In Praise of Old Hotels -- Part 9: Marfa Texas


Bick, you shoulda shot that fella a long time ago. Now he's too rich to kill."

-- Uncle Bawley in 'Giant'


We made our way to west Texas in a roundabout sort of way through the New Mexico mountains, heading toward Marfa. Maybe you have heard of Marfa, Texas, way out west...way out.  Marfa is located 74 miles from  Van Horn and has around 2,000 residents. This part of west Texas is sparsely populated with many miles between towns. As you approach town there isn't much to see other than west Texas desert and a Prada store sitting all alone out on the empty highway. In this part of the world you need a sense of humor to survive. Marfa is a place known for its art and artists, its writers-in-residence program and a theater group.  The Prada store is an example of the off-kilter and experimental creativity of the art scene...a fake Prada store in the middle of nowhere.*

  Marfa has another lasting claim to fame. It was the location for shooting the movie "Giant" released in 1956. It was James Dean's last movie.


Our Marfa destination was El Cosmico, a camping site just outside of Marfa. This is not exactly a normal hotel and it would not be considered old...unless you consider sleeping in a teepee as old. This is more of a "glamping" experience.*


We were booked in at El Cosmico for two nights. The first night in two safari tents and the second night in a teepee. The safari tents were nice; equipped with a queen size bed, side tables and a chair all on a raised wooden floor. There was a hanging pendant light as well as a reading light and a radio. The best part was the heated mattress pad. This was November and it was pretty cold at night -- down in the low 40s -- and the heated bed was great. Very cozy




The place is rustic to say the least. The bath house provides the communal shower and toilet facility. The shower house also includes a claw-foot tub if you are bold enough to try it. There is a kitchen house where campers can cook their own meals. They also have a small store but not much else. Besides the safari tents and the teepees there are a number of vintage (1950ish) trailers. The trailers had cooking facilities and bathrooms.

While it was great fun and very comfortable in the safari tent, I opted to sleep elsewhere and made plans to stay at a local hotel the second night. This was based on a medical complication that I should have planned for and didn' fault, not El Cosmico's. My daughter opted to stay in the teepee the second night.


She had a great experience with the teepee. One really has to stay in a well-constructed teepee at least once to appreciate it. It was much larger and had a cow hide covered wooden floor and a couch/futon as well as the chair and side tables and heated queen bed. There were three tepees and about eight safari tents as well as the six or eight vintage travel trailers. I think I would consider one of the trailers for my next visit.


We were hoping to see a dark night sky and thousands of stars but it was a full moon and we mostly saw the moon. We could walk anywhere at night without a flash light because the moon was so bright. It is known to be a good spot to take pictures of the night sky because there is almost no light pollution and the low humidity cuts down on the haze.*



I already mentioned that I opted to stay at a local hotel the second night in Marfa.  The Hotel Paisano is a historic hotel on the national register, built in 1930 and designed by Henry Trost, a well known southwestern architect.  The hotel was used to house actors during the filming of the Edna Ferber classic "Giant".*When I checked in I mentioned to the desk clerk that I spent the previous night at El Cosmico. He said that they frequently get "refugees" from El Cosmico. My room was next to the room Elizabeth Taylor stayed in during the filming of the movie. Maybe James Dean or Rock Hudson stayed in my room? Maybe it was George Stevens or Dennis Hopper? Who knows? Edna herself?*


The hotel is restored (mostly) and is well maintained. They seem very proud of the hotel and its history. The main lobby is a shrine to west Texas Spanish revival.  All of the public areas are nicely kept and restored. The rooms are quite large for an eighty year old hotel and are well maintained but in need of just a little more restoration. The bathrooms are beautifully preserved from the 1930s.



