A great video showing what the hotel looked like then and now.
A great video showing what the hotel looked like then and now.
A contact recently provided me with a great old color photograph of 1920s Texas hotel magnate T.B. Baker at Christmas-time. My best guess is that it was taken in the mid-sixties. Here he is – around 1910 (~age 35) and around
1965 1958 (age 83).
Cheers to the hope that his Grand Old Lady will finally be restored in the new year.
Earl Maynard Baker, the nephew of hotel tycoon T.B. Baker, ran two of the Baker hotels for most of his adult life. He was General Manager of the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio for over twenty years before he sold it almost at once when his uncle T.B. turned over the deed in the fifties. Perhaps even more famously, for forty years he also managed (and later owned) the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells until his death in 1967. During his tenure as owner, he unsuccessfully attempted to get rid of the Grand Old Lady on several occasions, and he famously followed through on his ultimatum to shut it down on his 70th birthday in 1963 if he didn’t find a buyer. However, the hotel did re-open again from 1965-1972, thanks to the efforts of a group of scrappy local businesspeople who wouldn’t let the landmark go – they paid Earl monthly rent to keep the doors open.
History has not been especially kind to Earl’s memory. Are some of the stories true? Probably. But are some of them just rumors? Probably. Based on research done so far, I’ll attempt to help separate the two:
Did Earl have a mistress named Virginia Brown who killed herself inside the Baker Hotel? It is not known whether a woman named Virginia Brown (or any mistress) existed at all, although the ghost hunter programs that routinely film inside the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells would certainly like you to think so. According to some, the specter of Earl’s mistress Virginia still haunts her suite on the seventh floor, stopping to flirt with male visitors. More than one person has mentioned smelling her perfume or sensing a playful spirit. What is certain, however, is that no young woman ever killed herself inside the Baker hotel (and for the record, nobody ever jumped from the balcony to the pool, either.) That said, what we do know is that Earl and his wife divorced at some point, and that he did not remarry. There are enough rumors surrounding his character to make the mistress story believable, but it has not been confirmed.
And I certainly don’t have any information about who these two ladies might be with him in the picture above. Aside from the fact that there are two women sitting on his lap, that cheetah print fur is telling us quite a story of it’s own – am I right? Edit to original post: The woman in cheetah fur has been identified as Mr. Baker’s wife, Gladys.
Did Earl engage in court battles with his family? Yes. In the 1940s, Earl and his elderly aunt Myla (who I believe lived at the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells at the time) were engaged in a lengthy court battle in Texas over shares to the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. When T.B. had money to do so, he had always provided for his unmarried sister Myla, but it appears that something bitter and contentious happened between Earl and Myla later on. The detailed court records of this case were recently discovered, in fact, and I look forward to updating you on what I find out.
Did Earl have a drinking problem? Sources seems to suggest – probably. Several pictures and brochures found in his personal effects after he died suggest that he struggled with alcohol. The picture to the left may have been taken inside an office in the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells.
Did Earl die at the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells? Yes and no. After Earl closed the hotel on his 70th birthday in 1963, unhappy local Mineral Wells businesspeople scraped together the funds to re-open the aging hotel, hoping to keep the tourism in town alive. Then, at some point in 1967, Earl came back to the hotel. Some say that he had just come back for a quick visit, and others suggest that he might have begun living in the Baker Suite. In any case, on December 3, 1967, Earl had a heart attack in the Baker Suite on the eleventh floor and subsequently died in the hospital in Mineral Wells. Earl was 74 years old.
On November 16, 1922, The San Antonio Evening News announced that T.B. Baker had completed negotiations to build what would become the Stephen F. Austin Hotel in downtown Austin, although the (now famous) location on Congress Avenue had not yet been selected.
It seems that the hotel was designed to have fifteen stories all along, but purposefully, only eleven of them were completed for the grand opening in 1924. The original rooftop ballroom terrace (now gone) was intended to be temporary all along! When the new owner added the additional floors in the mid-thirties, did they know that they were completing Baker’s original vision for a 15 story hotel?
