For the Gage Hotel’s 90th Anniversary, TTS Executive Director Malissa Arras interviewed J. P. Bryan, renowned businessman and historian, about finding a run-down hotel in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, and what it was like to give it – and the town – a new life.
M.A. There are certain questions I had about the story of you acquiring the Gage Hotel that we are very curious about. Every time people talk about the Gage, they talk about how it’s in the middle of nowhere. You go through those mountain passes, and it feels like you’re on the edge of Texas, and then you come upon this little town after Alpine. Let’s begin with how you ended up there.
J.P. It wasn’t like a carefully ordained plan. We wanted to own a ranch and kept looking further because we didn’t want some little “postage stamp.” We couldn’t find anything we could afford that was near the more traditional places that we had spent our early time enjoying in South Texas, so I kept going further West because prices kept going down. Finally, we located a ranch south of Marathon and bought it, but after about 6 months of enduring life there without very many of the luxuries or even the necessities of life – we didn’t have electricity, which if you think about that there’s a whole series of normal life accommodations you don’t have, washing machines, ice boxes, electrical lights, air conditioning, and telephone – we thought it’d be nice to have a place in town where we could get messages and do our laundry and so forth. So, we were looking for a house – it wasn’t like we had some vision of a great hotel in a faraway place, or anything even approaching that. It was the farthest removed from our concept at the time, and I simply purchased the building because it was the most attractive of these opportunities that were available in Marathon at the time.
M.A. Really? Because there are some other historic buildings there but were they just not…
J.P. There are some, but there were none for sale at the time. We looked at houses, and they were, you know, not much better than what we were first living in – on our ranch. They were not very attractive, and we thought the hotel was a much more substantial and prominent building, so I called a guy that had it listed for sale… [there was] just had a little cardboard poster in the window with a phone number on it, and we talked about it for a minute or two, and I said, “Well look is that building still for sale?” and he said, “Oh yeah, as a matter of fact, you’re the first guy that called.” We had a laugh and [I said] “What do you want for it?” and he said “Thirty thousand dollars.” … you know it’s a 20-room hotel, and I sort of paused, and I said “Thirty thousand dollars?” … and he said, “Yeah, well I can go down a little.” “Oh really,” I said, “I’m amazed that it’s that inexpensive.” And he said, “Where are you calling from?” And I said “Houston, Texas.” “Mr. Bryan,” he said, “real-estate processes are a lot different out here in Marathon than they are in Houston.” So, I said, “There must be something wrong with it, right?” He said “No, it’s structurally very sound.” and I said, “You still use it as a hotel?” He said “Yeah.” And I said “I see. Look, if there’s nothing foundationally or structurally wrong with it, I’ll buy it at that price right now. I’ll make a commitment to you over the phone, and you can just take it off the market. I’ll send a guy out there; I’ll have him do the inspection.” Sure enough, the guy came back and said everything was perfect. I mean there weren’t any foundational or structural issues at all, the building was a solid, well-built structure. There were, however, as I later remorsed over, there were certain other issues I should have addressed other than just the structural integrity of the building.
M.A. So you hadn’t seen the inside before buying it?
J.P. I had not seen the inside.
M.A. But was it still in use as a hotel?
J.P. It was. They had two downstairs rooms that were rented to ranchers who’d use them as offices. And there were a few rooms, probably two or three that could have been occupied by something other than mice, and they were in terrible condition. The toilets were all broken and didn’t function. The ceilings leaked. There was dropped cardboard ceiling that was missing pieces, the floors downstairs had linoleum on it that was buckling, the smell was terrible, and it had 13 coats of paint, which I was later to find out when all the woodwork [was being restored] and we had gone through various color iterations to get back to the natural wood that was underneath it. So, it was just an interior disaster.
M.A. What year was that?
M.A. Really quickly, just to understand, was there much going on in town? I’d imagine that the town was pretty much like it is today, just very quiet, a gas station, a town outside of what the Gage is… had much changed about the town?
