Here is a fantastic video tribute by Bill Carter that shows the Baker Hotel as it looks today.
In 1924, T.B. Baker of San Antonio opened his fourth Texas Hotel, The Stephen F. Austin, at the corner of Congress and Seventh Street in Austin. It was designed by Fort Worth firm Sanguinet, Staats and Hedrick, led by legendary architect Wyatt C. Hedrick. Baker would later hire Hedrick again to design and build the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas.
In the early twenties, the citizens of Austin saw the need for a large hotel in Austin, and they invested $600,000 in mortgage bonds with the Chamber of Commerce to help fund the project. After forming a partnership with The Baker Hotel Corporation, the hotel’s construction was completed in 1924 for a total cost of $775,000.
The location of the hotel on Congress was the former site of the old Keystona Hotel (a wood-framed three story building which was torn down to accommodate the Stephen F. Austin). Prior to that, the area had been used as a feed lot for horses. In the picture on the left, you can see Congress Avenue as it appeared in 1913, looking toward the capitol building from sixth street. The nine story building on the right side of the photograph is the Littlefield building that had a rooftop terrace. The ten-story Baker went up just behind this building, with the ballroom perched high at the top.
Note: Thanks to Mike at IHG for the additional historical information about the photograph!
As the new hotel was being constructed, a local club called the “Business and Professional Women’s Group of Austin” heard that Baker was planning to call the new hotel “The Texas,” (which is also the name of Baker’s hotel in Fort Worth), and began a campaign to change the name to something more locally significant. Together with other activist groups, they successfully lobbied to convince Baker to honor the city’s history with a new name: “The Stephen F. Austin”.
When the hotel opened in May 1924, it boasted 250 rooms and was the tallest building in Austin, at 10 stories high. Uniquely, the hotel featured running ice water in the rooms, along with a coffee shop and U-shaped soda fountain on the ground floor. The 10th floor ballroom quickly became a fashionable spot for parties and events, competing with the historic Driskill Hotel just around the corner, which had been built in 1888.
Over the years the Stephen F. Austin has been a favorite spot for many politicians, and has served as campaign headquarters for many governors, as well as for Lyndon Johnson’s 1937 House of Representatives win.
In 1938, Five more floors were added to the building, again making it the tallest building on Congress for several more years. The building went through many changes under various owners until 1998, when it was restored to the original architectural plans and brought back to much of it’s original splendor. Today, the property is owned and operated by Intercontinental Hotel Group.
A menu from the coffee shop in 1929 is shown below. Note that most of the prices are listed in cents!
So the story goes, on a visit to the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, T.B. Baker was so inspired by the look of the Spanish Revival style hotel that he asked his Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick to create a similar design for the new resort in Mineral Wells.
The Arlington Hotel that is still operational today was built in 1924, on top of the ruins of the previous two Arlington Hotels – the first was razed to build the second, and the second burned in a fire in 1923.
You can certainly see striking similarities between the two hotels, from the bell towers, to the winged layout, to the vaulted veranda promenade on the lower level.
There are, however, some notable differences aside from the presence of only one bell tower atop the Baker. Other innovations that are unique to the Baker include a lavish rooftop terrace and ballroom, a swimming pool, full air conditioning and ample retail store space along the street level.
Note: While some information about the Baker states that the architect Wyatt C. Hedrick also designed the Arlington hotel, there does not appear to be any historical documentation to confirm that. The architect officially on record for the Arlington Hotel is George R. Mann, who also designed the Arkansas State Capitol Building.
Here is a very rare home video shot in 1941 of an enlisted man and his family, perhaps before he was shipped out.
The first four minutes show the Army Infantry Replacement Training Center at Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells as well as some great footage of the Baker Hotel.
Then the location changes to Hot Springs Arkansas. Does that big white hotel look familiar? It is The Arlington, the hotel that architect Wyatt C. Hedrick used as a model for his design of the Baker Hotel. It’s incredible to see both in the same video.
The scenes that follow are most likely from Little Rock and Camp Robinson in Arkansas.
The old Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas sits quietly on the corner of Hubbard and Second – empty, waiting – but not lost.
