The hidden history behind North Texas' landmark buildings

Shells of Our City: Baker Hotel

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas
    (Photo courtesy of Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas.)

    Like Sleeping Beauty awaiting a kiss from Prince Charming, the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells waits patiently for her prince. A bustling resort and spa for more than three decades, this beautiful building now lays vacant, and quietly nestled in the hills of Palo Pinto County. The rural town's history is an important piece of the hotel's history as well. Without the "healing mineral water" the community was known for in the late 1800's, the grand hotel may have never been built.

    While he and his wife suffered from rheumatism, James Alvis Lynch found that drinking the water with a "funny taste" made them feel better. A well driller named Providence had drilled a water well for the Lynch's in 1880, tapping into the nearest water source which was four miles away; the Brazos River. It didn't take long for word of the healing water to spread. By the thousands, neighbors and strangers alike began frequenting the Lynch's home daily, searching for a sip. With the influx of people, Lynch officially established the town of Mineral Wells and appointed himself as its first mayor in the fall of 1881.

    With the town established, many more water wells were soon drilled. The most famous is the Crazy Well. As legend has it, a demented woman drank from the well twice a day and overcame her illness. Some believe the story could have truth to it, as the water contained a significant amount of lithium which is now used to treat mental and mood disorders. The news of the Crazy Water from Crazy Well only added to the excitement of visiting Mineral Wells and drinking the wondrous water. Trains began shuffling people in and out by the thousands, and tourists from around the world came to see what the water had to offer. It quickly became clear; a major hotel would be a great way to cash-in on the healing water hype.

    Mr. T.M. Baker, hotel entrepreneur, seized this opportunity.

    At a cost of $1.2 million, Mr. Baker modeled his Mineral Wells facility after the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The majestic Baker Hotel stands14 floors high and houses 450 rooms. The hotel boasted three dancing areas, a gymnasium, bowling alley, bar, doctor's office, and beauty parlor, not to mention a 117 acre golf course. This resort and spa was undoubtedly the premier facility of its time.  A glamorous gala was held as the Grand Lady of Mineral Wells opened her doors for the first time. Imagine the 1997 cinematic depiction of the Titanic with Kate and Leo -- the elegant ballrooms, the corset dresses, the hats and the perfectly coiffed hair, the lavish decor of early twentieth century. The scene at the Baker Hotel on November 22, 1929 was no doubt just as magnificent.

    The Depression didn't seem to phase activity at the hotel in the least. Patrons came and went by thousands for three decades. Celebrities seemed to especially enjoy The Baker. Judy Garland, Will Rogers, The Three Stooges, Lord Mountbatten, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, Elliott Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Helen Keller, Ronald Reagan, Roy Rogers and the famous World War II hero, Audie Murphy were all spotted at the Hotel at one time or another. Nightly entertainers like Herby Kay, Paul Whiteman and Lawrence Welk drew crowds from around the country and the world.

    Fort Wolters opened October 13, 1940 and grew to be the largest infantry replacement training center in the country with a population of 30,000 men. The Baker peaked during this decade as it catered to civilians and military personnel alike. However, the end of WW II and the closing of Ft. Wolters marked a period of significant decline for The Baker. Its popularity was revived briefly in 1951 when Ft. Wolters was reactivated as an army installation with a mission of helicopter personnel training.

    In 1952, Mr. Baker - childless and now aging - passed the hotel to a nephew, Earl M. Baker. Though nephew Baker was an experienced hotel businessman, the landscape began to change. Medical advances during the war resulted in the creation of antibiotics likes sulfa drugs and penicillin. Doctors who once recommended the healing waters of Mineral Wells began turning away from this practice in favor of advanced medicine. Baker soon realized that he needed a new approach to marketing his hotel. He began booking small conventions and non-medicinal vacation packages in order to keep The Baker alive. The Democratic State Convention was held at the Hotel several times, as well as the 1952 Republican State Convention. The 1950's were about catering to the over-worked, stressed-out executives. 

     Earl Baker operated the hotel remotely from San Antonio through the 1960's. He vowed to keep the hotel through his 70th birthday on April 30, 1963. One month and one day after his 70th birthday, Baker closed the hotel on May 31, 1963, ending 34 years of active use serving over 2 million guests. The closing of The Baker was truly the end of an era for Mineral Wells. Social lives were stifled as business leaders could no longer relax in luxury at their morning coffee break or at lunch, and more than 200 people were left jobless. The Hotel was put up for auction at a public sale in August, 1963 but there were no buyers. Finally in 1965 a group of local Mineral Wells leaders formed The Civic Development Corporation and reopened the Hotel once again. Profits were slim and the hotel remained open for only two and a half years. The Civic Development Corporation sold the Hotel to the Home Texas Trust, James Stewart and the United Funding Corporation in 1972, the same year that the original owner, Mr. T.M. Baker, died at the age of 96.

    While there have been several attempts to reopen, The Baker Hotel has now been vacant longer than it spent thriving. However, there is hope on the horizon. The property is still for sale and the Times Industrial Partnership is the current Managing Director and owner of the property. Hunter Chase Capital Partners has taken on the task of conducting all pre-development feasibility work. They have retained PKF, a large, international hospitality consultant; partnered with LaCorsha Management as the pre-development partner and future operator; and partnered with Thiel and Thiel of Southlake to provide all of the architectural and design work. According to Hunter Chase, there has been a tremendous amount of interest over the years, but the significant size of the structure and age make it difficult for buyers to bite.

    Ultimately, the goal is to deliver a 4-star, full-service hotel with a destination spa retreat experience. Should plans proceed as Hunter Chase hopes, the vision includes a hotel capable of accommodating a variety of patrons, from the corporate meetings, to wedding receptions, to major group events. Hunter Chase believes if they are able to secure new market tax credits, historical tax credits, the TIF support and a USDA loan guarantee, "the project has the ability to come to life."

    We certainly hope all of the pieces come together so that someone can awaken the sleeping princess, the Grand Lady of Mineral Wells - - The Baker Hotel.