The history of tourist lodging in Texas reflects larger trends occurring throughout the nation.
The presence of a hotel indicates the openness of its surrounding citizenry to new people and ideas. Accordingly, the history of traveler lodging is intertwined with advancing technology, changing economies, and even social revolutions. While particular hotels might mirror the time of their creation, they must always balance public and private needs, moments of rest and mobility, and familiar comfort with the excitingly new, all while remaining neutral spaces open to all.
Hotels in Early America
Early inns in colonial America were referred to as “public houses.” They were licensed to sell alcohol and were therefore required to provide overnight accommodations for travelers. At the start of the 18th century, these public houses were small, plain, and without much comfort, although food and drink were typically offered along with boarding. During President George Washington’s presidential tours of 1789-1791, he famously refused private accommodations (and the appearance of favoritism) by staying only in public houses. He wrote about the primitiveness of the accommodations in his letters, perhaps spurring the rapid development of hotels in the new republic.
The building of a hotel indicated the prosperity and public spirit of a town. In order to entice guests, hotel builders incorporated emerging technologies that would later spread to other building types. In 1829, the Tremont House in Boston was the first U.S. hotel to boast running water and bathtubs. The placement of a passenger elevator in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City in 1859 led to the rapid integration of passenger elevators in other types of buildings.
Hotels also came to influence culture. The mixing of travelers helps transform social customs and integrates local communities into an expansive network. While the modern hotel developed in America, the law governing innkeepers connects back to England in the Middle Ages, when these business owners were responsible for providing rest and protection for all travelers. Of course, in America, the requirement to provide hospitality to everyone was often overlooked. The “Negro Motorist Green Book,” published between 1936 and 1966, listed hotels and tourist homes that would provide lodging for Black Americans. The 1948 edition includes the hopeful statement, “There will be a day sometime in the future when this guide will not need to be published.” Indeed, that guidebook is no longer published, even if inequities remain. In Fort Worth, the new Hotel Dryce became the city’s first black-owned hotel in 100 years when it opened in 2021.
In addition, hotels have played an important role in the fight for equality and women’s rights. Boston’s Tremont House became the first of many hotels to have a separate dining room for unaccompanied women — called a “ladies’ ordinary” — that provided spaces for independent socializing. The Hotel for Working Women in New York City, completed in 1878, provided safe accommodations for women entering the urban workforce. This and other lodging like it allowed generations of women access to gainful employment in growing urban centers. In Texas, the legacy of women can be celebrated at hotels including San Antonio’s St. Anthony Hotel, where the Texas League of Women Voters had their first meeting in 1919.
The Development of Hotels in Texas
Hotels are typically located near transportation systems, and of course, the favored mode of transportation has changed over time. In Texas, the earliest hotels were located along stagecoach lines. The Menger Hotel in San Antonio, designed by architect John M. Fries and completed in 1859, was built to accommodate overnight guests visiting the Menger brewery and became a stopping point along the Chisolm Trail.
Later, hotels would be located along railroad lines near train stations to house traveling salesmen, who used these accommodations both for lodging and as a showroom for their goods. As the population in Texas grew from 1.5 million in 1880 to almost 6 million by 1930, local entrepreneurs and business owners built hotels to attract new people, ideas, and prosperity to their towns. These hotels became part of the local community and were often the site of important local events. For example, in 1887, the newly opened Driskill Hotel in Austin hosted its first inaugural ball. (For more on the history of the Driskill, including its most recent renovation, see the January/February 2022 issue of Texas Architect).
Texas hotels have also played an important social role in their host communities. The Adolphus Hotel became the first luxury hotel in Dallas to be truly knitted into the life of the city. Adolphus Busch, a German immigrant and the co-founder of Anheuser-Busch, had been investing in real estate in Dallas when city leaders persuaded him to build the new hotel. Designed by Barnett, Haynes, & Barnett from St. Louis, The Adolphus was the tallest building in Texas when it opened in 1912. The third floor contained a “ladies’ parlor” and a rooftop garden. In the days before air conditioning, these were popular gathering spots. Before the Dallas Market Center and Trade Mart opened, the hotel also contained spaces to exhibit products, supporting the city’s role as a center for trade. Over the years, The Adolphus has hosted everything from hula dancers to ice skating revues. It also accommodated the Texas campaign headquarters for Franklin D. Roosevelt and hosted Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip during their official state visit in 1991.
Turn-of-the-century travelers also sought lodging for health or leisure near the state’s unique natural elements. The Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells (currently undergoing an extensive renovation) provided facilities for guests to “take the cure.” On Galveston Island, a group of local businessmen and residents raised money to build a new resort hotel in hopes of bringing tourism back to the city after the devastating hurricane of 1900. The Hotel Galvez, designed by Mauran & Russell of St. Louis and opened in 1911, was completed just one year after the construction of the new seawall. The hotel was originally linked directly to Houston via a 50-mile high-speed interurban train. It sits on 642 wood pilings grouped into concrete piers, providing a strong foundation that has helped protect the hotel through the years, allowing it to host many important events and famous guests. It has also served both as a hurricane shelter and as a temporary White House for Theodore Roosevelt.
In the early years of automotive travel, primitive municipal campsites allowed travelers to pitch their own tents along the roadside. Tourism spawned by expansion in the roadway and communication systems led to the local development of motor courts, motor inns, and highway hotels.
In Waco, E. Lee Torrance and his friend Judge Drummond W. Bartlett built 24 “tourist apartments” to provide lodging for visitors seeking the nearby “curative” 103-degree waters. For the first Alamo Plaza Hotel Courts, which opened on April 9, 1929, the shape of the iconic Alamo was used, implying respect for tradition and security while recalling the design of a hacienda. Torrance would go on to build 20 other motor courts throughout the state.
More hotels went on to be built at the edges of cities and beneath wide-open skies to serve this new car-driving clientele. Henry Trost had already designed many hotels in El Paso when Charles Bassett started to develop the Gateway Hotels to encourage tourism in West Texas. Trost, who worked alongside his brothers and nephew in the firm Trost & Trost, designed several hotels for Bassett, including the El Paisano in Marfa and the El Capitan in Van Horn. These Trost hotels, although slightly different in size and styling, shared similar basic layouts.
While many of these early roadside motels have been demolished to make way for newer development, some of them been transformed into boutique hotels. Until I-35 was built in the 1950s, South Congress was the highway leading into Austin. It was lined with motels, motor courts, and other buildings oriented toward the convenience of the automobile traveler. Hotel San José, originally built in 1936, was transformed by Lake|Flato Architects and Liz Lambert in the late 1990s and acted as a catalyst for the explosive development of the South Congress area.
In San Antonio, the brothers Sam and Phil Barshop built the first La Quinta across the street from the grounds where HemisFair took place in 1968. La Quinta went on to become a successful chain of moderately priced accommodations catering to the business traveler. And speaking of hotel chains, Hilton also famously got its start in Texas when San Antonio-native Conrad Hilton purchased his first hotel in Cisco in 1919.
In all, Texas currently has almost 9,000 hotels, containing a total of more than 600,000 guest rooms. Hotels have come to play an important part in the state’s economy: In 2019, before the onset of the COVID pandemic, hotels contributed $7.8 billion to the Texas tax base and a total of $169.8 billion to the Texas economy. Learning more about the history and impact of hospitality might allow all of us to wander more intentionally.
Donna Kacmar, FAIA, teaches at the University of Houston, practices architecture at Architect Works, and is working on a new book about hotels that focus on materiality, light, accommodation of the act of travel, and connection to their local context.