The article also mentions that one of Baker’s “new” ideas for the future hotel revolved around serving local Austinites: it would feature an unusually large lobby for the purpose of being used as an open meeting space for lawyers, UT students, and legislators.
I’m very excited to be able to post two recently discovered photos of T.B. Baker, the original builder and operator of The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells, Texas. A family member who knew him confirmed that this is indeed “Uncle Pete” (as he was called among family). I’m thrilled to see that our favorite 1920s hotel tycoon is looking dapper, even well into his seventies.
The first photograph shows a relaxed family scene from what appears to be the mid-thirties, when Baker would have been about 60. He fell on hard times during the Depression, and his clothing seems to reflect that.
This second photograph was dated 1952, when T.B. Baker would have been about 76. Love that he is wearing a double breasted suit and standing in front of a Cadillac! The same year in 1952, T.B. Baker turned over his final ownership of all remaining hotels (including the Gunter Hotel) to his nephew Earl M. Baker.
In October of 1929, just a month before the stock market crashed, and just a month before the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells opened, The San Antonio Newspaper ran a full page spread on T.B. Baker, the man who was “the most prominent hotel man in the South.” It’s worth noting that both Conrad Hilton and the Moody family out of Houston (with their National Hotel Company) were also competing with Baker in the race to build their own Texas hotel empires. During the roaring twenties, the oil boom was still carrying the economy forward in a flurry of activity, and men like Baker, Hilton and Moody saw their fortunes well within their reach. But when things got bad in the early thirties, they got very bad. Hilton would later write in his autobiography that he went to mass every morning to pray that he would make it through just one more day.
Several articles suggest that as late as 1931, T.B. Baker was seen entertaining friends at the Savoy Hotel in London, and had taken trips to Paris. But just as quickly as his name had risen to prominence, it seemed to vanish.
T.B. Baker’s world seems to have imploded in March 1933. That month, the Baker Corporation sent a letter to all of their stockholders, telling them that the hotel business had been hard hit and that they would be unable to pay out dividends. Next, the Gunter was peeled off from other Baker Hotels and reorganized into the “Gunter Hotel Company” under different leadership and with the primary goal of paying back and satisfying the largest creditors. But minor stockholders suffered under this plan, and later that year the Baker Corporation was sued. What happened next is still somewhat unclear.
The Gunter Hotel, at least, was handed over to Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1934 to manage it as trustee, until it could be placed back with the Baker Family. A similar situation happened with the Baker Hotel in Dallas after a lengthy court proceeding, in which the hotel was almost sold to the Moody family, but T.B.’s nephew Fenton J. Baker won the suit, was put in charge of the hotel and eventually regained full ownership.
The Baker in Mineral Wells seems to be unique in that it did remain with the Baker family during this time, but was reorganized into the “Resort Hotel Company.”
It is yet unclear about what happened to all of his other hotels and at what point the Baker Corporation may have sold them or relinquished control.
Then, in 1936, Earl M. Baker, T.B.’s other nephew, re-emerged as the buyer of the Bakers’ beloved Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, and took it back from the Life Insurance Company that had held it for the previous two years.
All the while, no mention is ever made of T.B. Baker, who did indeed still live in San Antonio. There are some who say that Earl may have found a way to take the hotels away from him. While more research is needed to find out if that statement is true, there was definitely some contention in the family. T.B.’s unmarried sister Myla (Earl’s aunt) fought a lengthy court battle against Earl from 1942 to 1948 for control of the common stock of the Gunter Hotel, which Earl eventually won.
T.B. seems to have faded into the background after 1933. He lived quietly, simply, in a small white house in South San Antonio until he died in 1972 at age 96 – nearly forty years after the turmoil of the thirties. What did he do for forty years? How does one rebuild a life of simplicity after one of such ambitious success and lavish luxury? Therein lies a story yet untold.
In 1929, T.B. Baker was on a roll. Within a six month period, he opened 5 brand new hotels, the last one being The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells (which opened in November). However, another Baker that opened only a few months earlier was the 11 story, 160 room Goodhue Hotel in Port Arthur Texas.
J. Forrest Goodhue, a local builder and civic leader, was helping to build the hotel with local funds when he died of a heart attack in January 1929 – while the building was still under construction.
