From the elevated viewpoint of the towering Hotel Settles, you can see much of Big Spring and the industries that have shaped the town since its 1881 founding. The Union Pacific Railroad rumbles through a few blocks away; the Alon oil refinery rises to the east; wind turbines spin on the southeastern horizon; the Veterans Administration hospital anchors the south end of town; and, beyond a ridge to the southwest, the Hangar 25 Air Museum recalls the influence of the defunct Webb Air Force Base.
It’s natural to take a historical view of Big Spring when you check in to the Hotel Settles. The 83-year-old hotel, which opened in December 2012 after a meticulous restoration, conjures local history throughout. From the lobby’s original terrazzo floor to the 1930s photos in the guest rooms, the Settles breathes new life into Big Spring, past and present.
For travelers, the resurrection of the landmark provides comfortable lodging steeped in local character and a port for exploring this remote West Texas town, where a northern outcrop of the Edwards Plateau meets the southern High Plains. “We never thought the Settles would come back, really,” says Tammy Shrecengost, curator of the Big Spring Heritage Museum. “There were promises that came, and everybody would be excited, and then there would be a lot of disappointment. For it to blossom into a reality has been wonderful. I think it’s always going to be the heart of Big Spring. No matter what happens, everyone’s going to stand by the Settles.”
The Hotel Settles was indeed the heart of Big Spring for decades after it opened in 1930. Howard County rancher W.R. Settles built the 15-story hotel for $500,000 with his Texas tea windfall during the oil boom of the 1920s. Abilene architect David Castle designed the Art Deco building to be a luxurious West Texas stop-over between Fort Worth and El Paso. Though W.R. lost the hotel during the Great Depression, the Settles thrived for decades as a hot spot for professional conferences, grand parties, and lodging for high-profile visitors, among them Elvis Presley, Herbert Hoover, Roy Orbison, and Lawrence Welk.
The Settles’ prominence faded over the years, however, subject to changing ownership, local economic struggles, and the degradation of time. By the 1970s, the hotel had deteriorated into a flophouse, and in 1980, it closed its doors. Over the next 25 years, various rehabilitation plans fell flat, short-term owners stripped the interior of valuable components, vandals made a mess, the roof caved in, and the city took ownership over unpaid taxes. Demolition appeared to be imminent.
“It’s a phenomenal building, but it was just about as close to total destruction as you can imagine,” says Brint Ryan, a Big Spring native who took a renewed interest in the Settles in 2006 when the city was considering a downtown redevelopment project that ultimately stalled. (Many downtown storefronts are vacant and await improvement.)
Ryan, founder of Ryan LLC, a Dallas-based tax-services firm, bought the hotel building from the city, and over the next six years, the Settles Hotel Development Company carried out a $30 million restoration, with a careful focus on historical accuracy. “We restored it as close as possible to the original as you can imagine,” Ryan says. “W.R. Settles, if he walked in the lobby today, he’d recognize the place.”
Visitors walking into the lobby encounter a wide-open room with a large marble staircase leading to a second-story mezzanine. Wooden wall paneling, plush leather couches, decorative carpets, and gold plaster flourishes on the wall mouldings reflect developers’ attempts to re-create what they saw in the original blueprints, old photos, and the few remnant artifacts from the Settles’ early days. “With the lighting, the lamps, the furniture, and details like that, we tried to emulate what we saw from back then in the pictures,” says Juan Rodriguez, the hotel’s managing director.
One of the restoration highlights is the Grand Ballroom, painted a soft pastel green and decorated with crystal chandeliers, golden plaster flourishes, and metal fans attached to the walls. An enlarged black-and-white photo of a banquet at the 1931 “West Texas Drug Convention” proves the remarkable accuracy of the ballroom’s re-creation.
To meet the expectations of contemporary visitors, the hotel enlarged most of its rooms during the restoration; now there are 65 rooms, down from the original 150. The new rooms are thoroughly modern—flat-screen TVs, comfy beds, mini-fridges—but they also reflect the hotel’s origins with black-and-white tiled showers, glass-topped writing desks, Art Deco lamps, maroon drapes, and historic photos. For those who really want the authen-tic experience, you can select one of the historic rooms on the third floor. The rooms measure 10-by-14 feet and contain metal bed frames, ceiling fans, tiled bathroom floors, and original cast-iron tubs. “We only have two of this size, because the majority of people want the bigger rooms,” Rodriguez says.
The Settles’ bar and restaurant also represent a modern twist on the hotel’s history. The Pharmacy Bar & Parlour—the space was originally a pharmacy—has a backlit glass-top bar, as well as couches and a fireplace in the lounge area, a pool table, and a felt-top poker table. There are also poker tables in the Judge’s Chamber—a basement lounge with a cigar bar and shuffleboard table.
The Settles Grill updates the hotel restaurant’s historic status as a diner with a warm Art Deco vibe of blue vinyl booths, dark-wooden wall panels and dining tables, and a semi-open kitchen. During my family’s stay, meals of biscuits and gravy, grilled river trout, and New York strip steak typified the menu’s contemporary Western fare—and tasted great.
After soaking in the local history at the Settles, it’s worth a drive around Big Spring to visit some of the attractions that round out the town’s story. At Comanche Trail Park, you can see the site of the city’s namesake spring, which attracted buffalo, Native Americans, settlers, and the railroad. The spring ran dry not long after the town was settled, but now the city pumps water from Comanche Lake through a small creek, lined by oaks and mesquite, that flows into the limestone spring pool. A disc golf basket along the creek signals the presence of a 36-hole course, which hosts the annual West Texas championships. The park is also home to a playground with all sorts of towers and bridges, an 18-hole golf course, and an outdoor aquatic center with pools, slides, and a lazy river.
A stop at the Heritage Museum provides more insight into Big Spring history—and a few quirky displays donated by local residents. Along with exhibits explaining the local influence of ranching, the Texas & Pacific Railway (now the Union Pacific), and the Cosden oil refinery (now Alon), the museum features a collection of beautiful frontier paintings by H.W. Caylor, around 50 antique phonographs and gramophones, and an extensive doll collection. Particularly interesting is the exhibit on Patricia McCormick, a local woman who became a famous bull- fighter in Mexico in the 1950s.
On the expansive grounds of the old Webb Air Force Base, the Hangar 25 Air Museum chronicles the history of the base and its predecessor, the Big Spring Army Air Corps Bombardier School, with a display of military training jets and propeller aircraft. The Air Force deactivated the base in 1977. The closure was a major blow to the local economy, but it also opened up space for an industrial park and new tenants including a private airport and a collection of federal and private prisons housing roughly 5,000 inmates. If you’re interested in life on the inside, you can drive past the five facilities and see inmates playing basketball and soccer behind the razor wire-topped fencing.
Sitting between the town and the industrial park is Big Spring State Park, a 385-acre park on the 200-foot limestone bluff known as Scenic Mountain. Joggers and dog-walkers flock to the winding road that climbs the hill amid scrub oak, mesquite, juniper, and yucca. The summit affords a terrific view of Big Spring and the rolling prairie and flatlands that stretch beyond. Rising above it all is the Hotel Settles, once again in its historic role as a beacon guiding Big Spring on to its next chapter.