Tired from a long day of driving, we pulled up to the Antelope Lodge in Alpine and were transported into a 1940s-period postcard. White stucco cottages with covered porches and vintage metal lawn chairs framed a grassy courtyard studded with picnic tables. The foothills of the Davis Mountains loomed against a big blue sky behind the retro red-tile rooftops.

My husband, Dan, and I had driven eight hours from our home near Glen Rose to Big Bend for a getaway from the 24/7 wired world. We wanted to unplug in a place where time seems suspended and immerse ourselves in Big Bend’s vintage vibe.

We arrived at the lodge along US 90 road-weary, much like the travelers in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s who relied on motor courts and tourist camps. We parked our car next to our building, walked across its stone porch, and unlocked the wooden plank door as decades of other guests had done. Inside, though, we found a mix of old and new—modern amenities such as a walk-in shower in the retro tiled bathroom; a kitchenette with Mexican-tile countertops, microwave, and a small refrigerator; and stained-concrete floors.

Antelope Lodge dates to 1949, when post-World War II travelers hit the road in search of adventure and the experience of the journey itself. But the motor court and tourist camp trend began decades earlier, in the 1920s and ’30s. Thanks to Henry Ford’s mass-production innovations, a car became an affordable luxury for most families, and the road trip became part of American culture.

Roadside camps popped up where travelers could stop for the night. Then motor courts arrived and later, motels. We’re fortunate in Texas that some of these gems along the road remain. But others closed—such as Las Palmas Court in Laredo, the Den-Tex Tourist Hotel Courts in Denison, the petrified-wood Texas Tourist Camp in Decatur, the Pueblo Court in Amarillo, and the San Gabriel Motor Court in Georgetown—in large part bypassed by new interstates and the convenience of chain lodgings.

The lodges and camps that survived did so by evolving. Some underwent renovations and even transformations. For instance, the bungalow-style Hotel San José in Austin combines retro appeal with ultra-modern and sleek, minimalist interiors that attract a hip, urban clientele.

Others, such as the Antelope Lodge, took a “gentle” approach, as co-owner Teri Smith puts it. “We tried to do as little as possible that would change things structurally,” she says. “We wanted this to be a trip back in time, back to when things were slower.”

Teri and her husband, John, were living in Coppell and visited Alpine regularly in the early 1990s. Avid rock hounds, they especially enjoyed hunting for the colorful, beautifully patterned agate known as “Marfa Bouquet” on nearby ranches. They always stayed at the Antelope Lodge on their trips out west.

When the property went up for sale in 1995, the Smiths bought the lodge and began restoring the rooms, updating the furnishings, and improving infrastructure such as plumbing and air conditioning. But Teri says they didn’t want to sacrifice the vintage charm to complete modernization. They retained as much of the “rustic casual” look as possible for travelers who want the motor court experience. “The rooms aren’t as large as they are in the new hotels, but that’s because people didn’t spend as much time inside,” Teri says.

Most of the cottages house two rooms for a total of 28 rooms spread through 15 buildings. Some contain the original “cowboy oak” furnishings from 1949. Each room feels different, with artworks and flooring that vary. A few rooms retain the original 1950-era linoleum tiles or original patterned cement tiles from Mexico. Benches and chairs beckon guests to sit outside, and Teri collects ceramic and metal birds to place on the eaves for a personal, whimsical touch.

The Antelope Lodge’s office also houses the Last Frontier Museum of Rocks & Gems, where guests can view native agate Teri has collected, and the Smith & Wife rock and jewelry shop. Teri says the mason who built the office’s front porch wrote the name “Antelope Lodge” in stone and that some of the porches around the property also bear the letters “A” and “L.”

Cover photo: Cerro Castellan at Big Bend National Park by Wayne Suggs


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November 2019 cover of Texas Highways Magazine


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