ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: ALBATROSSES

By James M. Decker

There’s always that one building. So many towns have them. It stands out like a sore thumb. It might be the tallest building in the community. Maybe it’s the square footage. Maybe it’s the location. It’s vacant. It has been vacant for decades. When someone comes to town, they immediately notice THAT building. Even as other buildings around town are restored, that one building still stands out. It feels like an albatross on the community’s revitalization. If a building could talk, it seems like the building is saying “good work on those other buildings, but you still haven’t restored ME.”

YET.

In 1930, Will and Lillian Settles built Hotel Settles. A 15 story, 150-room masterpiece in downtown Big Spring, full of gorgeous Art Deco architectural stylings, the Settles became the tallest building between Fort Worth and El Paso. The Great Depression cost the Settles family their hotel and it traded between owners before closing in 1982. It sat derelict and decrepit. Visible from miles away, by travelers on Interstate 20, the Settles was an albatross hulking over everything in Big Spring.

Enter Brint Ryan. A Big Spring native, Ryan began as a CPA with a major accounting firm before he opened Ryan LLC in 1991. He grew his tax service and consulting business into a multinational giant with 75 locations and over 14,000 clients in over 50 counties. He was a power player in national business and political circles. But he was still a boy from Big Spring who thought about the Settles — its legacy and its possibilities. 

In 2006, Brint Ryan purchased the Hotel Settles for $75,000. His Settles Hotel Development Corporation began a restoration to return the building to its original, immaculate grandeur. Six years and $30 million later, the Hotel Settles re-opened to the public. Today, it is a destination in itself, worth spending a weekend in Big Spring for no other reason than to enjoy the hotel and its amenities.

hotel settles.jpg

Closer to Fort Worth stands the Baker Hotel in downtown Mineral Wells. Completed in 1929, this massive 450-room, fourteen-story hotel was a lavish resort and health spa that attracted the rich and famous to the legendary mineral waters of Mineral Wells. As modern medicine advanced, fortunes declined for the famous health spa towns in America, including Mineral Wells. The Baker’s fortunes declined as well and it closed for good in 1972. Much like the Settles, the Baker hulked over its downtown, visible from miles away, a decaying albatross for all to see.

Over the years, myriad plans were circulated to restore the Baker, but each fell through for various reasons, from global economic recession to the sheer size and enormous cost of the renovation project. That all changed in June of 2019. 

On the steps of the Baker, a group of developers announced a three-year $65 million renovation project. Collaborators include investors from in and out of town (including Brint Ryan, of Settles fame) and an Austin-based hotel management company specializing in historic hotels. Federal tax credits had designated downtown Mineral Wells an “Opportunity Zone” (more on that in a future essay) that would make the restoration more financially feasible. Opening in 2022, the restored Baker will have 157 upscale hotel rooms (modern hotel rooms are much larger than the original 1929 rooms), meeting rooms, event space, and a luxury spa. The “new” Baker will cater to weekend getaways, weddings, and corporate retreats. 

Twenty years ago, the Settles and the Baker were the albatrosses of their downtowns. They were massive, decaying, abandoned buildings. Both were full of potential but fraught with risks and expense. People wondered if a wrecking ball was the most likely outcome for each, if anyone could even afford the demolition cost. Today, the Settles is a destination hotel. Construction will soon make the Baker the same.

What “albatross” buildings come to mind when you think of your town? What would you do with them, if it was your vision? Do you look at those buildings the same way people looked at the Settles and the Baker 20 years ago, that they’re fated to be demolished? If it can be done with the Settles and the Baker, it can be done anywhere.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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