A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

The dilemma of the Luther Hotel in Palacios is an illustration of why we can't have nice things.

A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Since I wrote a long piece about him a couple of months ago, it's tempting to write about the fall of Tucker Carlson this week. Oh, fear not, they will find another angertainment entrepreneur, despite the MAGA agony. Having been there, I don't wish termination on anyone...almost. But since he makes $35 million a year, so will not be missing any meals and everyone else will go on about it, I'd like to talk about loss. The loss of a historic place.

Now, I know the hypocrisy of this as I am from Houston. My hometown has very little regard for its own history. The Shamrock Hotel, the Houston Chronicle building, the first air-conditioned indoor sports stadium - the "Eighth Wonder of the World!" The Astrodome sits there, empty, an un-popped zit by the 610 Loop. All because they can't think of anything creative to do with it. World's roomiest self-storage facility, perhaps? Largest indoor laser-tag business on earth? Let's face it, if it has a second coat of paint in Houston, it's an antique.

So, as a Houstonian, I have very little room to criticize. But a little part of Texas is about to lose its one little piece of history. And the sad part is, it doesn't have to happen.

Palacios is a small town of 4400 people in Matagorda County hard by the Gulf of Mexico by way of Matagorda Bay. It's the third largest shrimping area on the Texas coast, and home to around 400 shrimp boats, many owned by Vietnamese immigrants who settled here after the Viet Nam War. When I worked for about 6 months in Corpus Christi as a young news guy in 1971, I would pass through it on the way to see my folks back in Houston, and never thought much about it.

And passing through in a hurry meant I missed a lovely piece of early 20th-century architecture, and one of the few reasons to stop there, outside of fishing. It is the Luther Hotel, built the same year the Wright Brothers flew, 1903, the Luther has withstood storms, ownership changes, a complete moving of the building along with economic ups and downs of the depression and two world wars.  

But it may not survive the next couple of months. The Rittenhouse family was behind the project, though it didn't bear their name at first. Victoria architect Jules Leffland designed the hotel, which was constructed by contractor D. D. Rittenhouse. Longleaf yellow pine for the framing and cypress for the siding were brought from Louisiana via the Southern Pacific Railroad for the project. It was part of a trend of "seaside hotels" meant for the tourist trade. And it's one of the last on the Texas Gulf Coast. It is on the National Registry of Historic Places (2010) and has a Texas Historic Marker (1965). Those honors and a couple of bucks will get you a cup of coffee.

It had become quite run down when the Luther family bought it in 1936, refurbished the old lady and ran it for the next several decades. Business was pretty much bustling for most of that time, and the old hotel was often fully booked. But the last member of the Luther family, Jack Findley, died in 2020.

All of this is happening at a time where historic hotels are enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

The remaining family members live in other states and simply weren't interested in keeping the hotel going or doing the restoration work it now requires. So, they sold it and in the best tradition of my fellow Houstonians, stipulated that it be torn down. Ironically, the hotel was sold to a charitable group, the Ed Rachal Foundation, whose website states its mission...

The Mission of the Ed Rachal Foundation is established by the last will and testament of the Foundation’s benefactor. In his will dated June 2, 1964, the late Ed Rachal decreed, “…I devise and bequeath the rest and residue of my estate of every kind and wheresoever situated real, personal and mixed, to such corporation to be used exclusively for the benefit of charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes within the State of Texas”

It would seem that preserving a piece of Texas history didn't fit within those parameters. and so, the demolition was planned for January of this year, and machinery was moved into place to take the grand old building down.

Margaret Doughty

Enter a plucky, determined British ex-patriot named Margaret Doughty. A volunteer with the Palacios Preservation Committee, a group of 4 equally determined ladies, she and her colleagues have set out to fight the demolition.

She told the Texas Standard radio program, “The Ed Rachal Foundation has done just enormous good work in our town, and we’re incredibly grateful to them. They’re working on an oyster hatchery on the bay, and that’s one of the reasons why they would like to purchase the Luther, because when they knock it down, they’d like to build an extended stay hotel that’s family-friendly. And that’s what the Luther has been all her life.”

So, instead of restoring a historic hotel that can serve the needs of the foundation, Palacios will get, what, a Hampton Inn or Days Inn? I'm sure the free, pre-fab breakfast will draw the tourists like flies to honey. In that same Texas Standard story, Doughty reasoned...