She is a relic of the past, a reminder of the wealth and prosperity that once flooded the streets of the little Texas spa town. Because of the water, Mineral Wells became a place in time – a place in history – that would connect the fates and futures of the young and the old, the poor and the wealthy, the famous and the unknown. And while The Grand Old Lady may now only be a shadow of what she was, she still whispers her stories to anyone who will stop to listen.
The story of the Baker begins with the water. When Texas pioneer and Judge James A. Lynch reached the Brazos River Valley with his family and nothing but a wagon and a pair of oxen in 1877, he knew his search for land was over. The green hills, rich valley soil and nearby river made it an ideal spot to put down roots and stay a while. When they dug their first well, however, they discovered that the place had just one drawback – the water was strange – it tasted perhaps even poisonous, they thought. At first, they tried to avoid it by hauling and boiling the river water instead. But when that became too tedious, they went ahead and took their chances with the strange water from the well.
The Judge’s wife was old by now, and she suffered from arthritis. But suddenly, and miraculously, only a few weeks after beginning to drink the mysterious water, she began to feel much better. Her arthritis was healed, she said – and all because of the water.
The news spread, and other families moved into the area. They dug their own wells. They brought their sick aunts, their bedridden grandmothers, their children with illnesses and conditions that were deemed untreatable. One of these early visitors was a woman who was reportedly suffering from a mental illness, and she would sit and drink the water, hour after hour, day after day, at one of the wells in the middle of town. The children began to whisper about her, as children do – she was the “crazy woman at the well.” But one day, the woman got up and walked away – claiming that she had been healed – but the well never lost its name. Today, it is known as the Crazy Well, and it’s a very important part of the story.
Just before the turn of the century, tourism in Mineral Wells began to thrive. Enterprising homesteaders began to build wooden pavilions around their wells, and they charged a small fee to passers by in order to sit and drink the water there. Larger guest houses were eventually built, some magnificently Victorian, and some with very unusual creative designs, like the Hexagon House, which was fashioned like a beehive, entirely full of hexagonal shapes, from the rooms to the dinner plates. When the railroad added a spur to Mineral Wells, visitors began flocking in. By this time, there were over twenty different mineral wells advertising their services to the public, and in order to attract clientele many of them added spas, baths, and connected hotels and services. Advertising became critical in order to diversify and promote the unique specialties of each well in treating different kinds of illnesses. Doctors began arriving too – some were legitimate, and some were not- and many set up practices in and around the city.
And by now, there was much more to do than just drink the water. In addition to spa baths and massages, there were recreational activities, like boating, hiking, and donkey riding. There were amusement fairs and ice cream parlors. Around the turn of the century, before the roads were even paved, there was even a fancy streetcar that ran up and down the center of the town, and a small railcar that would take a scenic tour around the lake. The people coming into town now were not just the sick and infirm – they were wealthy tourists and health seekers from all over the US and beyond. Local businessmen and entrepreneurial spa owners began to get fabulously rich.
The Crazy Well had become especially popular in town, probably partly because of its name, and the hotel that was connected to the well became large and prosperous. But in 1925, a massive fire burned the entire block, putting a chain of events into motion that would change the landscape of Mineral Wells forever.
Two young brothers from Dallas heard about the fire at the Crazy Hotel, and knowing the town already, they decided to seize the opportunity to get in on the health spa business. So they purchased the Crazy Well, and what remained of the Hotel, and they vowed to build a bigger better building on the same spot. The two men were Carr P. Collins and Hal Collins, sons of Texas Senator Vinson A. Collins. Serious-minded Carr had already achieved some success in Dallas at the Fidelity Union Insurance company, while Hal was an extroverted salesman who had dabbled in owning car dealerships.
When the people of Mineral Wells heard that two Dallas businessmen were taking over their famed landmark, they were not happy. It was unfair, they said, for the most profitable racket in town to be lining the pockets of “outsiders.” And so, just as construction got underway on the new seven story, two-hundred room Crazy Water Hotel, a group of local businessmen and investors secretly hatched a plan to build a rival hotel – one that would be even bigger and better than the Crazy. They solicited funds from concerned citizens throughout Mineral Wells, and scraped together $150,000 to help kickstart the effort. But now, they needed a leader – someone who knew how to do things right.
