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Metropolis: Wednesday, January 30, 2003
A Ghostly Grande Dame

Decades of neglect have put the Baker Hotel’s future in question.

By JEFF PRINCE

MINERAL WELLS — A large, heavy door on the 14th floor of the historic Baker Hotel stood open without a doorstop for 15 minutes while a small group toured the rooftop bell tower. The door was still open as the group filed back down a rusted spiral staircase. Then, just as the last person walked through the door, it slammed shut with a loud crash. The visitors looked at each other with wide eyes. “The ghost of the bell tower just said, ‘Get out!’” a woman said, prompting a few giggles.

The Baker once offered majestic accommodations that attracted the rich and famous to this dinky Texas town. For years, self-styled ghostbusters have described the Baker as a hotspot for the paranormal, and numerous internet web sites are devoted to the hotel’s otherworldly aura.

The people on the recent tour didn’t much believe in ghosts, and attributed the slamming door to a gust of wind. Even if the hotel’s not haunted, however, it certainly faces a frightening future.

The city’s Building and Standards Commission is hosting a Feb. 20 public hearing to determine whether to condemn the hotel’s two-story parking garage. “The city, as soon as they get through with the garage, is going to start in on the hotel,” said caretaker Jayne Catrett.

Empty for 30 years, the Baker is now falling into ruin. Catrett and some of her volunteers wonder if the garage’s condemnation will serve as a death knell for a hotel that was among the most luxurious in the country during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.

City officials deny that condemnation, should it occur, would signal the Baker’s demise. “The Baker Hotel is a landmark,” City Manager Lance Howerton said. “There would be no reason to do anything to the Baker other than try to put it on its feet.” But the hotel is in an awkward situation — too expensive to refurbish, too expensive to tear down. Repairs to meet code restrictions would cost an estimated $25 million.

“It’s a grand old building, and it could serve lots of functions but I’m not sure it could serve any functions that would be worth the cost,” city building official Charlie Sims said.

Tearing down the hotel, on the other hand, would also be financially staggering. Demolition might cost $8 million, which roughly equals the amount in this town’s general fund. “Even if we closed City Hall down for a year, there’s not enough money in the vault to tear it down,” Howerton said. So the stark hotel looms over the town’s 16,000 residents, a depressing reminder of a bygone era and an uncertain future.

Wealthy hotelier T.B. Baker spared no expense when building the hotel, which was completed in 1929 and modeled after Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa in Hot Springs, Ark. Before the advent of most modern pharmaceuticals, mineral water was considered a popular elixir for most anything that ailed a person. The Baker was built over a mineral well, and the water’s alleged cure-all element was as big a draw as the expensive rugs, decorative frescoes, lavish ballrooms, air conditioning, and indoor tennis court. Guests drank the water and bathed, soaked, and swam in it.

Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich, and cultural icons such as Will Rogers stayed at the Baker, along with presidents, generals, and famous athletes and musicians. Some, like Bonnie and Clyde, stayed there under assumed names. President John F. Kennedy and actress Marilyn Monroe were rumored to have rendezvoused there; for one night in 1960, the hotel register lists both Fitzgerald Kennedy and N.J. Baker as occupants.

Gregory Horne, of Phoenix, Ariz., owns the hotel and parking garage and is asking about $3 million for both properties, which have been on the market for 30 years. Plenty of potential buyers have come knocking, but the deals and dreams have always fizzled. “Everybody has an idea and nobody has the money,” Howerton said.

After closing in 1972, the hotel attracted thieves who stole many of the elegant fixtures and antique equipment. Other fixtures and equipment were sold at auction. Youngsters regularly break into the building to graffiti the walls and smash windows. Yet, even today, remnants of the hotel’s splendor are evident, making it easy for visitors to imagine its stylish heyday.

Structurally, the old hotel stayed relatively intact until several years ago, when the roof partially caved in. Now, the lack of protection from the elements is quickly draining away the remaining potential for renovation, making it more likely that the structure will deteriorate beyond repair.

Catrett and city officials are hoping that the westward spread of the Metroplex will save the Baker by attracting folks who would want to buy into it as an apartment, retirement center — or, once again, a hotel.

However, it could be 10 or 20 years before the growth boom reaches Palo Pinto County and Mineral Wells, about an hour’s drive west of Fort Worth. “If it continues to deteriorate...” Howerton said, before his voice trailed off. Then he approached the subject in a more positive manner. “We need to maintain the integrity of these two structures until [a developer] comes into town.”

Electric service has been restored to a ground floor, and several small businesses have leased space, but the rest of the hotel is vacant and dark. Strong winds occasionally send clay tiles from the roof crashing to the sidewalks, prompting at least one lawsuit. The collapsed roof section allows water to gush inside during heavy rains. A broken pipe in the basement caused water to fill two floors for several years before being pumped out.

Quality construction has managed to withstand nature’s onslaught — for now. “Water will start working on a concrete foundation after a while,” said Sims, who has inspected the property. “I can see some deterioration of the piers, but as of this time it is still quite a sound building.”

Almost everyone wants the building to stay sound, even the ones trying to condemn it. “I think there is an answer for the Baker Hotel; we just have to find it,” Howerton said. “We recognize this building is the heart and soul of this community.”


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