovered that the bar was open and had Red Hook ESB on tap. We lit a fire in the little kiva in our room in the new wing, wrapped ourselves in thick terry cloth robes, and listened to the trains roll by.

The Gage is a gentrified home base for tenderfoot exploration of Big Bend National Park, rock hunting for agates on the Woodward Ranch, or simply staring into space. Sound too stressful? A spa is in the planning stages, scheduled to open in the stone building across the tracks in the year 2000. In the meantime, relax in the only heated pool for miles around.

102 U.S. 90 West (800-884-4243; www.gagehotel.com). The seventeen rooms in the historic hotel, nine of them with private bath, are $65 to $85; the twenty rooms in Los Portales, all with private bath, are $125, or $140 with fireplace. No televisions in any rooms (an emergency TV is in the den off the lobby), and no telephones in rooms in the old hotel; we did find a phone hiding in a wooden box in our Los Portales room. Breakfast at the hotel’s Cafe Cenizo is extra. DS, MC, V.

La Borde House, Rio Grande City

I LOOKED FOR WINGS ON THE SIDE OF this 1898 hotel: It must have been flying from Paris to New Orleans when it was blown off course and accidentally landed in this dusty border town. That’s easier to believe than the fact that Rio Grande City was once a bustling steamboat port. But it was during this time, around 1893, that François La Borde commissioned Parisian architects to design a residence to remind him of his hometown of New Orleans. That explains the fancy metalwork, the interior courtyard, and the verandas. The breezeways, fountains, and brick and tile details are courtesy of the San Antonio architects and border artisans who worked on-site during the building’s construction.

La Borde House has flown high and low throughout her hundred years. The oil boom of 1939 saw her resplendently restored at a cost of five times her original price tag. The subsequent bust found her housing ladies of the evening, one of whom wrote her clients’ IOUs on the wall. In the early eighties the hotel was bought and restored to its current grandeur by a San Antonio resident. For the past ten years she has been managed by the Starr County Historical Foundation.

When I made our reservation at La Borde, the clerk asked what time we planned to arrive; around five o’clock, I guessed. Uncharacteristically prompt, Richard and I drove up only fifteen minutes late, and within moments, I realized why the clerk had been so time conscious. She had been waiting for us, the only guests, and she departed the hotel for the night immediately after handing us our key. We climbed the staircase to the Maria Tejas Room, where the sunlight filtered through the shuttered floor-to-ceiling windows and dust motes floated in the sunbeams. A massive four-poster bed with a painstakingly pleated satin canopy dominated the rosy room. We’re talking serious atmosphere here, folks. I didn’t ever want to leave.

Which was a good thing, since there’s not much to see in Rio Grande City other than a large, well-lighted H.E.B. and an unintentionally whimsical 1928 replica of the Grotto of Lourdes. The Mexican town of Ciudad Camargo, three miles away, is unspoiled by tourism—for good reason. So Richard and I set up a little table in front of the television in our room and enjoyed a dinner of take-out tacos and cerveza while we watched an X-Filesrerun.

601 E. Main (U.S. 83); 956-487-5101. The seven historic rooms, all with private bath, are $75; the six efficiency apartments across the back patio are $50. Ignore the continental breakfast included in the room price (do they serve cornflakes on the Continent?); great migas await you just across the street. AE, DS, MC, V.

Spur Hotel—Archer City

THERE IS A REFRESHING ABSENCE of chintz at the Spur, attributable perhaps to the hunters who pack the place on weekends during dove and deer season. Instead, a mounted turkey and bobcat stare down at you from their perches in the lobby, and the heads of three bucks gaze out from the dining-room wall. Though this manly atmosphere seems appropriate up here in the windswept wilds of Archer City, I was relieved to find my room free of dead animals. The minimalist decor is a blessing in the small space (I mean, you could put out an eye on an eight-point rack). But bright Mexican blankets—one at the foot of the bed and one draped above the window—save the squeaky-clean rooms from austerity. (Avoid the center rooms on the second floor if you can help it: Their windows look out on a solid brick wall.)

Richard and his friend Hal flew to Archer City in Hal’s plane to meet me. Hal couldn’t stop fussing about the lack of action in Larry McMurtry’s hometown. I knew it would be sleepy, but even I was surprised to learn that the only place to eat dinner midweek is the Dairy Queen. The restaurants of Wichita Falls aren’t far away, however, and on the way back to the Spur, we stopped by a video store and bought its last copy of The Last Picture Show to watch in the hotel’s cozy den . . . I mean, the Longhorn Room. The desk clerk had left for the night, and as we three were the only guests, we sprawled across the rug and watched Sonny’s drama unfold on the big-screen TV. “There’s more going on in this movie than ever went on in this town,” Hal grumbled.