My room was nice and roomy with some nice period (1930-40) style furniture. It had French doors leading out to the balcony overlooking a large courtyard with a fountain. It was a little too cold to take full advantage of the balcony but in warmer weather it would be great.*


The hotel has a nice and popular restaurant. The food was good and plentiful with a varied menu but the prices were a little high…but where are you gonna go…Van Horn?* 



 Giant posterWe were on a tight schedule -- visiting Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountain National Park and the distances are such that you have to leave early and you get back late. If we had more time there is plenty to do in Marfa. The town is small but it is artsy -- there are several art galleries and art studios. The theater company will often put on performances. You might see a movie being made. Scenes from "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will be Blood" were filmed in Marfa. There is really nothing left to see of the movie set from "Giant" but the area will look familiar if you know the movie.  There also is a local paranormal spectacle called The Marfa Lights, which you can drive out to at night and try to see. So many folks do that they have set up a designated parking lot and viewing area so people won't park on the highway and get run over.  This is west Texas, after all.

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This is my last installment of my In Praise of Old Hotels series until I get back out on the road. It might be a few months but I'll get there.



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In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 8: Faunbrook Inn


James Baldwin was a local millionaire in the 1860s who had the need for a fine home so he built himself a very impressive place in West Chester. The home later belonged to GOP Congressman Smedley Darlington (what a name) who was also, of course, a wealthy oilman. The house is now the Faunbrook Inn. It's not exactly a hotel -- it is clearly a house -- but the Inn is very impressive. The house is constructed in a Federal-Italianate style with three floors and a large wrap-around porch with ornamental ironwork. There is a large parlor, library, dining room and sitting room/bar on the first floor and very nice bedrooms on the second and third floors.

The rooms are spacious and furnished with antiques. Each guest room had a private bath. The house was extremely quiet considering that it was 150 years old. Apart from the sound of someone using the stairs you could not hear anything from the rest of the house...not even water running or toilets flushing. People seemed comfortable congregating in the library. The porch was also very inviting since the weather was mild and the first floor windows and doors were open. There were large windows in the parlor that converted into doors so people could drift in and out as they pleased.. We were there as part of a wedding group so there was about a dozen people mingling throughout the Inn.



The breakfasts were excellent - French Toast strata with apples, berries and cream, apple-flavored sausage, scrambled eggs, juice and coffee...that was day 1. Day 2 was just as good and included an extra sample of the local "Scrapple" which is apparently a Pennsylvania thing -- sort of a sausage made up of butchering leftovers that tasted like bland sausage mixed with sawdust. Must be an acquired taste. The group managed to polish it all off.  I was so busy eating I forgot to ask if this was the standard breakfast or something special for the wedding guests. It seemed like it was a normal breakfast based on how it was served.


The wedding took place at the Inn in the garden on a brick patio next to the porch. The garden has a natural look to it but sort of a faded glory feel as if it was there when the inn was built.

What to do in the Brandywine Valley? -- Go to Baldwin's Book Barn

The thing to see close by is Baldwin's Book Barn -- a five story barn built in 1822 by the Darlington family (remember Smedley?) that was converted into a book store 75 years ago by William Baldwin (must be the son of the guy that built the Inn). It's only a short distance south of the Faunbrook Inn. A person could spend a weekend just roaming around in the stacks. Books are arranged by categories, more or less, and then shelved by author, more or less. The special first editions and rare books are on the first floor. Apparently they sell books by the foot. You can purchase refurbished leather-bound books at $300 per foot for your executive library...if you have one.  We spent about an hour wandering around. I like Joseph Conrad and got a couple of his novels while there.

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In Praise of Old Hotels -- Part 7: Route 66


There is nothing quite like it -- an east-west highway running 2,400 miles from Chicago to Los Angeles...or actually Santa Monica.  America's own Silk Road connects the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean and laces together a bazillion points along the way. The iconic highway existed in a variety of different local configurations for over fifty years until it was finally replaced by the interstate highway system. Now we follow I-44 from Chicago to Oklahoma City and then pick up I-40 west from there....but the old Route 66 is still out there.


If you want to find it today, look for the "Historic Route 66" signs and the relics of once thriving roadside businesses, like Lucille's road house gas station and tourist court near Hydro, Oklahoma. Lucille's is one of the many places that have been at least partially preserved along the old highway. Some places are tourist icons while others are living on in a second or third life long after the highway surrendered to the interstate. Some are crumbling ruins.




