Several weeks ago on the way back from a weekend trip to Oklahoma, Josh and I decided to veer off of the beaten track (Highway 35) to explore a new route back to Austin. We took the turnpike past Oklahoma City over to Lawton, and headed south on Texas highway 281.
The highway itself is probably one of the most beautiful country roads in the US – winding through green north Texas fields, through valleys and ranches, and further south, through rolling hill country. I don’t know if it was the cooling September temperatures going to my head, but the drive made me want to buy land and move out to the country, honestly.
It was in this state of mind that we rolled into Mineral Wells, a small town about 50 miles west of Fort Worth. It was quaint, cute and clean, with a quiet, sleepy main street that looked as if it belonged in a photograph of old Route 66. We stopped for a bite to eat at great local taco place that had set up shop in one of the buildings downtown.
One of the first things we noticed, though, as we walked down main street, was that we were in the shadow of a massive building rising on a hill south of town. It stopped us in our tracks. “What is THAT?”
We resolved to drive over there after tacos to check it out. Whatever it was, it made an impression. From far away, it reminded me of the old yellowish brick buildings in downtown Fort Worth or in the stockyards, complete with red tiled roof and Spanish Renaissance architecture. The way it towered over the town reminded me of the way the grain elevators seem to rise out of nowhere to tower over the landscape north Fort Worth. But it was no grain elevator… it was something else… tall, elegant, and proud.
After dinner, we drove over to the building and circled it as closely as we could. Windows on the ground floors were boarded up, and looking upward, you could see floor after floor of windows, many of them smashed out. It was quiet in it’s abandonment, but it was not dead. It had a presence… the place was alive. There is really no other way of explaining it – this building simply had a soul.
“What IS it?” Josh pulled up Wikipedia on his phone from the car to look it up.
Apparently, this elegant ghost was the Baker Hotel, which opened in 1929 at 14 stories high, as the first “skyscraper” outside of a major metropolitan area. The story of its heyday is as grand as that of the story of Mineral Wells itself.
Mineral Wells became something of a spa town in the early 1900’s, known for the purportedly healing power of its drinking water. People came from far and wide, and the tourism business boomed, even during the Great Depression. Celebrities and stars like Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, and Ronald Reagan stayed at the Baker. Lawrence Welk’s band played as guests danced on the roof. It was one of the first hotels to ever have air conditioning, and ice in each room. It had a swimming pool, a spa, several ballrooms, a beautiful water-drinking pavilion, laundry services, childcare, fourteen story elevators, and a glass room just for playing cards above the lobby.
The hotel itself had been built by Texas hotel tycoon T.B. Baker, at the suggestion of a group of townspeople who brought Mr. Baker in to build a grand, community sponsored spa hotel, partially in order to rival the Crazy Water hotel, owned by Dallas resident Carr P. Collins. The good folks of Mineral Wells considered Collins to be an “outsider” and wanted to invest in their own project. So, just as Collins was rebuiding his Crazy Water hotel (which had burned down in 1925), Baker and company broke ground on their own hotel – the magnificent Baker Hotel just south of town.
Theodore Brasher Baker (known as “T.B.”) was a savvy businessman and hotelier. He started as a night manager in his father’s hotel in Kansas, but by the time he was about 40 years old, he had built a hotel empire that spread throughout Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Alabama and Arkansas. In fact, many of the beautiful historic hotels you might encounter today in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio are Baker’s handiwork.
What made Baker so unique was his attention to novelty, detail and luxury. The swimming pool at The Baker in Mineral Wells was filled with the famous well water, and he had it added as an afterthought after visiting California and seeing a hotel with a swimming pool (The Baker became only the second hotel in the US to have a swimming pool). He was attentive to the operations of the hotel, the heating and cooling systems, and often redesigned them to create more space and efficiency. He paid attention to amenities and details, like ice, and air-conditioning, dance floors, music, elevators, lavish decorations, and unique services. His hotel chain was the first in the world to offer supervised childcare services for guests. The Baker hotel in Mineral Wells specifically gave him the chance to design the hotel as a spa destination, something he had not yet done. He also negotiated to get his own Greyhound shuttle service to shuttle guests between The Baker in Mineral Wells and his swanky city hotels in Dallas and Fort Worth.
The Baker opened only a few weeks after the Stock Market crash of 1929, and it thrived during the Great Depression as the leading hotel in town, outdoing Collins at the Crazy Water Hotel, who changed business tactics during the Great Depression to focus on hawking the medicinal properties of his new product “Crazy Crystals” on a daily hillbilly-themed radio program.
When T.B. began having financial trouble in the early 30’s, management of the Baker passed to his nephew Earl Baker. But even the war years were good to the Baker, which served as a home away from home for families and officers connected to the nearby Fort Wolters. It held patriotic music revues, dances and parties for army officers. During the 50’s, it was the site of parties, events, and political conventions (both the Democratic and Republican state conventions were held there during the mid-50’s). However, as the spa phenomenon waned, the Baker began its decline throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and was finally closed for the last time in 1972, when Earl Baker was found dead of a heart attack in the penthouse suite of the aging hotel.
Since then, the residents of Mineral Wells have fought hard to keep the Baker from being torn down. If you Google the hotel, you’ll find articles, poems, and love letters from hundreds of people, as if the building were family. You realize that it’s part of the town’s soul, irrevocably a part of it’s past, present, and future. There are many who are currently pursuing the dream of seeing it restored. I must admit, even as a passer-by, I find myself strangely and emotionally affected by the prospect of its demise.
The Baker is still called “The Grand Lady” by folks who know her well. Driving out of town, I was struck by the eerie feeling that this “lady” is still very much alive, and that she has many, many stories to tell. Perhaps her silence is only temporary… long past, but not forgotten. Not forgotten in the least.