So they turned to T.B. Baker of San Antonio, the most well-known and respected Texas hotelier at the time. In those days, everybody who was somebody stayed at Baker hotels in Texas. The hotels were known for providing an experience that was stylish, entertaining, unique and cutting edge. When the townspeople of Mineral Wells approached Baker in 1925, he had just recently opened new hotels in Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth. He also owned and operated The Menger, The St. Anthony, and the Gunter Hotel, several of the most prestigious hotels in San Antonio.
After convincing Baker to accept their $150,000, along with the challenge of building his first resort hotel, they set out together to build a fourteen story, four-hundred room hotel that would cost Baker $1.7 million dollars when all was said and done – twice as much as the Crazy, not to mention twice as tall with twice as many rooms.
Baker quickly secured the engineering and architectural design firm of Wyatt Hedrick, whose buildings are some of the best known art deco buildings in Texas – from the Will Rogers Memorial Center and Texas & Pacific Train Station in downtown Fort Worth, to Texas Tech University buildings. Baker had worked with him before (Hedrick had also designed the Stephen F. Austin Hotel in Austin) , but he had a special task for Hedrick this time – he wanted Mineral Wells on the map as a resort city – so he asked him to design a hotel that would be modeled after the famous Arlington Hotel and Resort in Hot Springs, Arkansas – with the same look, and the same tile and terra cotta Spanish Renaissance design.
Baker also had other complex requirements that Hedrick masterfully wove into the structure, such as a state of the art laundry facility in the basement, back-up generators, full air conditioning in all rooms, ice service, key-controlled lights and fans, one of the first drive-up check-in desks for motorists, an underground tunnel to the garage, and one of the world’s first hotel swimming pools (filled with well water of course). In addition, each art deco detail was of paramount importance to Baker – from the crystal chandeliers in the twelfth-story ballroom, to the colored tiles in each guest bathroom, to the curving terra cotta and iron staircases and carved wood doors in the lobby.
The hotel’s construction took longer than expected, but when it finally opened in 1929, just two weeks after the stock market crash, guests were amazed by its enormity and beauty. Baker had included everything that someone could wish for in a modern resort hotel. In addition to the pool, which attracted a lot of attention, there was a beautiful dining room, full service mens and womens spa facilities, a windy garden terrace for relaxing and strolling, a dance floor and bandstand on the roof, a fully equipped gymnasium, storefronts and offices for local shops and doctors, a bowling alley, libraries, game rooms, lounges, and of course, the large water pavilion for drinking The Baker’s own brand of water: BakerWell. Baker also bought land near the lake and installed a golf course, trails and recreational boats for guests to use while they stayed at the hotel.
Despite the Great Depression of the thirties, tourism was surprisingly steady for the Baker Hotel, thanks in part to the wide disparity of income at the time. The rich and famous still had the money to travel. The hotel became a restful and relaxing oasis in Texas for movie stars like Marlene Dietrich and Clark Gable, personalities like Will Rogers, musicians like Lawrence Welk, politicians like Lyndon Johnson, and even notorious outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde. There was always a Rolls-Royce in the Baker Garage in those days, and the people of Mineral Wells witnessed a kind of Hollywood glamour that typically only existed in the elite places of the world.
Meanwhile, the Crazy Water Hotel down the street began to suffer thanks to the opening of the Baker, and the Collins brothers were in a very tight spot. They couldn’t sell, and they knew that they couldn’t compete against Baker. Out of desperation and terribly close to bankruptcy, they turned to their other asset: the water. But they had two big problems when it came to making money from the Crazy Well. First, selling it to anyone beyond the city of Mineral Wells would be difficult because of the shipping costs. In order to sell “health,” they would have to ship someone a lot of the drinking water, making shipping prohibitive. Second, how could they promote it to a wide audience, and fast? Time was of the essence.
Then, the solution “crystallized.” They had already discovered that if you evaporated the mineral water, you would be left with a white powdery crystalline substance – which were the minerals themselves. If you dissolved these crystals into normal drinking water, they said, you could make gallons and gallons of pure Mineral Wells drinking water and never even have to leave the comfort of your own home. They had been selling the crystals product on the side without heavy promotion for years, but the real benefit to them now of focusing in on selling this product was clear: Crazy Crystals were simple to manufacture, and extremely light and cheap to ship in bulk.