J.P. I’d say the town had some remaining symbols of vitality, but it was in much of a death spiral from an economic perspective. There was a main street, and sort of one viable business if it can be called that. Sort of an antique store, more of a junk store, so I did some business. People would come in, and he’d get some interesting things from time to time. Across the railroad tracks, there was a butcher shop. Up the street further was a hardware store. He had a wonderful store, one of those stores of the past where every possible item you would want for the ranch or construction project. He’d normally have a fitting or a tool or whatever you needed, and he dealt with all the ranchers for years, and sort of knew each one and what each one would require. The bank had closed and over the next year or so the butcher closed. There was no grocery store. There were no other shops, no real economic vitality in the sense that there were no restaurants…
M.A. Yeah, businesses making people stop…
J.P. There was a coffee shop, and that was it, the motel and the west end of town Marathon Motel was open, but there certainly weren’t a proliferation of visitors.
M.A. When you looked at the Gage, was there anything architecturally that you thought was interesting? Or did you feel that the building itself served your needs better than one of the houses?
J.P. You know, I guess it’s something in the experience you have in life with people or other innate objects, the more you look at it or appreciate it or understand it, the more you connect to it and understand the design and what was the purpose it was meant to serve. I was taken by the French doors on the outside. I thought it was such a nice architectural statement. The rest of the building, it was the appearance was very workman-like – very efficient – I didn’t think it made a dramatic statement. It seemed very subdued. I like things proportional and comfortable. It had some architectural embellishments to it, but it’s nothing like many of the other Trost buildings. At the time, however, I didn’t know anything. I knew neither who Trost was, nor any of the buildings that he had designed of importance. I just knew that it was a building that had bricks on it.
M.A. Yeah, I understand that too from walking around El Paso, you see all these run-down buildings. Then you kind of look up and you notice something interesting. It wasn’t until I went to Italy and came back that I realized they were very, architecturally very beautiful. Not just Trost buildings but we have a lot of beautiful buildings in downtown El Paso.
J.P. I didn’t know what to do with the building after I saw the interior, and I just realized that I bought what appeared to me to be an economic disaster because whatever I paid for the building looked like it was vastly less than what it was going to cost to get repaired. For whatever purpose, I bought it to be a home. My wife said “Well that’s absurd. 20 rooms, J.P. You don’t have 20 friends that you could possibly encourage to come out here.” And I said “Well we can have our family” and she said, “Have you looked recently, you’ve got two children and me.” It was quite a discouraging realization. We sort of dealt with it for oh I don’t know, a year and a half or better. I got a guy to come to the ranch to try to make our house more accommodating, then while he was working on it he said, “Do you own that Gage Hotel?” I said, yes, kind of, with much trepidation, figuring I was going to hear some critical comment, like that, was a dumb move. He said, “You know Mr. Bryan, I can restore that hotel for you. I’ve been through it, and I know a lot about historical restoration.” And I said, (his name was George), and I said well, George, that’s incredible. He didn’t look the part. I’m not sure what a restoration contractor is supposed to look like. He seemed to be like a sergeant in the army. In fact, he had been. He’d been in the army for 20 years of his life, and his job was restoration of historical sites on military bases. I said well what do you need, George? He said, “I need the plans.” And I got to have the blueprints because there have been changes and I can’t tell how to start the restoration without them. And I said well, I have no idea. I tried to find them. I couldn’t find out who the architect was. The only thing I could find was that Ponsford and Sons had built the building. By then I began to know more about West Texas, we’d been there a couple of years, and I was aware of the other hotels there, such as the Paisano and the Holland and the El Capitan. I knew a man named Trost had built them and that he was a renowned architect or an architect of some reputation. So, I happened to be in El Paso for an annual meeting of the Texas State Historical Association in 1981 and as I went into the building where they were having most of the meetings, and all the book dealers were present. And the El Paso library had a table, showing their book wares and featured was their latest publication,
M.A. “Architects of the Southwest.”