It occured to me that Hal and Richard’s quick flight to Archer City hadn’t allowed them the decompression time my long drive through the countryside had given me. But even for me, a DQ Hungr Buster and an operable VCR—alone or combined—didn’t justify a trip to Archer City. The hotel’s owners, W. C. “Abby” Abernathy and Vivian Green, the Archer City natives who bought and painstakingly restored the 71-year-old hotel in 1990, must realize this as well, because they occasionally organize special events at the Spur, such as Three Forks and a Tune, when a visiting chef is paired with a visiting musician for a night of singing and supper.

And of course there’s McMurtry’s Booked Up kingdom, where bibliophiles can feed their addiction. From among the 300,000 books scattered through four buildings downtown, I chose a small stack of mostly Texana titles, including one stunningly politically incorrect Texas Guidebook published in 1962. Among its other faux pas—such as suggesting that huevos rancheros is pronounced “wave-us-ranch-ear-us”—it leaves out Archer City entirely.

110 N. Center (U.S. 79); 940-574-2501; www.spurhotel.com. Each of the eleven rooms, with private bath, is $82.50, including a bare-bones breakfast. The Three Forks and a Tune package is $202 for two, including accommodations. MC, V.

Hotel Limpia—Fort Davis

THE HOTEL LIMPIA? HOW ABOUT THE Empire Limpia? In addition to the thirteen rooms in the original 1912 pink limestone hotel, there are eight rooms across the street in Limpia West, a former commercial building, circa 1926. Behind the hotel is the porch-rich twenties-era annex, known in the days before air conditioning as “the coolest building in town,” which now houses one- and two-bedroom suites, some with full kitchens. Five blocks from the hotel you’ll find the Mulhern House, a restored 1905 adobe home converted into three suites. And this spring, the suite-filled Dr. Jones House, built in 1903, will open down the road. Add to this two gift shops, a restaurant, and the only spirited watering hole in these parts, and you begin to wonder if some huge corporation is attempting a takeover in mile-high Fort Davis.

In fact, the force behind the transformation of the town from ranching center to tourist mecca is neither a huge company nor even an entrepreneurial outsider but Joe Duncan, a native of Fort Davis whose West Texas roots go back to the 1880’s. He and his wife, Lanna, moved back to Fort Davis from Dallas in 1991 to run the hotel and related businesses. Despite their longtime ties to the community, Lanna says their expansion is “not very appreciated” by some natives who are resistant to the changes. Obviously, these folks have not had the opportunity to rock away their resistance on the private screened porch of room 34 in the original hotel. With muted floral carpeting and lace curtains on the tall windows, the room manages to be feminine without being frilly. (Lanna is partial to suite 3 in the Mulhern House, with its private porch overlooking Sleeping Lion Mountain out back.)

It was hard to leave the comfort of the claw-footed tub in my bathroom, where I could stare at the original pressed-tin ceiling, way up there, for hours—good practice for gazing skyward at one of the star parties at the McDonald Observatory or contemplating the austere installations at the Chinati Foundation in nearby Marfa. Or, for that matter, for swimming in the huge spring-fed pool in Balmorhea.

On the square (and everywhere) in Fort Davis (800-662-5517, 915-426-3237; www.hotellimpia.com). Rooms, all with private bath, are $79 to $150. Coffee in the lobby, but no breakfast. AE, DS, MC, V.

Luther Hotel—Palacios

I ADMIT IT. I’M A SUCKER FOR RITZY-sounding words like “penthouse,” especially since, until this trip to Palacios, I’d never been in one. So when the reservations clerk at the Luther told me the penthouse was available, I bit, lured particularly by its private balcony overlooking Tres Palacios Bay, a rare arc of Texas coast free of refineries and condos. I was also intrigued by the penthouse’s most famous guest: LBJ. I suppose the hotel, owned by a member of the Luther family since 1939, decided to honor the president by decorating the room as it might have looked when he was president, during those dark days of interior design, the sixties. Fortunately, the balcony, from which I could watch the Norman Rockwell pageantry of the boardwalk unfold as the shrimp boats cruised the bay, more than made up for the huge suite’s Mod Squad accents: foiled and flocked wallpaper in orange, lime green, and puce, pseudo—French Provincial and rattan furnishings, and bright red plush carpet in the bathroom, home to the hotel’s only bathtub, which appeared to have been tiled by someone using his feet.

Despite—or perhaps because of—my room’s kitsch, I was prepared to adore the Luther. Built in 1906 of cypress and long-leaf pine, it has persevered through hurricanes, a fire, and decades of salt spray, a state of affairs that, to my mind, elevates it from an inanimate object to a living creature. Then Billy Hamlin, the gregarious manager, gave me a tour of some of his favorite rooms, like the freshly redecorated blue-and-yellow Dolly Suite, the slightly baroque La Belle Suite, and the simply furnished Magnolia Room, where you can see the bay through the leaves of its namesake tree. No, they weren’t the penthouse, but they were spacious, filled with sunlight, and had clearly been visited by a tasteful decorator at least once since LBJ’s administration. The great thing about the Luther is you can take your funk or leave it.

