Considered by many to be “The Greatest Hotel Man of the South” prior to the stock market crash of 1929, Theodore Brasher Baker and his hotels were at one time poised to become a household name. By the late twenties, Baker had built a chain of prestigious hotels that stretched from San Antonio, Texas to Birmingham, Alabama. During the Great Depression, Baker and many other prominent Texas hotel men like Conrad Hilton found themselves in dire financial straits. However, while Hilton was able to salvage part of his business and build it back up into the company that we know today, unfortunately T.B. Baker and his chain of luxury hotels were not so lucky.
Baker was a self-made man, the youngest of five children born to a farming family from Iowa and Kansas. In the late 1890s, at around age twenty, he went into the steam laundry business with a partner, but soon discovered that his ambitions were leading him elsewhere. After selling his interest in the business, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps into hotel management, starting out as the night clerk at the Avenue Hotel in his hometown of Beloit, Kansas.
After learning the ropes for eighteen months, he moved quickly to lease, and later purchase, his first hotel in 1899 – the Greenwood Hotel in Eureka, Kansas. It was here that he would eventually meet and marry his wife Mamie “Mae” Crawley, a Tennessee native. Baker was twenty-eight years old when they married in 1903.
During the decade following the turn of the century, the Bakers managed and owned four other hotels, in addition to the Greenwood: The Whitley Hotel in Emporia, Kansas, the Kingfisher Hotel in the Oklahoma Territory, the Goodlander Hotel in Fort Scott, Kansas, and the Illini Hotel in Alton, Illinois.
It was during this time that Mae gave birth to their only child, Mary. Tragically, Mary died of unknown causes just two years later.
In 1910, Baker sold some of his properties, including the Goodlander Hotel in Fort Scott, in order to acquire his first large scale luxury hotel: the historic Connor Hotel in Joplin, Missouri. Operating the Connor allowed the Bakers to put down roots for several years in a larger city and become respected members of the community. In a short biography written about Baker in 1912, the author states that he is “sedulously devoted to his business” and “is esteemed as one of the most enterprising, representative and estimable citizens of Jasper county.”
Then, in 1914, Baker took a business trip to San Antonio, Texas that would forever change the course of his life. While in the city, he visited the historic St. Anthony hotel and became acquainted with its owner. Less than a year later, he sold the Illini Hotel in Alton, IL, and purchased the St. Anthony, marking his first bold debut into Texas. The St. Anthony continues to be an important and historic downtown luxury hotel in San Antonio today. Soon afterward, he purchased the historic Menger Hotel, also in San Antonio, and still in operation. The Menger was already famous at the time, thanks in part to Teddy Roosevelt and his habit of recruiting Rough Riders over whiskey at the Menger bar. Richard King himself, of King Ranch fame, was also connected to the Menger. When he died in his sleep at the hotel in 1885, his legend became the fodder for ghost stories for years to come.
T.B. and Mae were joined in San Antonio by T.B.’s older sister Myla. Together the three of them began to build up a respectable reputation for the Baker name in San Antonio society while operating the St. Anthony and the Menger. They often took long ship voyages to Europe to visit its hotels and to gather ideas for their own properties. They often brought back huge crates of furniture, china, and other artifacts that they would later install in their own hotels.
1921 marked a new milestone for Baker when he built his first hotel from the ground up: the Texas Hotel in the heart of Cowtown – Fort Worth, Texas. It was followed quickly by the Stephen F. Austin hotel in downtown Austin, Texas, which opened its doors for the first time in 1923. Both hotels are still operational – the former as a Hilton and the latter as an Intercontinental.
The twenties kept on roaring for the Baker family. In 1924 at age forty-nine, Baker was finally able to purchase the hotel he had perhaps had his eye on for years: the Gunter Hotel, in the heart of San Antonio, right across from the famous Majestic Theatre. Baker spent a considerable amount of money redesigning the lobby and adding three floors of luxury suites onto the top of the hotel. T.B. and Mae moved into one of these large apartments, and Myla also had her own suite, where they lived comfortably for many years.
It is clear that Baker was highly involved in designing and managing many facets of his prestigious hotels, and that he was extremely innovative as well. Many of them featured new amenities and services that had rarely been seen in US hotels, such as in-room ice water, childcare, backup generators, and state of the art laundering facilities. Many alsofeatured elaborate glass-enclosed rooftop terraces where big bands would play well into the night, becoming a favored night spot not only for hotel guests, but also for the wealthy and elite.