The original name of the Goodhue Hotel was planned to be “The Dick Dowling Hotel” in honor of the Confederate Civil War hero of the same name. In fact, you may see “The Dick Dowling Hotel” on some of the early promotional postcards for the building. In April of 1929, however, Baker formally announced that the building would officially be called “The Goodhue Hotel” going forward, simply because “Everyone called it Goodhue instead.”
Over the years, the grand hotel weathered several hurricanes along the stormy Texas coast, including Hurricane Audrey in 1957.
The Goodhue was in the news again in 1970, when Janis Joplin came back to her hometown just months before her death to attend her ten-year high school class reunion. She gave a press conference in the second floor ballroom of the hotel.
After shutting down in the eighties, the building was demolished in 1990, allegedly due to poor structural integrity. The site is still a vacant lot today.
Interestingly, the Hotel Sabine a block away was built around the same time, and is still standing today (although it is currently vacant and in need of renovation). That building may have survived the coastal conditions longer than the Goodhue because of the cypress pilings that the Hotel Sabine’s builders reportedly added under every inch of the structure.
When young Dallas entrepreneurs Carr P. Collins and Hal Collins decided to get into the hotel business in 1926, they had no idea that they would soon be competing directly with one of the most prominent hotel men in Texas: T.B. Baker.
As it happened, Carr owed his older brother Hal some money. So when he decided to purchase the Crazy Water Company and Hotel in Mineral Wells, he gave him a call. From the biography Carr P. Collins: Man on the Move:
“Hal,” Carr told him, “you have $35,000 worth of stock in the new Crazy Hotel at Mineral Wells.”
“That’s just great,” replied the puzzled Hal. “Where am I going to get $35,000?”
“Oh,” his brother explained nonchalantly. “That’s the $35,000 I owe you.”
And so the brothers began their new venture in Mineral Wells, starting by rebuilding the recently burned down Crazy Water Hotel. They made a good team: Carr had a sharp mind for numbers and was already a semi-successful insurance executive in Dallas, and Hal had been busy building a career in sales, advertising, and local politics.
Their father, lawyer and Texas Senator V.A. Collins, would later recall: “A very nice six-story hotel was built on the old hotel site and it was wonderfully arranged and beautifully furnished, but of course it was not without a large investment. They felt sure when the hotel started it would soon earn enough to take care of all expenses and pay interest on the investment. They soon found that they were much disappointed in that. I never saw Carr and Halley get very badly frightened over business before this occurred, but they saw they were falling behind with everything they could do to make ends meet and they became alarmed.”
By the early 30s, the brothers were in deep trouble. The stock market had just crashed, and to make matters worse, the Baker Hotel had just opened in town – and it was twice as tall, had twice as many rooms, and boasted twice the luxury. The Crazy Water Hotel suddenly found itself obsolete, just two years after its opening, and the brothers’ financial situation was grim.
“The sheriff was two steps behind us,” Hal would later admit.
So, out of desperation, they came up with a wild proposal for hotel man T.B. Baker, according to the book Carr P. Collins: Man On The Move:
“With two hotels in operation in Mineral Wells,” recalls Hal, “We decided we were nuts to buck Baker. So we made an appointment with him. Our suggestion was that our two companies could divide the business, with his taking the hotel profits and ours taking the product profits.”
Baker heard them out silently, then, according to Hal, refused flatly to discuss their proposition. Says Hal summarily, “We bristled like javelina hogs and went out and got rich. He went broke.”
Their father, V.A. Collins, also wrote: “They have always been very resourceful and when they saw they could not get through one way they turned to something else, so they began to manufacture Crazy Crystals by the tons and Hal went on the air advertising Crazy Water Crystals. I do not think there was ever a better radio advertiser than he.”
Thanks to several groundbreaking marketing decisions by Hal to advertise on the radio, as well as to launch an old-fashioned musical variety show, product sales quickly soared. Over the next decade, the brothers would indeed go out and get rich: sales of Crazy Crystals topped $3 million a year for several years.
In the early 40s, the FTC and FDA cracked down on health product claims, and the brothers eventually dropped the business altogether. Crazy Water, however, is still sold 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.