J.P. I looked at it, and the doors on the front of that cover looked exactly like the doors on the Gage Hotel. French Style, which Trost used that signature a lot in the things he did. I immediately bought the book, thinking that was our building. And low and behold I found out it wasn’t, and there was no reference to the Gage Hotel in the index. I was sort of disheartened, needless to say. But I did notice that consistently Ponsford and Sons had been the contractor for many of those buildings. I wondered if they were still in El Paso so I called and sure enough they were. Lady answers the phone, I ask her I said: “Look, y’all built the Gage Hotel?” She says “Oh yeah, sure.” I said, “Would you happen to have the blueprints?” She said wait a minute, let me check.” So she came back on the phone, she said: “I’ve got them right here in my hands.” I said, “Oh my gosh I can’t believe it.” So, having the blueprints, understanding the importance of Trost, and what his particular talents were and how much a restored building by him could mean to the little town of Marathon. I thought you know, I think I’m going to try to do it, even though I knew it was going to be a real financial sacrifice. I told my wife about it and we came back, and she was real reluctant. She thought it was going to be a fool’s mission. But we got the downstairs done, well ahead of schedule and far less than the budget. The upstairs didn’t go as well because George got very ill, or succumbed to alcoholism and had to get somebody else to finish the upstairs, which wasn’t done anywhere near as well as the downstairs. But it was adequate. Downstairs and the lobby – George did a beautiful job on. Anyway, we opened it up.
M.A. What year?
J.P. Probably 1981 or 1982. December, I think. I’ve got the book on it. They say, “You build it and they’ll come.” Well, we restored it, and nobody came. We had pretty much an empty hotel for years. We had occasional visitors in, but certainly we weren’t run over with guests, and we continued to observe the downfall of the community around us. At some point, we’d gained some popularity and got a regular visitor base that came mostly from around Austin. A lot of them were what we would define as hippies. Sort of outdoor hippies, that loved to hike and camp and didn’t mind a more rustic environment. The Gage Hotel was done in a more rustic style than it is today, and only about half the rooms had baths. So there was a clear break regarding what your clients wanted. Some actually requested rooms without baths. We had a collection of visitors who for years would request a room that they particularly liked that didn’t have a bath in it. We had baths down the hall, and they were great, well done, not something that would frighten you to go into. But nevertheless, you were going to be in there. The women’s bathroom had separate enclosures; the men’s were an open type of environment and showers and separate toilets. Anyway, we gave everybody robes so that you could wear them down there. We’ve since changed all of that.
M.A. When did you do that last remodel where most of the rooms had bathrooms, and I think now just two bedrooms don’t have bathrooms?
J.P. One, yeah just one. Yeah, we left one room that, five years ago we did a complete renovation of the whole hotel. We didn’t just put in bathrooms in the ones that didn’t have them, we re-did every room and upgraded the bathrooms and the rooms that already had them. So it was a total re-do of the entire interior of the whole hotel.
M.A. Did you close the interior?
J.P. Yes, we had to close. We did the upstairs first, then the downstairs, leaving the downstairs open, so when we got the upstairs complete, we opened it and closed the downstairs.
M.A. That was in 2012?
M.A. I didn’t know that. That’s interesting. I thought that it was done in phases. But I thought that you always had the intention of having an up-scale luxury hotel.
J.P. You thought that we’d always what?
M.A. Had the intention of having a very upscale luxury hotel. You know, a boutique hotel. That’s very trendy now.
J.P. I thought, no I never really had anything in mind, other than just trying to open. Because the place is so distant from everything, my thoughts were that we could have an environment that was different than a motel or a Big 6, one that had historical artifacts and sort of symbols of the culture of the Native Americans and the Mexican Americans that occupied the Southwest. If you combine those in the way that we decorated things and the symbols we put around (and that they were real, they weren’t just reproductions), and could serve decent food – and we always made an effort to have a real quality chef there – that we would attract people. Because the area itself is remote, and rough, and fragile, and hot and cold (not oppressively so, except at certain times of the year). We felt like it spoke to the character of the place, so even in its more rustic period, it was an attractive place. It wasn’t ever like oh jeez, this is shabby or run-down. It always spoke of something interesting. People found it culturally attractive – it had aesthetic appeal. And the rooms were nice; we had big comfy mattresses and pillows – we didn’t have hard rubber foam things. We had 400-count sheets, and we made everything quality with big towels and stuff like that. You didn’t feel like you were in a motel. So it gave it an upscale feeling in the rooms.