Many of the rooms come with a full kitchen, in case you’re tempted to stay awhile, gorging on Gulf shrimp and jogging the calories off along the seawall. Be sure to take your binoculars: More than three hundred bird species pass through the area or call the nearby nature preserves home.

408 S. Bay Boulevard (512-972-2312). The 31 rooms in the main hotel, all with private bath, range from $55 for one facing the rear lawn to $150 for the penthouse suite, continental breakfast included. A room facing the bay is $60 and the spacious suites are $75 to $90. No phones in the rooms; televisions in the penthouse, suites, and lobby only. Rooms with full kitchens in the motel court, a one-story building alongside the hotel, rent for $150 to $200 a week. MC, V.

Ye Kendall Inn—Boerne

I’M NORMALLY PREJUDICED AGAINST any business that prefaces its name with “Ye,” but I can forgive the Kendall if for no other reason than its twenty-inch-thick limestone walls. And if only these walls could talk. What began as the Southern Colonial home of Erastus and Sarah Reed in 1859 quickly became a hotel for stagecoach travelers and horsemen. Over the hotel’s 140-year history, proprietors came and went, some more easily than others—one, Edmund King, accidentally shot himself behind the building in 1882—and guests ranged from pioneers headed west on the stagecoach to health-seeking city folk.

By the time Vicki Schleyer bought the Kendall in 1982, it had become a sort of hermit hangout and trash repository on the town square. She didn’t buy it with the intention of reviving the hotel: “I just fell in love with the building.” But people kept showing up with their suitcases. When Schleyer told one such couple that she might open a few guest rooms the next year, the elderly man said that they’d spent their honeymoon at the hotel fifty years earlier, wanted to spend their anniversary there, and weren’t sure they could make it another year. She had to send them on their way, but the reluctant innkeeper soon began restoring the hotel with help from her son, Shane. The impressive result is thirteen antiques-filled guest rooms, including several spacious suites; a window-wrapped dining room overlooking Cibolo Creek; and a lobby—cum—clothing boutique. The Schleyers’ restorative powers have also spilled out beyond the rear patio to include a shopping “village” created from rescued log cabins, an old church, several clapboard homes, and a schoolhouse moved to the site. They must have taken a liking to innkeeping: Two years ago they bought the next stagecoach stop down the road, in Comfort, and began renovating its cluster of old buildings, some dating back to 1857.

Shopping in the many antiques and gewgaw stores along Boerne’s main street seems to be the activity of choice, but if you suffer consumer’s cramp, you can limber up with a hike along the Cibolo Wilderness Trail in town or a swim at the nearby Guadalupe River State Park.

128 W. Blanco (830-249-2138, 800-364-2138; www.yekendallinn.com). Rooms with private bath are $85 to $135, quiche-and-fruit breakfast included. AE, DS, MC, V.

Inn Dire Straits

CALLING ALL DELLIONAIRES: I’M sure you high-tech tycoons are tired of investing in the future. Why not dump some of that disposable cash into the past? If you want a renovation challenge beyond compare, I’ve got two words for you: Baker Hotel. This 415-room, fourteen-story behemoth, one of the largest health spas in the country when it opened in 1929, dominates the horizon as you drive into Mineral Wells. There was a time when Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, and Clark Gable strolled its halls and its ballrooms were filled with the music of famous big bands, but now it stands vacant except for a few dusty storefronts on the ground floor.

Bob Jenkins, the president of the Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce, says the hotel’s current owner, who recently inherited the building, has assured the chamber that he’s either going to do something with the building or sell it to someone who will. “We’ve had two or three lookers this year,” says Jenkins. “Contractors say it’ll take around $20 million to restore it.”

Restore it to what? One by one, the mineral wells in Mineral Wells are being uncapped, and two bathhouses are scheduled to open this year. Despite renewed public enthusiasm for natural healing, however, I can’t picture nine hundred guests checking into a hotel in this tiny town every day. Neither can Jenkins. “It’ll never be a hotel again,” he says. “Maybe a couple of floors of hotel rooms, but most people are looking at it as a multipurpose site—condos, offices, a retirement complex.”

If $20 million is a little steep for you, other, slightly less demanding hotels also await well-heeled saviors. Among them is the towering Hotel Settles in Big Spring, built in 1930, which was recently fitted with new windows—around four hundred of them—thanks to the Friends of the Settles; the group’s founder, Tommy Churchwell, hopes the hotel’s face-lift will attract investors. In Blessing the 1906 Hotel Blessing, a ramshackle clapboard beauty currently functioning on minimal life support, courtesy of the Blessing Historical Foundation, desperately needs a major transfusion. And the list goes on; in small towns across Texas, you’ll find old hotels from grand to simple that have one thing in common: They all need rescuing.

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