Baker firmly believed that details were important. In the case of the Gunter Hotel, in order to envision the remodeling changes he hoped to make, he ordered a lumberyard in South San Antonio to build a full scale working model of the new proposed lobby with old lumber and cheesecloth. He would then walk through the model, adjusting walls, columns, doorways and design elements himself to perfect the right sense of space for the grand room. Then he would call his architect.
As Baker was busy planning the renovations to the Gunter, an important hotel in the thriving North Texas health spa town of Mineral Wells suddenly burned down, setting a chain of events into motion that would forever tie the Baker name to the town of Mineral Wells. When the landmark Crazy Water Hotel burned, a prominent businessman from Dallas named Carr P. Collins decided to seize the opportunity to get into the hotel and mineral water business. Along with his brother Hal, they unveiled plans for a bigger, better Crazy Water Hotel that would be built on the same spot.
The citizens of the then thriving tourist town were not happy to hear that Dallas outsiders were planning to make money off of their city. Several prominent members of the business community came together to raise money with the goal of building their own hotel – one that would would put more money back into local pockets. But they needed to find a major investor, and they needed a leader – someone who knew how to navigate the hotel business. So in 1925, they sought out T.B. Baker in San Antonio, and proposed that he build a large Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.
Surprisingly, Baker agreed to accept their initial investment of $150,000 in order to break ground on the massive 450 room hotel that would eventually cost a total of $1.7 million to build. The Mineral Wells project offered Baker something new – it would be his first and only resort. Mineral Wells was already a thriving destination, known worldwide for its healing drinking water and mineral baths. He decided that the Baker Hotel there would be a ground-breaking hotel not just for Texas, but also for the country – it would be one of the first in the nation to have a swimming pool, full air-conditioning, and key-controlled lights. It would also be twice as tall as the Crazy Water Hotel, and have twice as many rooms.
Meanwhile, only two months after Hilton’s first name-brand hotel opened in downtown Dallas in August 1925, Baker’s brand new Dallas Baker Hotel in opened just a few blocks away with one of the swankiest rooftop parties that the city had ever seen, held under the stars on the Peacock Terrace. Unfortunately, the hotel has long since been torn down to make way for another new Dallas high-rise.
In the latter half of the twenties, Baker unveiled bigger and bigger plans for his company and began many other projects in addition to constructing the new resort in Mineral Wells. In 1928, he also bought the historic Galvez Hotel in Galveston (now a Wyndham).
But 1929 truly marked the biggest year ever for the Baker Corporation. T.B. opened five brand new hotels to the public: The Hotel San Luis, also in Galveston, the Edson Hotel in Beaumont, Texas, the Goodhue Hotel in Port Arthur, Texas, the Thomas Jefferson in Birmingham, Alabama, and finally, the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, which opened with a glamorous Grand Opening gala just two weeks after the infamous stock market crash in November 1929.
The early thirties brought rocky times for Baker, although his financial difficulties may not have affected him immediately. In 1930, he was involved in leasing the art-deco Aurora Apartment Hotel in San Antonio and may have also purchased a large estate there. However, T.B. was soon plagued by financial woes brought on by the Great Depression, and the Baker Corporation was eventually forced to sell some of its properties and divide the rest into several different holding companies. Several of those companies were placed under ownership and management of two of T.B.’s nephews: Fenton J. Baker (who managed and then owned the Dallas Baker) and Earl M. Baker (who managed and then owned both the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio and the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells).
T.B’s sister Myla moved permanently into the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells in 1933, where she would stay until she died in 1950. Census records indicate that T.B. and Mae continued living at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, and that they may have been involved with managing the hotel in some capacity in the thirties and forties. However, little else is known about their lives for the thirty year period that followed.
In 1963, the same year that Earl Baker closed the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells for the first time, T.B.’s wife Mae died. She was eighty-seven. T.B. lived quietly for nine more years in a small bungalow in South San Antonio until he died there at age ninety-six. The very same year in 1972, the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells closed its doors for the very last time, and it has been vacant ever since.
By Amy Oettle