|By Elizabeth Campbell, Fort Worth
Star-Telegram, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jul. 24, 2009--CLEBURNE -- It would have been easy for business owner Howard Dudley to tear down the once-elegant Liberty Hotel and make something new.
But he chose the more difficult task of almost rebuilding the structure from the ground up and spending more than $5 million recreating the luxurious landmark from the 1920s with modern conveniences.
The project is the latest improvement the Dudley family hopes will help revive downtown Cleburne, a town of about 30,000 southwest of Fort Worth.
"We want to pull people into downtown Cleburne," Scott Dudley said of his father's purchase of the Liberty Hotel.
The hotel is among several projects the family has undertaken to jump-start activity downtown. The Dudleys renovated the Wright Building across the street, which is used for offices. They also opened the Caddo Street Grill, the restaurant that now provides room service to the Liberty.
Scott Dudley said his father has owned property in Johnson County for about 30 years, and about 10 years ago moved the family business, Technical Chemical Co., to Cleburne.
"My father has always liked Cleburne," he said.
When Cleburne businessman A.J. Wright opened the four-story Liberty Hotel in 1924, it was a luxurious stop along the Santa Fe Railway, which built a terminal nearby.
On opening day, a 42-piece band played in the ballroom, and the hotel was a hub of activity, with a barbershop and bus station, Dudley said. The Liberty also boasted Cleburne's first elevator.
There were 69 rooms, 13 of which had private baths, said Ron Lindsey, the Liberty's manager.
"There were telephones in each room, but people could only call between rooms because most homes didn't have phones," he said.
In 1933, Lawrence Welk and his band, the Hotsy Totsy Boys, played at the Liberty.
But by the late 1930s, the hotel went into a steep decline, first brought on by a yearlong strike by Santa Fe Railway workers.
Then, as in other small towns, railroad passenger traffic dried up after the interstate highways were built. The Liberty fell into disrepair.
Various people tried to revive it. The name was even changed to the Greenbrier, because the Liberty name had become so "seedy," Scott Dudley said.
In 2004, the Dudleys began the monumental task of renovating the building.
They left the brick facade largely untouched, but inside it was a different story. They took down the interior walls to the studs; new flooring was installed and the terrazzo floor in the lobby was restored, eventually bringing it back to its former grandeur.
"It would have been easier to bulldoze it, but my father wanted to keep the original look," Scott Dudley said.
Care was taken to make sure the hotel looked much the same as it did during the 1920s, with chandeliers and ornate furnishings.
Instead of 69 rooms, there are now 50. And there are the modern touches, such as high-speed Internet and an energy-saving system that turns off air conditioning and lights when rooms are empty, Lindsey said. When someone walks in, the thermostat senses motion and adjusts the temperature within two minutes.
The new Liberty also has a fitness center and outdoor pool.
Since the hotel reopened in April, many of its guests have been attorneys who are in Johnson County for trials, Lindsey said.
The Dudleys hope their latest venture will continue to bring improvements to downtown Cleburne.
"We're hoping that what we've done so far will act as a catalyst for others to come in to downtown and for more businesses to come," Scott Dudley said.
ELIZABETH CAMPBELL, 817-390-7696
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