• On the roof of the Hotel El Capitan in Van Horn is an exact replica of the original red neon sign that beckoned travelers passing through the Trans-Pecos. - photo by Melinda “Lindy” McGinnis

Henry Trost’s hotels of the Trans-Pecos offer lessons in building resilience through community.

A hotel with a sense of place and attachment to community can help a town tell its story. A town can help a hotel endure the pressures of change. Out in far-flung West Texas is a region known as the Trans-Pecos, an unspoiled territory the size of a small state that rolls around for hundreds of miles on the dry side of the Pecos River. In the middle of this realm of cacti and tumbleweeds sit four hotels of architectural distinction that share social, cultural, and commercial influences with the histories of their towns. 

Designed by El Paso architect Henry C. Trost, the Hotel El Capitan of Van Horn, the Hotel Paisano of Marfa, the Holland Hotel of Alpine, and the Gage Hotel of Marathon are historic lodging houses where the passage of people and the march of time have shaped the structures’ relationships with their respective towns. Gathered along a remote section of U.S. 90 within 130 miles of each other, these hotels survived through working partnerships that served both hotel and community. 

Henry Trost was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1860, the son of a building contractor, an upbringing that gave him a natural interest in how things were built. After learning the fundamentals of T-squares and triangles from local architects, Trost left Ohio at around age 20 to explore opportunity in cities of the Midwest, where the invention of the railroad was fast expanding the economic boundaries of a 19th-century United States. In 1899, Trost moved with his sister Louise to Tucson where he found a career in Southwest architecture.

Trost was 43 years old when he relocated permanently to El Paso in 1903. Shortly after arriving, he and his brother Gustavus started the new architectural firm of Trost and Trost with their nephew George. Margaret Smith, Gustavus’ granddaughter, waxed eloquent when she said her grandfather may have encouraged Henry to settle in El Paso with “the vision of building a city in the desert.” Gustavus’ twin, Adolphus, would soon follow for the engineering side of the company. Now a family affair, Trost and Trost was well positioned for the future.

Living in El Paso put Trost in a diverse environment where he could look east toward the western fringes of the Trans-Pecos to design these four hotels. The terrain in that part of Texas is a rough hardscrabble of ocotillo, sotol, and prickly pear mixed in with sprawling prairies of waving grasslands and scrubby mesquite. Looming in the shimmering distance are hazy desert mountains of juniper and ponderosa pine.

Undaunted by these ecological variations, Trost moved through his projects with the firm commitment that buildings be designed for their specific surroundings. He tackled environmental contrasts of the Southwest by creating structures, as a Trost and Trost brochure put it, “to cut off the intense heat of the sun in the summer, to retain the artificial warmth of the house in the winter, and to create a green, flowery oasis for a man’s pleasure and comfort.” To do that, Trost marketed an architectural concept he labeled as designing for “arid America.” When he died in 1933, Trost left behind a legacy of more than 330 architecturally significant buildings in Texas.

Each town in the Trans-Pecos with a Trost hotel — Van Horn, Marfa, Alpine, and Marathon — owed its existence to the railroad. These four spots in the desert got their foothold in the early 1880s because they had access to water: Steam locomotives could travel only so far without quenching their thirst.

Van Horn (pop. 1,941) sits on Interstate 10 at the intersection of U.S. 90, roughly 432 miles west of San Antonio. Folklore spins a tale the town was so small that a man had to be shot and killed to start a cemetery. So why did El Paso hotelier Charles Bassett build a luxury hotel way out in the middle of nowhere?

The year was 1930 and the ascent of the automobile had begun. Motorists traveling by car a great distance to visit newly developing tourist destinations in West Texas could not always end their day at a nice motel. Sometimes they had to settle for a room in what the El Paso Evening Post complained was a “weak effort to bid for the wants of passing tourists.” Bassett’s marketing strategy was to counter that condition by building a chain of hotels to capture an emerging market for luxurious small-town inns catering to vacationers on the move. One of two hotels Bassett opened in Texas, the Hotel El Capitan was built on the Van Horn stretch of the Bankhead Highway, an early version of an American transcontinental highway.