You can't stay at Lucille's anymore but in Tucumcari, NM you can stay at the Blue Swallow Motel, one of many Mother Road era motels that still exist in this town at the junction of old Route 66 and US Highway 54. I understand that the place may be under new management since I was there but I'm sure the old owners were very careful in selecting a buyer when they finally decided to sell. They practically tucked you in at night so I'm sure they were picky about new owners. It looks like room reservations can now be made online at their website, which is a change from the former owners


The Blue Swallow Court opened in 1941 on Route 66 as it passed through Tucumcari. It has been modernized ...a little, but mostly it is much the way it was back in the 1940s and 1950s. Rooms are small but big enough. Décor is 1950s including the vintage television. The telephone is a 1940s era Bakelite rotary phone.


Each room has a garage where you could park your Hudson or Studebaker back in the day. Today, there are murals painted on the interior walls of the garages and the doors are often kept open to show them off. Mine was a scene from the movie "Easy Rider" but there were others including some from "Cars".  Outside you can sit and relax in the lawn chairs on your porch or maybe even the glider.  When I stayed I spent about an hour chatting with the owner out on the porch chairs. The two guys in the room next door came out and talked for a while. They were from Denmark and were on a cross-country trip on rented Harleys. They said there is a regular travel business catering to Europeans for one-way Harley trips along old Route 66.  They picked them up in Chicago and would turn them in in Los Angeles and fly back home from there. If I had a dollar for every lost Brit or European I've met on Route 66 I'd probably have enough to buy a good supper at the Pow-Wow restaurant. Europeans seem to be in love with Route 66, even more than the Americans who race by on the Interstate.

Under the former owners,  an added perk was a free breakfast if you checked out and were on your way at 7 AM. The free breakfast wasn't at the, it was down the road a little at the Pow Wow Restaurant and Lounge. The 7 AM exit was to allow the owners to get the rooms ready for the next guests...this is really a "mom and pop" operation. They managed the place and did much of the renovation on their own. They had a friend do the murals.

Tucumcari is a struggling place but probably the biggest town between Amarillo and Albuquerque. It has quite a collection of Mother Road era motels and tourist shops.



If you can't get in at the Blue Swallow (and it is difficult at times), try The Safari Inn across the street. The Safari is  a retro Route 66 motel that dates back only to the 1950s. The Safari does a pretty good job of recreating the 1950-1960 era but with some nice upgrades where it counts.  The rooms are nice and feature some of the nostalgic stuff from the 1960s.   They have a nice patio lounge area with retro furniture where the weary traveler can sit out in the evening and unwind with a six-pack from up the street.  This is not a fancy place.  There are a few vintage cars parked around that make it feel  very 1960-ish.


If you don't want to unwrap your food or eat off of a tray, most motel owners will recommend places including the Pow-Wow Restaurant down at the western end of the Route 66 strip. I've eaten there several times and it is an okay place and a good spot to get your first (or last) New Mexico food, depending on your highway direction. The Pow Wow has a shuttle van so you can call them to come get you so you don't have to climb back in the car. The last time I was there I had two loaded chicken tostados and a cold beer. They will sell you a six-pack to take back to your patio or the lawn chairs at the motel. When I went back to the motel in the shuttle I met a couple from Bristol, England. They were driving old Route 66 and then heading up to the motorcycle rally at Sturgis in South Dakota.  We sat out in the motel's patio area and relaxed and talked for a while before heading off to bed.

I'm sure there were many places like the Blue Swallow or the Safari Inn tucked away in small towns all along Route 66. Now, in the age of the interstate you have to look for them.

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In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 6: A Couple of Fine Tourist Stops

Santa Fe, New Mexico and Cody, Wyoming both thrive on the tourist trade. Santa Fe has a long history of travelers coming and going and Cody is a popular stopover for travelers heading to Yellowstone National Park. Today, Santa Fe is not wild west but shows a more refined and elegant side even though it has a rough and tumble history linked to the Santa Fe Trail. Cody is wild west through and through and seems to magnify this aspect…it practically rolls in it.


