Up With the Old Hotel

How a fabulously wealthy native son of Big Spring came home to save the Settles.
Photograph by Leann Mueller

A few days after Christmas, G. Brint Ryan stood in the lobby of the Hotel Settles, in downtown Big Spring, and watched intently as a flurry of workers hustled around him. He wore a pair of shiny black boots and a mohair jacket, and his youthful face was punctuated by a piercing gaze that seemed to suggest that time was wasting. The workers in the room kept their heads down and avoided eye contact.

Although Ryan, who is 49, had grown up in Big Spring, few locals knew who he was until several years ago. Like so many others raised in the gritty West Texas oil patch, he’d taken what ambition he possessed as a young man and hightailed it out, ending up in Dallas, where he had built one of the most powerful corporate tax consulting firms in the world—called, simply, Ryan. Lo cated on four continents, the company wrangled and litigated more than $1 billion dollars each year in overpaid taxes from local governments for a slate of global Fortune 500 clients, including Walmart, Tyson Foods, and ExxonMobil. 

Along the way, Ryan had acquired a high profile, at least in Dallas. Known primarily as an extremely aggressive CEO, he’d also waded into politics, waging a brutal—and ultimately futile—million-dollar campaign for city council in 2009. He spent millions in personal campaign contributions to favored candidates; kept current and former lawmakers (including former comptroller John Sharp) on his payroll; threw fundraisers for his buddy Rick Perry at his $10 million Preston Hollow estate, where the back terrace featured life-size bronze statues of Ryan’s five daughters; and let’s not forget the speeding tickets he received for racing his Lamborghini Gallardo down the Dallas freeways. But Ryan’s greatest impact was through the work of his firm, whose reverse audits routinely yanked hundreds of millions of dollars from the state treasury. 

Back in Big Spring, it was a different story. Some locals remembered his family, who had arrived as pioneers in the nineteenth century. But Ryan himself was mostly a mystery, a native son who had been gone 24 years when he showed up in 2006, all but promising to raise the dead. He had just purchased the Hotel Settles, a decrepit landmark whose life and death had more or less coincided with the rise and fall of this once vital “Crossroads of the West.” The fifteen-story art deco hotel had been built in 1930 as a totem to Big Spring’s first oil bonanza. When it was finished, the Settles was hailed as the tallest building between Fort Worth and El Paso, and certainly the most luxurious. It became the cornerstone of local society and a major attraction along the cross-country Bankhead Highway (U.S. 80) and the Texas & Pacific Railroad, with a guest list including Herbert Hoover and Elvis Presley. 

This was, of course, a different time, a time before the center of gravity shifted from Texas’ small towns to its big cities, a time when grand hotels like the Settles, or the Baker, in Mineral Wells, were full of glamour, a time when it was possible to start a business and make a living on the bustling downtown streets of a place like Big Spring, before the interstates and the shopping malls and the fickleness of fleeting industry took it all away.

The Settles closed in 1980, joining the drugstores and dress shops that had begun to vanish after the local air base closed. It sat empty for almost thirty years, deteriorating almost to the point of total ruin. There were many attempts to restore the old dame, but all of them failed, and eventually the Settles became nothing more than an investment quagmire, a fifteen-story corpse telegraphing decay. Town leaders hoped it would simply fall down. There was talk of persuading a Hollywood production company to come blow it up for a movie. 

So when Ryan showed up vowing to bring it back to life, more than a few locals wrote him off as just rich and insane. And they remained skeptical, right up until the moment, last December, when the hotel was miraculously reopened, impeccably restored. For weeks afterward, passersby gazed up at the glowing sign and the beautiful facade. “How could this have happened?” they wondered. “And what else might happen now?” Could the Settles, having stood for so long as a symbol of Big Spring’s decline, now embody its unlikely resurgence? Ryan seemed to think so. “If we can do what we’ve done here,” he explained to a reporter on the afternoon of the grand opening, “tell me what project in Big Spring cannot be done.” Which seemed to suggest that one of the West’s great boomtowns had found its latest dreamer.

IN AUGUST 1881 AN UNUSUAL FIGURE STEPPED OFF THE  train outside Big Spring, dressed in gray corduroy, despite the summer heat, and wearing a cravat. Heneage Finch, the Seventh Earl of Aylesford, had fled England to escape a public scandal involving his adulterous wife and had headed west for an extensive lost weekend. Shortly after arriving, Finch was reciting his distinguished lineage to a bartender in nearby Colorado City when the barkeep cut him short, saying, “Look here, Earl, all that stuff won’t go down here. We’ll just call you Judge, and that way nobody will get hurt.” The Englishman received a $50,000-a-year allowance from his family, enough to build a “modest castle on the prairie,” in the words of one reporter. For the next four years, the Judge traveled extensively around the region, shooting wild turkey and antelope and buying copious rounds of drinks for any cowhand who would let him. Said to consume several quarts of whiskey and gin a day, by 1885 the Judge had managed to drown more than just his broken heart. One afternoon at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, where he’d since relocated, the Judge calmly stood up from a card game, said, “Goodbye, boys,” to the friends seated around the table, then crawled into bed and died.  

The Judge

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