Henry Trost designed the El Capitan in the Pueblo Revival style. He felt the simple, geometric shape in a desert shade of tan was suited to a climate that could be harsh on a structure and on people. The exterior exhibits a unique set of characteristics immediately recognizable for the style — a flat roof hidden behind parapets, exposed beams known as “vigas” that project through thick walls, surfaces of amorphous stucco, and rounded corners. A Trost historian points out the architect recognized a hotel was a communal house in much the same way multifamily structures of the Pueblo Indians were communal houses. 

Seventy-five miles southeast of Van Horn on U.S. 90 in the eclectic town of Marfa (pop. 1,788) is the Hotel Paisano, the other of Bassett’s hotels in Texas. Designed by the same architect, constructed by the same contractor, funded by the same financier, and opened for business in the same year, the two hotels share a mutual heritage and much of the same floor plan. Trost designed the Paisano in the Spanish Revival style, notable for such exterior features as red tiled parapets, iron balconies, Spanish Baroque consoles, and cast-in-place “cartouche” detailing. He understood how the massing of the building conveyed the Spanish architectural influences of the high culture of old Mexico. 

When the stock market cratered in October 1929, the crash sent the nation into the Great Depression. The resulting economic contagion took a bite out of leisure travel for most Americans. Bassett, like everyone else, must have experienced unforeseen disruptions in his business plan right at the time the El Capitan and Paisano were opening their doors. Joe Duncan, who today owns both hotels with his wife, Lanna, commented on Bassett’s unfortunate turn of events. “The year 1930 was not a good time for Bassett to be so aggressive with a new hotel chain,” Duncan said. “The decade of the ’30s for the most part was financially challenging to these hotels.” But by then, Trost had drawn his plans; Bassett had let his construction contracts to the R.E. McKee Company; and local dignitaries had organized their galas. There was no turning back.

What helped the El Capitan and the Paisano stay in business during the Depression were their interaction with local economies and the spending power of area cattlemen who used the hotels as their headquarters for buying and selling livestock. While taking a trip was impractical for most Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, the cattlemen were joined by travelers affluent enough to take in the benefits of dry desert air. Local merchants depended on traveling salesmen to stock their stores. The salesmen arrived by train and stayed at Bassett’s hotels where they could display their wares and entertain their customers. In short, the hotels created their own economies.

From Marfa, U.S. 90 runs past the ghost lights viewing area and drifts up into Paisano Pass, one of the highest points on the highway at an elevation of 5,074 feet. The road sweeps through desert mountain canyonland past Paisano Peak and Twin Sisters Mountain and spills out into a plain where Alpine waits a short 25 miles away.

Local cattle rancher John Holland felt that Alpine (pop. 6,035), one of only two incorporated towns in a county larger than the state of Connecticut, needed a “respectable hotel,” so he built one in 1912 to improve the image of the town. After Holland died 10 years later, his son Clay took over the hotel and hired Henry Trost for a 1928 rebuild next door. Trost worked with the Spanish Revival style to solve problems of Trans-Pecos disparities in temperature by integrating thick walls, deep shade, and high ceilings into the Holland’s spaces.  

The Holland Hotel profited from an early trade of fortune seekers who traveled the Big Bend quicksilver mining route. Local cattlemen regularly gathered at the hotel to talk over their hardships and fret about the price of cattle and what it cost to feed them. A pamphlet published by the current owners, the Greenwich Hospitality Group, recounts a legend that one of the longest running poker games in the West took place somewhere in a room upstairs. Ranchers who ran out of money kept their seat at the table by wagering titles to their spreads. The hotel’s barbershop was gambling central — a man could get a haircut and place a bet at the same time. 

Marathon (pop. 410) is separated from Alpine by 30 miles of U.S. 90 that drapes itself over rises and dips under the big sky of the Trans-Pecos. Lying low in a basin with the Glass Mountains on the north and Big Bend country to the south, the town was named by international ship captain Albion Shepard after he retired from sailing the Mediterranean seas near Marathon, Greece. Marathon, Texas, is an unincorporated, laid-back community not more than a mile wide.

