Hotel Settles: A Bell Cow Rings Again

For more than 30 years, Hotel Settles was a Big Spring eyesore. In its abandoned and deteriorating condition, it was also an embarrassing reality check of the city’s decline. Despite several attempts to revive it, the building was headed for demolition. Mercifully — and cognizant of the arduous task at hand — Big Spring-native son and visionary G. Brint Ryan, now of Dallas, purchased the landmark in 2007 and re-opened its doors this February after a $30M six-year historical rehabilitation. The 15-story Classical Revival/Art Deco hotel is now an appealing destination in West Texas that is breathing new life into the surrounding community.  

Following the acquisition of the hotel, which is stylistically, age- and size-wise similar to the shorter Holt Hotel in Wichita Falls, Ryan formed the privately-funded Settles Hotel Development Corporation (SHDC). Recruiting his brother Kristopher Ryan as general manager, he hired Dallas-based restoration architect Norman Alston, AIA, for the rehabilitation project, which was to include a ballroom, full-service restaurant, day spa, and, later, an outdoor swimming pool. According to Alston, the three biggest challenges of the adaptation were:  1) protecting decorative plaster ceilings in a building that needed a fire sprinkler system; 2) finding a place for a second code-required exit staircase in the tower’s 4,000-sf concrete-framed floor plates, and 3) providing accessible restrooms for the ballroom and banquet halls.

SHDC had a clear vision for the restoration and rehabilitation. The goal was to restore the building to its original 1930s condition, particularly in the public spaces. It was also important that the community’s collective memory of the hotel’s previous grandeur play a role in the project. Alston was able to acquire Abilene architect David Castle’s full set of original architectural and engineering drawings of the hotel, as well as stacks of interior and exterior historic photographs. Having these images proved to be critical for the authenticity and accuracy of the restoration work, as previous efforts had stripped the hotel of many of its historic features, including most of the doors and much of the marble flooring, decorative handrails, wood paneling, and light fixtures.

It was fortunate for the project that the community graciously responded to SHDC’s plans to revive the building. Upon hearing about the restoration, a number of people sent in their own historical mementos of the hotel, such as photos and old room keys, and the Heritage Museum of Big Spring donated back one of the lobby’s original chandeliers and a phone booth, both of which were returned to their original locations on the ground floor. The ballroom, lobby, and third-floor guest rooms were also restored to their original configurations as detailed in Castle’s drawings.

The hotel’s exterior envelope was thoroughly restored — damaged brick was replaced in kind, mortar joints were re-pointed to match the historic color and texture of the original mortar, and the all of the 

facades were gently cleaned. The original four-over-six, double-hung, wood windows were also fully restored — broken glass was replaced, and the wood frames and mullions were scraped, sanded, primed and re-painted by two artisans over the course of 16 months.

The inside restoration was not as straightforward, as the interior of the tower was completely reconfigured. Floors four through 13 now have five guest rooms each, and the top floor is divided into three suites. These modifications altered the original 150 10’x20’ guest rooms (with bathrooms and closets) into 68 more-spacious suites.

Midway through the rehabilitation, SHDC recognized that its substantial investment was in need of some synergy to directly support and complement the hotel, so it purchased two adjoining properties: the old Greyhound Bus Terminal (not historically significant), which was torn down to make room for the new pool, and the Ritz Theater across the street, which will be rehabilitated into an entertainment venue.

Because of its successful rehabilitation, Hotel Settles was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places, which would make the project eligible for federal preservation tax credits. The Hotel has met initial requirements for this distinction and is expected to be approved in the near future. Additionally, the scope of this project complies with the Secretary of Interior Standards outlined in the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, managed by the Texas Historical Commission and the National Parks Service, and the tax credit application for the Hotel Settles rehabilitation is expected to be approved shortly. The project also participated in the New Market Tax Credit program and received important financial support from the Economic Development Board of the City of Big Spring.

The Settles’ re-opening represents its return as Big Spring’s proud bell cow and the dignified center for important events downtown. One of the rewards for the accuracy in reproducing the building’s original confectionary opulence is that the hotel is gaining appeal as "the place" for weddings. It is the most charming self-contained ceremonial and lodging venue within a 100-mile radius, and many a young bride from Abilene, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa, San Angelo and Big Spring has already made her reservations.

And for a town whose population has declined because of hard times, Hotel Settles’ welcome return as an employer — some 200 new jobs have already been created — is also providing much-needed stability to West Texas’ fickle job market. G. Brint Ryan is truly a local and regional hero for saving Hotel Settles from the wrecking ball. He’s made a working treasure out of a neglected state landmark — and provided a new economic engine in Big Spring.

This article is expanded content for the May/June 2013 issue of Texas Architect magazine.