As we stroll from the ruins of the Baker Hotel lobby into what's left of the dining room, Mark Rawlings points his flashlight through a hole in the paster ceiling, lighting an ornate stretch of the original moulding hidden underneath. Back in the '50s, he tells me, an attempt to modernize the 1929 resort hotel ended up remodeling away pieces of the old building's original charm. "You don't try to impose your will on one of these old buildings," Rawlings tells me. "You take what she's willing to give you, and roll with it."
Rawlings is a managing partner with HHCC, the Austin-based contractors charged with giving the place a 21st Century reboot, and making Mineral Wells a weekend tourist destination once again.
After Robert first mentioned that Jeff Trigger, the man who resurrected the Stoneleigh, was working on the Baker next, Rawlings was one of the first to reply to my emails asking for more details (along with Kevin Pruitt, who's making a documentary about the job, and architects Kurt and Beth Thiel, with whom we'll post a Q&A early next week). The place is a towering concrete albatross around Mineral Wells, looming over a town that doesn't look to have changed much since its heyday as a wellness getaway. The hotel closed in the early '70s, and despite a few attempts to put the place back in business, it's been empty since then -- except, of course, for 40 years of squatters, taggers, kids, security guards, cats, bats and raccoons, some of which were still hanging around on my walk through the 14-story hotel on Wednesday.
Jump for a photo tour through the hotel ruins, past old spa machines, through hotel rooms, up into the bell tower and down into the basement. And don't worry, I'll warn you before you reach the mummified cats.
We enter through the old record shop entrance on the corner, though an office littered with old flyers and mayoral campaign signs. I'm joined on the tour by "Hard-Workin'" Billy Joe Gabriel, a Fort Worth historian who's been collecting Baker Hotel artifacts for decades, and his brother John Gabriel. Billy Joe assembled a proposal to remodel the Baker for his business degree at SMU, and made a serious run at the hotel in the early '80s. His brother John even lived in it for three months.
Like most of the rest of the hotel, the Baker's lobby is covered in graffiti. Plaster is peeling off the roof after years of water damage, but plenty of old moulding and light fixtures are still in place. The building itself is all concrete, and Rawlings says it's in surprisingly good shape.
He and other contractors have been surveying the place for about a year now, he says, sizing up everything from its electrical and plumbing systems to its compliance with modern-day building and fire codes. If they get started remodeling the place next spring, he says, it'll be ready to open in spring 2013. Of the estimated $54 million price tag to get the place up and running again, he says HHCC is getting a little over $28 million to get the building back in shape. The rest will go to outfitting it for business as a modern spa and hotel.
After the lobby and the big dining room, we stroll through the rest of the main floor, where there's another reception room and an old storage space that'll be converted into the new hotel kitchen. From there, it's upstairs to the, um, equipment that still litter the old second-floor spa. As we walk up the stairs, Rawlings puts it succinctly: "It looks like an Eastern European slasher movie."
Mineral Wells' Crazy Water, the stuff they still bottle and sell today, was the hotel's main draw when it opened, and people would stay for weeks at a time to get cured. (Hence the Baker's old slogan: "Where America drinks its way back to health.") Along with the mineral water, the hotel spa included a host of oddball treatments.
According to redevelopment plans, some of the old equipment will stay in a second-floor museum, while the rest of the space will be upgraded to suit more modern tastes. "You're not gonna bring someone from the Metroplex and get them to pay for Hostel 4 or Saw XXII," Rawlings says, "where you've gotta know a secret word in Dutch just to get something taken out of your rear."
For a more in-depth look at the old spa gear, from the 'leg gyrator' and the 'bun-splitter' to the coin-op colonic machine, check back soon for a slideshow of more photos.
From the third to the ninth floors, the hotel's pretty much the same, full of small hotel rooms that'll have to be expanded when the place reopens. Most rooms are littered with decomposing red party cups, empty 40's and beer cans among the stained mattresses and broken bedsprings.
Higher up, we made our way to the suite where Bonnie and Clyde once stayed, then up into the penthouse suites.
At the far end of one hallway, the carpet stops -- this is the suite of rooms where Bonnie and Clyde's gang holed up in the Baker, with hard flooring outside the rooms so they could hear anyone approaching.
Up on the 10th and 11th floors, the Presidential Suite and the Baker Suite have been spared the '50s lime-green carpeting, but are pretty well run-down too.
As we get higher up in the hotel, there's a great view of Mineral Wells and the hills around town. Inside on the top floors, there's the Cloud Room, an old banquet hall, and the empty bell tower at the building's highest point. Before leaving, though, we all venture down into the hotel basement for a look at the darkest, spookiest spots the place has to offer.
The basement is home to the hotel's old coal-fired generators, the laundry room, a Civil Defense fallout room, and the old Crazy Water bottling operation. It was also the site of our only ghost sighting along the tour, a white blur someone saw that turned out to be another of Rawlings' contractors poking around taking notes.
That just about ended the tour, but Rawlings made sure the walk out included a stroll past two of the mummified "sarcophacats" against the wall by the hotel lobby. They're on the next page if you want a look for yourself.
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