M.A. How do you feel that that impacted the community, in the sense that you’re attracting people who wouldn’t have otherwise stopped in Marathon? Or did you feel that the real change came after the big remodel in 2012?
J.P. No, no, it had been ‘92, when we built Los Portales. The porches. When we built those, it changed the nature of the hotel.
M.A. Oh, that’s right, that was one of my questions because you expanded the whole thing.
J.P. We put in the swimming pool and the additional area between the old hotel and the new hotel and the Los Portales. We did that in a real upscale style. Obviously, all the rooms had attractive bathrooms and were well done and had everything in them. All decorated differently. They all had their own decorative elements so you can identify each room. Some with chaps and others with maps and so forth, so they were all very tastefully done. And there are 20 rooms, the same number of rooms we had in the old hotel. It was a real nice balance at that point in our history.
If I said there was a turning point in the history of the hotel and in the community itself, that was it. We suddenly started attracting much more upscale clients that could afford to pay more. It was also a demarcation point from Los Portales and the old hotel. There was much more demand for Los Portales than there was the old hotel, or the historic hotel as we called it. So we realized after a number of years, the Los Portales would always sell out first, and then the rooms with baths would go next, and the last to go would be the rooms without baths. It’s pretty simple. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. We realized we were going to have to do something to make the historic hotel competitive with Los Portales, so we did. We spent a lot of money on it. We totally refurbished and upgraded it to make the experience of staying there as nice as the experience of Los Portales. And then we bought the Captain Shepherds, which is seven rooms and being the most historic building in town, we saved that.
M.A. What year?
J.P. It had been about two years before we did a re-do on the interior of the hotel, so I’d say about 2010. In the meantime, many years before that we had bought the adjoining 18 acres across [from the Gage]. So that was done very tastefully, and we created the gardens [across the way] so we could have events over there. And we bought several buildings around the gardens that we converted to houses for people to stay. Those have turned out to be very nice, tastefully done and offer a different kind of experience. So what has happened is there are people who have come to Marathon, bought homes, and you almost can’t find a place there now. There are small businesses, not anything unusual, but there are little shops, things of that nature. We have a bank. We have French’s Market which substitutes for not having to drive all the way to Alpine for a bottle of milk or a pound of bacon. So you can get the necessities there. Filling stations have shops in them, and they do a nice brisk trade. We have the Marathon Motel which has upgraded itself and offers a much nicer experience than it used to. So everything there has been fully utilized. All the buildings are occupied by some form of enterprise along Main Street, so to speak. I don’t want to sound dramatic but we just didn’t save a building, we saved the soul of the community. There’s no doubt about that. We are without question the largest employer in the community.
M.A. Yeah, that was my next question.
J.P. It’s made a big difference in the school and ourselves, we’re the largest employer. We work to keep the school a viable part of our community. That and the hotel, and then the whole series of little businesses. You know that sort of defines the economy of Marathon. We’d love to have some clean business that came there that didn’t pollute or create havoc in the community. It’d be nice to have 20 or 30 people employed doing something else. Being the 3rd leg on the stool so to speak. Tourism has obviously become a more active experience, and hopefully, somebody will come in here before too long with an idea of how to expand everything and buy the hotel from me and make it much larger or do something of that nature.
M.A So what sets the Gage apart from other boutique hotels in the region? I want to say it’s the food and also just the quality and being in the lobby is a little bit like being in a museum, but what do you think it is?
J.P. I think it’s that we didn’t try to create an artificial environment. We took all the symbols, artefactual and otherwise, and I think artfully placed them so that people have a real sense that they’ve been transformed back in time; they’re in touch with what the place looked like. It’s not some contemporary building, but there’s a sense that ok, this is what its like to be in the West because you see all the props that were part of that entire experience of the settlement of the West. It to me, it just extends your vision of the country. What you see when you’re staying at the Gage Hotel, you see in some form or another surrounding you, either culturally, or in the natural landscape.