In a Mineral Wells in full rebirth, there is something in the water

MINERAL WELLS – You remember “The Shining”, don’t you? Houston’s Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and their baby boy Danny – all three alone for the winter in a remote old hotel in the Rockies while “All Work and No Play” Nicholson drives himself crazy trying to write a novel? They are alone, that is, save for ghostly guests of decades past, sliding down a crowded ballroom dance floor in their tuxedo and jewelry sets.

I have to admit that the 1980 Stanley Kubrick classic came to mind during a recent visit to the Shattered Hulk that was once the splendid Baker Hotel. Climbing 10 flights of dark and narrow interior stairs behind my guide Cody Jordan, it was hard to imagine Judy Garland, Clark Gable and Will Rogers as hotel guests, but they were there. Marlene Dietrich and the Three Stooges too. (Imagine Curly, Larry and Moe tripping over themselves as the glamorous actress walks by.) Legend has it that Bonnie and Clyde stayed at the Baker and had the carpet removed in the hallway outside their bedroom, so that they can hear the hard-heeled click of the approaching law.

The Hollywood elite, Texas swells, and their counterparts from across the country flocked to the Baker like doves settling in at sunset. They were drawn to the glamor of the place, drawn to the magnificent spas and the hotel’s large 232,000 square foot swimming pool with the healing mineral waters that gave birth to this small town 80 km southwest. of Fort Worth.

Catching my breath as I followed Jordan out of the stairwell, I started to get a better idea of ​​what the Baker was like as we made our way to the high-ceilinged Cloud Room. The top-floor ballroom is as impressive as ever with its enveloping wall of windows and doors offering panoramic views of the city and its cozy hills shrouded in greenery. (By the way, you call them “mountains” in Mineral Wells; the bigger ones have names.)

Large Big Band orchestras performed in the Cloud Room and the Brazos Room on the first floor. Glen Miller entertained; Guy Lombardo too. “A famous seaside resort; a lot of rich women, ”recalls Lawrence Welk in his autobiography.

Someday, in the not-so-distant future, the Baker, a cracked and decaying shell, will be what he once was, only better. That’s the $ 68 million restoration vision for a public-private development consortium that plans to reopen in 2025.

Jordan, my tour guide, oversees downtown properties for one of the developers, Mineral Wells native Randy Nix. Not that long ago, Nix sold all of his Chicken Express franchises in Oklahoma and reinvested in his hometown. His company, NSC Properties, is in partnership with lead developer Laird Fairchild, co-founder of Hunter Chase Capital Founders, a real estate development company based in Southlake, a suburb of Metroplex.

For Mineral Wells, it’s always been about water. The settlers who arrived in the late 1870s knew their well water smelled and tasted strange and were suspicious at first, but when they dared to drink it they somehow felt better. Some swore that it healed everything that afflicted them. Perhaps it was lithium, traditionally used for mental and mood disorders.

Word spread, and soon thousands of people made a pilgrimage to the small town to bathe in the mineral-rich water and drink it by the gallon. Residents began to build wooden pavilions around their wells and charge for water. Others have rented rooms or built large guesthouses. The Texas and Pacific Railroad arrived in 1891, and hotels, bathhouses, shops, and restaurants began to flourish.

In the 1920s, San Antonio-based hotel mogul TB Baker noticed the vibrant little spa in the Palo Pinto Mountains. Baker already owned and operated 11 of the state’s most distinguished hotels, including the Gunter, St. Anthony, and Menger in San Antonio; the baker in Dallas; Texas to Fort Worth; the Galvez in Galveston; the Stephen F. Austin in Austin; and the Edsons at Beaumont.

In the fall of 1929, two weeks after the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression, Baker opened the largest of all. The 14-story Spanish Colonial Revival-style structure housed 450 rooms and was one of the first hotels in the world to be fully air-conditioned. Visitors could enjoy mineral baths and massages at luxury men’s and women’s spas. They could splash around in an Olympic-size swimming pool, go boating on a Baker-built lake, work out in a fully equipped gym, or play golf on a course at the foot of a nearby hill (mountain). In the evenings, guests could choose from a gourmet menu at the hotel restaurant, then dance the night away on one of three dance floors, including the opulent Cloud Room.

A quarter-page ad published in state newspapers in 1932 boasted that “the famous mineral waters of Mineral Wells are a major reason so many people come here; why doctors send so many, who are not sick, but who benefit immeasurably from the water, especially people with a sticky (sic) or rheumatic tendency. . . . “

Baker’s heyday didn’t last long. In the 1940s, people who felt “majestic or rheumatic” were more likely to see a doctor than “take the waters” in a hotel spa. The famous fickle of Tinseltown has drifted to other playgrounds. As tourism faded, the once glamorous baker followed suit. Its owner closed the hotel in 1963. Reopened like a shadow of himself in 1965, it closed in 1972.

The demise of the Great Old Lady also coincided with the decline of Mineral Wells as a military town. Nearby, Fort Wolters, built during World War II and used by the Air Force as the main helicopter training center during the Vietnam War, had helped keep the city going. When the Pentagon shut down the facility in 1973, its host, like so many small and medium-sized towns in Texas, lost its purpose. A population of 28,000 in 1970 fell overnight to 11,000. (It is now about 17,000.)

For decades, the Baker’s shadow has hung over the once bustling downtown streets, now dotted with abandoned brick and stone buildings. Several plans to restore the Baker and another nearby historic hotel, the Crazy Water, never materialized

This time it’s different, Mineral Wells native David Hawes assured me. Hawes is an expert in urban finance who divides his time between his childhood home and an apartment in Houston. His Houston-based company Hawes Hill & Associates helps cities and towns in Texas create Tax Increase Reinvestment Zones (TIRS). The university’s former drum major – also director of economic development for his hometown – today strives to maintain a complex training of developers, architects, town planners, curators and civil servants marching through the same direction.

It’s different this time around, he says, as local officials and developers recognize that the hotel’s revival and the city’s takeover are symbiotic. “There has to be a balance between a stable economic base, tourism and manufacturing,” he told me. “It’s like a three-legged stool that has to stay balanced.”

The Baker will attract visitors, especially the Metroplex 45 minutes away. They will come to enjoy the magnificent new fitness center run by Four Seasons; they will choose the luxury hotel as their wedding venue and as a friendly space for corporate meetings. But there must be more to do for visitors beyond the hotel.

To that end, Hawes is thrilled to see the restoration of historic Crazy Water, a $ 21 million effort funded largely by local investors, including Nix. Built in 1916 as a seven-story hotel, Crazy Water is reopening as a combined two-story guesthouse and apartments on the remaining floors. All of its retail stores on the ground floor are operational.

“Downtown development is 10 times bigger than the baker,” Hawes said as we lunched at a trendy restaurant anchoring a unique downtown space called The Market at 76067, developed in 2019 by the wife of Randy Nix, Misty, and a partner, Shawn Brown. About 100 local vendors are doing business inside a restored historic building on Route 281 Main Street in Mineral Wells. The stores offer gourmet products, antiques and home decor, women’s clothing, and other items appealing to an upscale market.

The Market also serves as an incubator. Once a business begins to thrive, its owner is encouraged to move to one of the city center’s roughly 100 unused or underused buildings, 40 of which are historic. The experiment seems to work.

“I’m just glad to be back home,” Hawes says as we drive into town. He is also proud to tell you that he drinks water every day. And, yes, he does feel good.

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