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Mineral Wells hopes for transformation as historic Baker Hotel comes to life

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 9/29/2020 By Luke Ranker, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The vision for Mineral Wells has as much to do with its past as it does with the hope for its future.

Looming large over the former resort town —physically and metaphorically — is the Baker Hotel, the 14-story behemoth of 1920s architecture that for generations has sat crumbling at the corner of N.E. First Avenue and N.E. First Street. The building casts an imposing shadow over the city.

Southlake-based developers Laird Fairchild and Chad Patton announced last year they had purchased the hotel and would embark on a $63 million restoration.

Patton, on a recent call with the Star-Telegram, said he has a vision for transforming Mineral Wells into essentially DFW’s Fredericksburg — a resort town centered on a walkable downtown full of shops for those who want to escape the Metroplex and relax. That vision is coming together smoothly, he said.

At least one local, Randy Nix, sees a resort makeover for the town as the gateway to something larger. As a champion for downtown revitalization, he thinks Palo Pinto County should take a cue from Palo Alto, California, and attract small tech firms that can take advantage of the town’s industrial park. He pointed to Possum Kingdom Lake, the Brazos River and Palo Pinto Mountains State Park as natural resources that would attract people beyond the mineral water that made the town famous.

“This is their retreat to get away from the hustle and bustle of Fort Worth-Dallas,” Nix said. “It’s their playground. That’s what it was in the early 1900s and that’s what’s going to happen again.”

The Baker Hotel and Spa

The reborn Baker Hotel will build on the lavishness of hotel magnate Theodore Brasher Baker’s original spa with modern comforts.

“We’re really capturing the essence of the hotel, but bringing it into modern textures and colors and features,” Patton said. “We’re trying to preserve the integrity of that generation.”

When it opened in 1929, the hotel boasted 450 rooms, but they weren’t the spacious resort rooms today’s guests are used to. The remodeled hotel features 157 rooms, most of which are the product of combining two rooms. Fourteen of the rooms will remain the historic size and will be priced cheaper.

A private elevator will take guests to second-floor mineral baths, something the old hotel did not feature. A large spa room will overlook both mineral baths and the restored Olympic-sized pool, which was reportedly the first of its size at a Texas hotel. A bridal suite is situated off the spa level while a groom’s suite is on the mezzanine, near the bar.

The mezzanine bar will feature small bites, while the Brazos Club will be restored for a fine dining experience. A large ball room will be able to host conferences on the first floor while a second ballroom on the top floor is suited for weddings and other smaller events. A rooftop patio will overlook downtown Mineral Wells.

The ground floor will feature a museum and gift shop along with room for three or four small shops.

None of that, of course, is there now. Crews just finished abating asbestos and will move into the design and restoration phase, which Patton said will take a few years.

Original schedules speculated the opening would be in 2022, but visitors should be able to enjoy the spa by early 2024 now.

Patton isn’t worried about drumming up business, even as the coronavirus pandemic cuts into hotel revenue. The developers field calls and emails routinely from folks interested in booking a room when it opens, he said, and the hotel’s Facebook page has more than 52,000 likes.

Patton, Fairchild and other investors had been trying to get the project going for nearly 10 years, but financing remained elusive. About $30 million in incentives helped make the redevelopment work, including $18 million in historic tax credits, $8 million from a special tax district the city of Mineral Wells created to spur development and another $4 million from a sales tax devoted specifically to the Baker.

Patton wouldn’t discuss price points for hotel rooms, but said he hopes to attract a combination of weekend road trip vacationers and corporate retreat clients. He calls the hotel “Palo Pinto Chic.”

“We want folks to be able to come in for a formal event and feel comfortable,” Patton said. “We want folks to come in there, you know, in a pair of blue jeans and a cowboy hat and also feel completely comfortable.”

Baker Hotel Restoration

The Baker Hotel’s corridors are a far cry from the dilapidated scene Mark Rawlings walked into last year. Rawlings has been tapped to spearhead the restoration and carries a history of bringing new life to southern hotels. His projects include the Historic Driskill Hotel in Austin, the Hotel Derek and Hotel Icon in Houstin, the St. Anthony and Gunter Hotels in San Antonio and New Orleans’ Royal St. Charles and Le Pavillion.