The Irma Hotel was built by Buffalo Bill Cody and named for his daughter — that would be Irma. It was opened in 1902 and has been a local landmark ever since. The saloon on the ground floor is famous for the cherry wood back bar which was a gift from Queen Victoria…who died in 1901 and never visited the saloon.  The place is popular with bikers on their way to Sturgis or other western motorcycle rallies.  We were there between two rallies so there were a lot of interesting bikes lined up out front.

Buffalo Bill’s ownership ended in 1913 when he sold it to his wife to keep creditors from taking it. Eventually the hotel passed into other hands and was expanded. Apparently some rooms are restored and furnished with antiques but we stayed in a more “modern” room that was spacious but looked like an old Howard Johnson’s room. I wasn’t impressed with the room but we were here during the busy summer season. The place was pretty crowded. I assume the restored rooms are much better.  Here is a picture of a room we didn’t see.  I halfway expected to see a mechanical bull in the room but it was fine.




 The place really is as theatrical as Buffalo Bill. It could be described as a saloon with a hotel attached. The saloon was crowded and seemed to take up most of the ground floor of the building. we were hard pressed to find a place to sit but everyone was having a good time and the beer was cold. Queen Victoria's bar is impressive.


 One of the features of the hotel is the theatrical reenactment of a wild west gunfight out in the street. Tourists take their places on the covered sidewalk as the lawmen and outlaws face off and eventually shoot each other. This is quite a cliché but the hotel guests seem to eat it up.

We also went out to Stampede Park to see the "Cody Night Rodeo", a nightly rodeo during the summer months. This was not my first rodeos, so to speak, and this one was pretty good. If you like horses and horsemanship, you will enjoy it. We left before the bull riders started...not my thing. Like everything else in Cody, it was a little over the top…but it was entertaining.



In the heart of Santa Fe, down by the plaza, sits the 1920-era Hotel St. Francis. It is reputed to be the oldest hotel in Santa Fe, which surprises me a little considering the long history of travelers coming to this place and the fact that Santa Fe was the seat of government way back under Spanish and Mexican rule.  Hotel St. Francis is about a block away from the city plaza and the Palace of the Governors and a similar distance from the Basilica of St. Francis.

The hotel is more Mediterranean in style than Southwestern or Pueblo but the color scheme seems to fit in with the local buildings and the Santa Fe ambiance. There was a time when the Southwestern style was considered uncouth. The Basilica of St Francis is French Gothic as is the Loretto Chapel. Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy (the inspiration for Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop) was French so some things look a little odd now that the town has embraced its Spanish and Pueblo past. There are other hotels that feature the Pueblo style if that is what the traveler wants. The hotel furnishings are sparse in comparison to some other historic inns or hotels. A lot of the furnishings seem to be made by local craftsmen.

Rooms are small but comfortable — one doesn’t come to Santa Fe to sit in their room so the size isn’t a problem and is a reflection on the era when the hotel was built. We stayed a couple days and the room was adequate. We spent almost all of our time out walking around town and I don’t even recall eating at the hotel. There are great restaurants and pubs within walking distance.  We did have a few Irish Coffees in the hotel bar one evening and it was very nice and an intimate place to just relax and reflect on the day’s activities.

The hotel is a little “upscale” and I had the feeling that the staff felt that they were, too. They were polite but not exactly friendly. I came away with a mildly negative impression of the place but I think it was mainly due to the staff because the accommodations were fine and the location was perfect for exploring downtown Santa Fe.

As I said, if you are wanting more of a traditional Santa Fe (Spanish Revival or Pueblo) style there are other places. The La Fonda is a block or so away and worth a visit. The La Fonda also dates to the 1920s and was owned by the Santa Fe Railroad and operated by Fred Harvey. We had lunch there and it was very nice.  I will add that to my list of historic hotels at some point.

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