|By Ramon Renteria, El Paso Times,
TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
December 5, 2009 --VAN HORN -- Joe Duncan resuscitates old buildings.
"Finding old buildings and trying to make them into something interesting and a fun place for people to stay -- that's my business," he said.
Duncan, 50, is being applauded in Van Horn for buying and restoring the historic Hotel El Capitan, a 1930s Pueblo-style concrete hotel designed by the famous Southwest architect Henry C. Trost of El Paso and his firm.
Leaders in Van Horn -- population 2,800 -- are hopeful that the hotel will help jump-start long-awaited revitalization of the town's downtown. Van Horn is 120 miles southeast of El Paso, along Interstate 10.
El Capitan reopened as a hotel on Labor Day after a major, year-long face-lift. The hotel had been headquarters for Van Horn State Bank since the 1970s.
With its high ceilings and missionlike facade, El Capitan has been described as one of the best examples in Texas of Pueblo Revival architecture -- a design style more common in New Mexico.
"We're the only historic hotel" still operational in Van Horn, Duncan said. "We're trying to stand apart from all of the chain motels in Van Horn."Except for adding a few modern conveniences like an elevator, the hotel still has its original design, elaborate tile work and late 1920s elegance. From the check-in counter, you can easily imagine far West Texas cattlemen wheeling and dealing almost 80 years ago in the spacious lobby. Back then, everything in the hotel's coffee shop cost a nickel.
El Paso's Bassett family built the hotel as part of the Gateway chain in far West Texas and New Mexico. It opened July 10, 1930, with a barbecue and dance that included a string of El Paso dignitaries.
The $200,000 hotel had 65 rooms with baths and ceiling fans, a
coffee shop, drugstore and barbershop, according to stories in the El
Paso Herald. El Capitan was named after the majestic peak and signature
landmark in the Guadalupe Mountains about an hour's drive away.
A couple of years ago, Joe Duncan was scouting the nearby Clark Hotel, another historic Van Horn hotel that had been converted into a museum, when he looked across the street and spotted El Capitan. He decided on the spot to try to buy it instead.
Duncan bought the hotel in late 2007, gave the bank a year to relocate, and started remodeling last summer.
He will not disclose how much he paid for the hotel and the subsequent restoration work, but some Van Horn leaders estimate the remodeling alone cost more than $1 million.
Duncan had a successful career in commercial real estate in Dallas when he moved back to his native Fort Davis in 1991 to run the historic Olympia Hotel, which he and his wife, Lanna, bought from his family.
"We had confidence we could do the Van Horn hotel," he said. "We're trying to rejuvenate downtown Van Horn with the anchors being the Hotel El Capitan and the museum across the street. All the commerce has moved out to the interstate."
The Duncans had also bought and restored the historic Paisano Hotel in Marfa, another Trost-designed building with a floor plan similar to Hotel El Capitan but with more of a Mediterranean or Spanish influence evident in the exterior.
In Van Horn, the recent remodeling project included 54 new bathrooms, new plumbing and electrical systems. Duncan plans to add a full-service restaurant and bar by April and some retail outlets later.
"We want to make it a destination in Van Horn," he said.
Original tile work in El Capitan is similar to tile in the Cortez Hotel, one of various Downtown El Paso landmark buildings that Trost's architectural firm designed.
Frank Weidman, of Spicewood in the Texas Hill Country, recently stayed at El Capitan while vacationing and hiking in the Big Bend area and the Guadalupe Mountains.
"It's got character. I like that it's not crowded," he said. "I'm in the millwork business. The doors, moulding and finish look authentic. It looks like the hotel has been restored with a lot of thought and tender loving care."
Heradio Luna, a retired Van Horn schoolteacher and town historian of sorts, talks about how his father, Castulo Luna, was one of the hotel's first bellhops and later worked in the 1940s as its handyman: gardener, boiler repairman, painter and custodian.
"There's good memories here," he said. "My dad would teach me how to do things. I learned a lot in the drugstore, working as a soda jerk."
Luna, 79, recalls the still-standing basement cell that the Border Patrol used to detain undocumented immigrants, and the popular hotel watering hole known as the Gopher Hole. His son, David, works on the maintenance staff at the restored hotel.
Hotel manager Donna Adams talks about how some town leaders think the hotel is the perfect anchor for downtown revitalization.
"This is a great historic hotel that brings people back to earlier history when things were built right," Adams said. "We just want to make it a nice comfortable place."
Coziness is already evident in a lobby with a massive fireplace and private porches attached to some suites -- perfect spaces to lounge around.
Cary Robinson, a hotel staffer who helped with various restoration projects, looked at spectacular vistas from the roof where a deck is planned.
"This is the best place in Van Horn to watch the sun go down," he said. "From this vantage point, you can see 21 named mountains."
Larry Simpson, publisher of the Van Horn Advocate weekly newspaper and president of the Van Horn Chamber of Commerce, is optimistic the restored hotel, with the proposed Blue Origin commercial spaceport in the area, is the perfect kind of economic development that's needed to help bring back Van Horn's downtown. Much of the commercial development in recent years has taken place not in the heart of Van Horn but along Interstate 10.
"It's a plus for our community and for our downtown area," Simpson said. "This is a premier site for people to stay."
Ramon Renteria may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6146.
Trost's influence El Paso architect Henry C. Trost left his imprint on more than 300 buildings in El Paso and across the Southwest. --Hotels his firm designed include the Hilton, Paso del Norte, Cortez and Gateway in El Paso; the Franciscan in Albuquerque; La Caverna and the Crawford in Carlsbad; the Paisano in Marfa; the Holland in Alpine; and the Hidalgo in Lordsburg, N.M.
--Hundreds of private homes were Trost designs, including his own Prairie House at 1013 E. Yandell.
--Other Trost-designed buildings in the El Paso area: various apartment houses; the O.T. Bassett Tower; Old Main, the first building at what was then the Texas College of Mines; and La Tuna federal prison in Anthony, Texas. Source: El Paso Times archive
If you go --Hotel El Capitan in Van Horn now has 38 rooms and suites available after a year of restoration. Additional work is planned, including creating a restaurant and bar.
--The hotel, designed by the noted Southwest architect Henry C. Trost of El Paso and his firm, is billed as a destination in far West Texas for guests visiting the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks, and for eastbound and westbound travelers on Interstate 10.
--Rates: Suites go for $129 a night.
--Location: 100 E. Broadway, two blocks north of I-10 (exit 140 A).
--Information: 877-282-1220 or www.hotelelcapitan.net.
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Copyright (c) 2009, El Paso Times, Texas
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