“It’s going to be a tombstone forever, or it’s going to get restored and be something significant and great for the community,” said Rawlings, who recently moved from Austin to Mineral Wells. “Time was ticking and it was getting close to being about as far gone as anybody could ever hope to recover from.”

The floor, much of it covered in terrazzo tile, had basically vanished under more than a foot of debris. Plaster had fallen from the ceilings, but other muck added to the trash. When doors closed on the resort in 1972, much of the furniture, bedding and paperwork stayed, rotting in the dank hotel. Litter from the scores of people who broke into the building joined the mess.

Crews unloaded 900 dumpsters of trash, Rawlings said. The thick layer of debris in one way was a blessing as it helped preserve the tile flooring, which in some areas just needs a polish. A white coat of primer covers the walls where graffiti had been, making the hotel feel brighter even without proper lighting.

Much of the ground floor rooms are covered with various things Rawlings hopes to bring back to life.

The hardwood ballroom floor did not survive decades of rain and snow, but he wants to use salvageable pieces as picture frames available for purchase with prints of the hotel. Many of the rose-colored glass mirrors that decorated pillars in the Brazos Club will be restored, but some are in pieces. Rawlings said he’s contemplating using the broken glass in a disco ball for use during proms or other dances. Hundreds of sinks fill a room on the ground floor. Some will find new life in the public bathrooms and a few in the historic rooms.

“Nothing gets a trashcan that can get a second life,” he said.

Beyond the Baker

Mineral Wells has been coming alive even without the Baker.

The town was once bustling, first for luxury-minded tourists in the 1930s. Then during World War II when Fort Wolters became one of the largest infantry bases in the country, the city and Baker Hotel enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and commerce.

But by the late 1960s Mineral Wells was in a decline and the resort closed in 1972.

A lot of time and energy has been spent to revitalize the city, said Cody Jordan, who was born and raised in Mineral Wells and coordinated many of the new downtown murals.

“People are wanting an experience. When they go places they want to feel connected,” Jordan said, saying Mineral Wells is Instagram-ready. “Because we have so many historic buildings, people want to get out and experience that. I don’t think a year and half ago or two years ago it was that way.”

A few blocks from the hotel The Market at 76067 operates like a test kitchen for would-be boutique shop owners with dozens of small shops and a cocktail bar. Brazos Market and Bistro up the street has become a local favorite and craft brewery Rickhouse Brewing is slated to open later this year.

A series of festivals were planned throughout the year, but the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled some of the fun.

Merry Wells, the annual Christmas festival that locals say could rival Fort Worth’s Parade of Lights, typically had 20 to 30 entries but last year had about 80, Jordan said.

With the help of grants from the state, the city is redoing the streetscape with new lighting, Mayor Tammy Underwood said. Her term ends in November, but she’s the town’s longest serving council member.

“We’ve been working behind the scenes to get ready for the Baker,” she said. “There’s a lot of activity downtown and there’s going to be a lot more.”

The downtown, a compact area friendly to anyone wanting to walk from shop to bar to restaurant, has more than 100 historic buildings, Nix said.

He should know, he owns most of them, but wouldn’t say how many properties he controls. His reason for buying up downtown Mineral Wells had as much to do with historic preservation as it was a lucrative investment.

Nix, who has lived in Mineral Wells for about 40 years, is a driving force behind the restoration of the Crazy Water Hotel, which predates the Baker by two years. While the Baker is bringing back the resort town vibe, Nix said the Crazy Water will feature high-end apartments.

The restoration of downtown is perfect for DFW tourists and residents alike, Nix said, adding it would raise the quality of life for everyone.

As the coronavirus forces office park workers into home office, he said Mineral Wells can stand out. The town of about 16,000 is almost natural for social distancing compared to the density of larger cities. Nix thinks that may attract white collar workers who can telecommute.

They’ll bring higher wages, a higher standard of living and push the town’s economy forward, he said.

“We’re ready for an influx of a younger generation, a different perspective,” Nix said. “We need to be on the leading edge from here on out.”

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