Then they turned to their other problem – promotion. They had no time to wait on word of mouth or test newspaper ads – they needed to reach as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, or face bankruptcy. The solution, Hal would later say, “materialized as dramatically as an Old Testament prophet.” The radio. It was a new advertising medium, relatively untried by advertisers, but Hal immediately seized the opportunity. He jumped in his old Model A Ford with a local Mineral Wells country musician, Dick Ware, and drove to Dallas, where they paid $42.50 to get 15 minutes of airtime on KRLD, and they began doing that every Sunday night.
Says Hal in Carr’s biography, Man on the Move by Dorothy Neville: “Dick would start out playing something like ‘Redwing,’ and after that I’d preach. I don’t mean I gave commercials. I preached. The first time we broadcast was in February of 1930. Almost before we got back to Mineral Wells the money was piled up on Carr’s desk.”
And so the brothers began building their Crazy Crystals empire, which eventually spanned the US, with distributors and satellite offices as far away as Atlanta and Charlotte. The radio show went from fifteen minutes to an hour, and became a full-fledged variety show with old-fashioned hillbilly songs and advertisements for Crazy Crystals. The old fashioned music and nostalgia spoke to people – and they soon had thousands of orders coming in, at sixty cents or one dollar a box. Soon, they began broadcasting the show right from the lobby of the Crazy Water Hotel, and Carr bought a Mexican radio station just across the border in Texas to help further the message. They hired Jack Amlung and his Orchestra, and put together a comedy troupe called The Crazy Gang. Broadway legend Mary Martin famously got her start singing on the show for free, in exchange for the ability to use the upstairs ballroom for giving dance lessons. Traveling musicians and groups like the Light Crust Doughboys often moonlighted on the show in between gigs. The Doughboys had been formed by one-time Texas Governor W. Lee (“Pass the biscuits, Pappy”) O’Daniel, originally in order to market his brand of Burrus Mills “Light Crust Flour” brand from Fort Worth. O’Daniel also later famously used the band, and the Crazy Crystals radio show model, in order to build up his political platform on the radio – a theme that was parodied by the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Carr and Hal coincidentally also dabbled in politics as well, and they were some of Pappy O’Daniels largest supporters for a time. Carr even allowed O’Daniels to use his Mexican Radio station to broadcast his political messages throughout Texas.
As the thirties came to a close, the FTC and FDA began cracking down on health product claims (although there are some who believed that their crackdown came after Hal Collins gave a political speech against the New Deal) and in December of 1940, the Crazy Water Company was issued a cease-and-decist order against promoting their health claims. But by then, the business had already begun to wind down, and the two Collins brothers had already walked away with millions. Carr P. Collins went on to build a legacy in Dallas as a businessman and philanthropist – he ran Fidelity Union Insurance, dabbled in politics, served on boards, funded new housing developments in Dallas, and gave a significant portion his money and time to the Baptist church. The Dallas branch of the Salvation Army is still named after him today.
Meanwhile, T.B. Baker had been forced to reorganize the Baker Corporation due to major financial trouble brought on by the depression, selling many of his hotels, and passing others on to nephews like Earl Baker, who began running the hotel in Mineral Wells. Earl would manage the Baker for thirty years – from the thirties to the sixties. Earl was by then a skilled hotel manager thanks to the tutelage of his uncle, but rumors of his indiscretions as General Manager were common; there are some who say that he kept mistresses in the hotel and enjoyed his liquor just a little bit too much.
Although tourism had been dropping off in Mineral Wells as the interest in the “healing water” and the Crazy Crystals waned, the war years brought a new revival to the city, thanks to a decision (possibly influenced by the Collins brothers who were very well connected politically) to build the largest infantry replacement training center in the US at Fort Wolters, just on the edge of town. As early as 1940, the town was again filled with thousands of visitors – men who had just enlisted or had been drafted into the army, along with their wives and families, who came to visit them one last time before they shipped out. For them, the Baker became the backdrop for many important memories – lavish dances, raucous parties, USO programs, and many tearful goodbyes. Famous visitors like Judy Garland came to stay in the hotel again – but this time to entertain the thousands of men in basic training at Camp Wolters. General William H. Simpson, the Commanding Officer at Camp Wolters in 1941, lived with his wife in the Baker Hotel for nearly a year before famously leading the US Ninth Army across the Rhine in 1945.
