Revamped from fifty shipping containers and an old city vehicle–maintenance warehouse and repainted black, Waco’s Hotel Herringbone still appears utilitarian from the street. Striking portraiture murals by Hawaii-based muralist Kamea Hadar and a red neon “Lobby” sign flashing to the street are the only hints of what lies beyond the corrugated walls. But past the iron gates is a steel menagerie of animal prints, comestibles, greenery, and time periods.

Guests might start feeling the spirit of Greta Garbo or Jay Gatsby somewhere between checking in at the Persian carpet–covered reception desk and entering an art deco hotel room with an ostrich-feather floor lamp, a rotary phone, and a rolling not-so-mini bar cart. To provide visual relief from bold color blocking in the bedrooms, the bathrooms’ monochromatic mosaic tiling hearkens to mid-century modern style from the fifties. And across the plaza landscaped to look like a Texas jungle, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, Red Herring, sports the lush and eccentric opulence of a bygone Desert Inn. A sip of an espresso martini, dubbed the Cursedly Fashionable, at the bar might result in more hazy, punch-drunk musings: Am I . . . on the Vegas strip in the seventies

But this is Waco, not Las Vegas. The machine-of-America town with a complicated history has become its own capital of second chances. Last September, Waco’s city council affirmed a fresh start for Texas’s twenty-fourth-largest town with a rebrand from its “Buckle of the Bible Belt” nickname to a new tagline: “Waco: A city to believe in.”

Waco City Council believes in Hotel Herringbone. When assistant city manager Lisa Blackmon relocated from California, one of her first objectives was to restore the parcel of downtown space that had become an eyesore after a former multiuse development was foreclosed midconstruction. Given its location within walking distance of the Waco Suspension Bridge, the Dr Pepper Museum, Balcones Distilling, and Magnolia land, the real estate was too valuable to lay dormant. Having previously worked with RAD LAB, a San Diego–based shipping-container architecture firm, Blackmon knew who to call. 

Hotel Herringbone’s other partners include FreeForm Development, another Southern California shipping-container-building designer; global boutique hospitality firm Lucky Find Hospitality; and restaurateur Corey McEntyre, owner of downtown Southern restaurant Milo and a partner in Guess Family Barbecue. In addition to dinner-only Red Herring, McEntyre oversees Lucky Buck’s, the rooftop bar overlooking the iconic Silos; Song Bird, a wine and charcuterie bar near the plaza with nightly live music; and the coffee-and-doughnut bar, Nightlight Donuts & Coffee. 

If the project has another major player, it’s the City of Waco. In 2022, the city council approved $2.3 million in Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funding—a Texas property tax program that allows local governments to enlist private investors for help with city improvements—with the contingency that the hotel owners invest at least $12 million (they invested $16 million). And late last year, the city agreed to reimburse the developer for 75 percent of its portion of sales taxes over the next six years.

“The city really needed this to be something, instead of a bunch of primary-colored shipping containers,” says Hotel Herringbone’s director of sales and marketing, Rachel Ruth Tate. Among Waco’s new residents who’ve relocated for some of the most affordable homes in America, Tate moved to the area after meeting Chip Tate, Texas’s most famous craft whiskey maker, formerly an assistant dean at Baylor University. She soon shared the town’s curiosity with the “Lego block containers,” as they were commonly called. 

The Lego blocks would become one of the haphazard inspirations—including a recent train ride on the Orient Express and two trips to Round Top—for principal interior designer Taylor Leage, who channeled the “primary colors with a twist” into the hotel rooms. Leage, who has termed her style “escapism,” doesn’t enjoy rigid, period-specific design or, really, any type of mundanity.

The 21 uniquely decorated rooms range from a 230-square-foot room on the first floor—near shops including Sendero Provisions Co. and Repose, a collaboration between Fabled Bookshop & Cafe and pottery store Gather—to a 1,300-square-foot presidential suite, furnished with three king beds and firepits on the terrace. Rooms are so retro that it almost feels like ashtrays and long, slender cigarette holders are in order, but Hotel Herringbone is health- and environment-conscious: if you sleep through hatha yoga, offered in the event center on weekday mornings, there’s a yoga mat in each room. There are also e-bikes and Moke electric cruisers available for rent, and all rooms are furnished with energy-efficient appliances and complimentary, refillable water bottles for filling up at a central water station.

Another reason Leage was excited to take on the job was to present a different aesthetic from that of Waco’s first family and chief fixer uppers, Joanna and Chip Gaines. “I didn’t need to tone it down . . . or try to make it as sophisticated and perfect as them because they’ve already got that covered,” she says. 

Leage, who still plays with Legos herself, likens the Hotel Herringbone project to the kid sister who shook up the sandbox: “We got to be the fun, exciting, weird stepchild of Waco.”