“Palacios is uniquely situated. We have Houston and Austin, San Antonio and Corpus in a sort of half circle all the way around us. We have a population of about 10 million people in terms of potential tourists to Palacios.”

Chris Bell

Now, her group has a petition you can sign at Change.org but they also hired an old friend, journalist turned lawyer turned politician turned back into lawyer, Chris Bell of Houston. When I say hired, Chris is doing this pro bono and I spoke with him last week. He said they are seeking a restraining order to prevent anything from happening to the building, and at the first hearing, the judge was asked to grant the group what is called "standing" in the case. That means they have enough vested interest in the issue to participate in a hearing. A plaintiff has Article III standing where she shows: (1) an injury in fact, (2) causation, (3) and redressability.

Bell says the judge is taking the matter under advisement and if he grants the group standing, they can then conduct discovery, meaning demand documents and information from the foundation and the Luther family, and actually depose them as well. For example, the attorney who drafted Jack Findley's will is now coincidentally the attorney for the estate. Bell says that one advantage is that having the state historic marker means you have to apply for demolition with the state. But he says the Findley estate didn't actually own the hotel corporation at the time they applied, so he contends the application is void.

Bell also says that the hotel was not listed for sale through a realtor. There is no Zillow listing for the Luther Hotel. It was, Bell says, an arms-length deal with one buyer. He says they can't see the actual contract now, but if the judge rules their way, they will. Then Bell will request a restraining order meaning the hotel will simply sit there until next year. Sit there, on the Gulf Coast, on the beach, locked up and vacant with utilities, most importantly, air conditioning, turned off. That will, of course, make any restoration even harder because mildew never sleeps.

For now, they can't even enter the building to see the conditions inside. All that hinges on the judge's order. Margaret and her group have appealed to the city council for some sort of historic preservation ordinance, which ironically, would have more clout than the state. So far they have been roundly rejected, even called communists by some, who obviously never looked up the word.

All of this is happening at a time when historic hotels are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. The wonderful old Galvez Hotel in Galveston, built in 1911, a year before the Titanic sank and the USS Texas was launched, has been marvelously restored into the Grand Galvez.

The Grand Galvez

A Dallas hotelier named Mark Wyant had more imagination than the Rachal Foundation and restored this grand old lady into a jazz-age bit of time travel for guests.

And then there is the work of another old Houston friend, Steve Zimmerman, an attorney turned hotel owner, who turned the old Walter Fondren mansion, co-founder of Humble Oil (Exxon), into a boutique hotel and 5-star restaurant called La Colombe D'or.

It has been so successful that a high-rise, modern addition now stands just behind the original. Steve survived the 80's oil bust that devastated Houston by offering businessmen lunch for the price of a barrel of oil that day. The gimmick worked and the hotel has thrived.

You could include the Commodore Perry estate Hotel in Austin, but you see the point.

Restored old hotels are hot, and doing great business. If that is the goal of the Ed Rachal Foundation, they could find no better venue for that success than the Luther Hotel. And the city of Palacios, instead of being a place you fill up and get a coke on your way to Houston, might become a destination once again.

In a way, this is like the battle fought in east Texas over the Keystone pipeline. I did a story about it years ago when the Trans-Canada company was granted eminent domain and started forcibly buying land for right-of-way, whether the owners wanted to sell or not.

But in this case, it isn't just profit versus property. Because restoring the Luther Hotel could be a win-win-win for the Rachal Foundation, the city and those who might never otherwise consider Palacios for anything more than a Whataburger for the road. Wouldn't it be nice if Palacios showed more creativity than that giant, metastatic metropolis up Highway 35? I'll book the first weekend when it reopens.

Roger Gray has toiled at the journalism trade since 1970 and his first radio news job at KTRH in Houston. Over those woefully misspent years, he has worked in radio, TV and written for magazines. He was twice elected President of the Texas Automobile Writers Association and was elected to the Texas Radio Hall of Fame. He covered the first Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Oslo Accords in Israel and peace talks in Ireland. He interviewed writers, actors, politicians and every President from Ford to George W, and none of them remember him.
Now, he is part of the Texas Outlaw Writers, and if this doesn't pan out, the outlaw part will still work as he will indeed resort to robbing banks.