After the war, things in town got quieter, but the town of Mineral Wells was determined to reinvent itself yet again, this time as a prime destination for area conventions and meetings. Between 1952 and 1955, both the Republican and Democratic Texas State Conventions were held in and around the Baker Hotel, multiple times. Also in the early fifties, Fort Wolters was reopened as an important Air Force Helicopter Training Base, which also helped to bring in a steady stream of pilots, officers, and families. Big bands continued to play atop the Baker, and visitors enjoyed the pool, along with golf, hiking, and lake sports.
As tourism and interest in the resort town finally began to decline in the early 60s, Earl Baker announced that unless he found a buyer, he would be shutting down the hotel on his 70th birthday in 1963. True to his word, when he turned seventy, he closed the mammoth hotel and moved out of town, disrupting many of the good paying jobs in Mineral Wells. The descendants of the people who had fought so hard to build the Baker in the first place, however, were not so easily defeated. A group of local investors formed the Civic Development Corporation in 1965 and re-opened the Baker to the public.
Then, in 1967, Earl Baker decided to pay a quick visit to his old hotel, and he stayed the night in the Baker Suite on the eleventh floor. Mysteriously, the next morning, he was found dead in his room due to a heart attack at age 74. Perhaps it is only a strange coincidence. But there are some who say that the hotel had its own way of repaying the man who had closed its doors.
All this while, hotel entrepreneur T.B. Baker had been living a simple and quiet life with his wife in a small white house in South San Antonio. He was an old man, and his years as a hotel tycoon had been long forgotten; early Texas rivals like Conrad Hilton had long since taken center stage. Not much is known about Baker in later life, but we do know that his wife of fifty years died in 1963 at age eighty-seven. T.B. himself lived to be ninety-six, and died at his home in San Antonio in 1972, the same year that the Baker Hotel closed its doors for the last time. The San Antonio paper ran a blurb about his life, and he was buried alongside his wife, his 2 year old daughter, and his parents up in Kansas.
The Baker has been vacant ever since, and has watched new owners and restoration plans come and go. For Mineral Wells residents and others who love the Grand Old Lady, the hope of restoration has been resurrected and abandoned so many times over the last fifty years that many now believe it to be impossible. Pulling it off would undoubtedly cost tens of millions.
To many, the hotel surely looks like an empty shell. Many of the furnishings were sold long ago, and the doors were crudely boarded up. She is leaking, broken, damaged. She has been trashed by vandals and exploited by ghost hunters. But yet she still stands, presiding over North Texas like an ageing queen, unwilling to give up her throne. She is not haunted, at least not in the tawdry sense. But she is full of memories. Full of stories. Full of life. She remembers it all… and she waits for us somewhere behind the broken window panes.
By Amy Oettle
Many of the luxury suites featured architectural details such as arched doorways and colorfully tiled bathrooms:
The three pictures below show the fireplace in the best room in the building: the 11th floor Baker Suite. In addition to many stunning 1920s art deco design elements, the room features several interesting prohibition-era details such as a false cabinet wall for hiding liquor.
Here is the Baker Suite as it once was:
There were approximately 450 guest rooms in the Baker Hotel. However, most of them are small by today’s standards.
It’s hard to believe that the rooms once looked like this:
Here is what the Brazos Club Dining Room on the ground floor looks like today:
But the Dining Room once looked like this:
T.B. Baker spared no expense, even on the details.
While the spa facilities now look like something out of a chamber of horrors, they were a marvel of their time, back in the day:
I am not certain, but this is perhaps one of the sockets for the room key-controlled lights and fans. The feature was unusual for a hotel at the time.
The swimming pool was one of the first hotel pools in the US. T.B. Baker originally planned to build the hotel in the spot that the pool now occupies. However, after being inspired by a trip to a California hotel that had just installed a pool, he stopped construction in Mineral Wells and altered the plans. Interestingly, it is one of the only pools with an entirely concrete base (you can walk underneath it), and the tunnel and facilities beneath it are still structurally sound.
Here’s what the pool looked like in its heyday:
Here is one of the terrace walkways outside of the Sky Room – the ballroom and dance floor on the 12th floor:
This is the Spanish terra cotta and iron stairway from the front desk in the lobby up to the mezzanine floor, where the lounges, parlors, library, and the hotel manager’s office were located. Notice the beautiful heavy wooden doors.
The front desk, with mail slots behind.
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