Halfway through town is the Gage Hotel, two stories of buff-colored brick. The idea for the hotel sprouted from the interest of local ranchers who wanted to pool their resources to build a common place to negotiate the price of their cattle with prospective buyers. Even though the cattlemen offered to share costs, Alfred Gage, owner of one of the largest ranches in the area, financed the hotel himself. Designed by Trost in 1926, the structure was built a year later to serve as Gage’s center of operations when he made the trip from San Antonio to check on his herds. His contemporaries also had a place to cut their deals. The subtle but recognizable motifs of Trost’s taste for Mission Revival architecture guided his choice of minimal ornamentation for the hotel’s exterior. Designing for the basic needs of a ranching lifestyle, Trost drew with versatility for a simpler interpretation of the style.

The Gage greets its visitors under a vine-covered porch that leads into a lobby with large Spanish-style windows and rounded transoms that reflect the Trost and Trost affinity for Southwest architecture. A painting of a galloping stagecoach that hangs over an immense fireplace repeats the storyline of the Texas frontier. Walking through the lobby is a reminder of the footsteps of boots that once echoed off wooden floors back when cowboys wheeled and dealed to earn a living in the Old West. 

But the Gage was more than lariats, spurs, and cattle deals. In an oral history on file in the Archives of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Leona Mae Starr Baker, the daughter of a Gage manager from about 1931 to 1944, tells a softer side, one of tap shoes, piano lessons, and school dances. Leona’s mother, Mae, known far and wide for her hospitality, kept her doors opened to the young people of Marathon for whom she believed she could do good things by introducing them to a taste of culture. Men down on their luck would come in off the highway or climb down from a boxcar of a parked train to see what they could find on Mae’s doorstep. She usually bartered a bit of their labor for a plate of food. When Houston oil man J.P. Bryan bought the Gage in 1978, he recognized how deeply the hotel’s past was woven into the fabric of the community it served. His efforts to honor those histories are well known in preservation society.

Hospitality is a relationship between guest and host. The Depression meant guests were not traditional travelers out to see the sights. Hotel managers in the Trans-Pecos were a friendly enough lot who knew it was good business, sometimes their only business, to roll out the welcome mat for an enthusiastic community and make the most of the hotels as centers of their social scene. Dances, luncheons, parties, and weddings were celebrated as local soirees of taste and refinement seldom seen on the frontier. Ballrooms were convenient places for politicians to see and be seen.

Tourism in the Trans-Pecos was slow to recover from the effects of the Depression and World War II. Travel began to bounce back in the 1950s, but its mode had changed as Americans turned away from the formalities of elegant hotels and instead gravitated to the convenience of pulling up to the front of a motel, unloading their luggage, and piling the family in for the night. Civic behaviors changed, too, when social options moved away from hotels. Survival was no longer possible. The El Capitan became a bank; the Paisano was sold as condominiums with 800 timeshare owners; the Holland was converted into an office complex; and the Gage fell into a deplorable, misbegotten condition. All seemed lost. 

But then new owners with imagination rode to their rescue by investing heavily in the preservation of the historical significance of the hotels. They spared no expense in a vision that celebrates the hard-won triumphs of the Trans-Pecos. As AnneJo P. Wedin put it in her book on the region, “The Magnificent Marathon Basin,” the most important history is that of people and their struggles in life. “What is today,” she writes, “is because of what was yesterday.” To spend a night in a Trost hotel is to sleep with history. Their stories and the stories of their towns are told through their connection of the past with the present. Henry Trost designed four enduring architectural wonders that began life in the Trans-Pecos with an outlook for a prosperous future, took their places as centers of their communities, barely escaped disaster in their declining years, and were eventually saved by creative owners. Their sense of place remains intact.

Larry McGinnis is a freelance writer in Austin who is active in several local historical organizations.

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