(Editors note: This is the second in a series of articles that will examine the hotel’s history, its current condition and the impact it would have on downtown Brownwood if it is restored and reopened.)
Former Brownwood City Council member Jerry DeHay recalled a day in 2004, when DeHay was a professor at Howard Payne University.
DeHay’s marketing strategy students worked on a project in which they came up with a plan for revitalizing downtown Brownwood.
“We were kind of looking at it in an area-by-area kind of context,” DeHay recalled in a recent interview. “I said ‘man, I wish we had a high vantage point where we could take some pictures of the downtown area.’
“I said ‘it would be great if we could get up in that roof garden of the hotel and take some pictures up there.’”
DeHay was referring to the vacant 12-story Brownwood Hotel on the corner of Fisk and Baker in downtown Brownwood. The hotel has been vacant since HPU stopped using it as a dorm in the mid-1980s. The hotel — first known as Hotel Brownwood when it was opened in 1930 — was known as Sid Richardson Hall Dorm when HPU owned it.
DeHay recalled a conversation with students after class time one day.
“You really want to go up in the building?” one asked.
“Yeah, if I could,” DeHay replied.
“We go in there all the time,” the student countered.
“Are you kidding me?” an incredulous DeHay asked.
“No, we know how to get in there,” the student explained. “We’ll take you up there.”
The Brownwood Hotel is as structurally sound today as the day it was built.
That’s how Tim Murray, director of development services for the City of Brownwood, described the building, citing engineering reports. The development services department oversees code enforcement.
Murray and DeHay, along with Brownwood Municipal Development Executive Director Ray Tipton and Jeff Tucker, who is preparing to open Teddy’s Brewhaus across the street from the hotel, are among those who have been inside the long-vacant hotel. The four shared their impressions with the Bulletin, which is publishing a series of articles on the hotel.
While it’s agreed that the hotel is structurally sound, a description of the interior depends on what part is being described. Some portions of the interior are worse than others, DeHay said.
Tipton, for example, described “cosmetic” issues, while DeHay saw areas he described as in poor condition. But DeHay did not disagree with Tipton.
“I think (cosmetic is) a pretty good descriptor,” DeHay said. “There is not a huge amount of wanton destruction.”
The hotel is currently owned by an entity known as 200 Fisk LLC, Brown County Appraisal District records state.
One-time owner Mitchell Phelps died in 2010, and Phelps’ widow, Myrna, who lives in Virginia, is still involved with the hotel. Myrna Phelps declined to be interviewed and the nature of her involvement with the hotel and the 200 Fisk LLC entity could not be learned by the Bulletin.
A developer is interested in renovating the building, and communication has been going on between the developer and Myrna Phelps, Tipton has said.
Murray said he’s been in the building several times in the capacity of code enforcement. The only code violations have been along the lines of “unsecured premises” when trespassers get inside, Murray said.
“Once we get a report that there’s been vandalism to the building or the building has been broken into, we go in there and we clear the building, and make sure there’s nobody in there before we have the building re-secured. Here lately the (police department) has been doing that. We kind of share responsibilities with them.
“We have an ordinance against vacant unsecured buildings. We’ll send a notice to the owner and they’ll have the person they’re in contact here in Brownwood go re-secure the building.”
Murray said he’s been through the building’s interior “from the basement to the roof. “The building itself is very sound,” Murray said.
“We’ve had engineering studies done on the building to determine whether the building was safe, whether it was in a state of dilapidation to the point where it was going to be a hazard of falling or crumbling down. All the engineering reports we got (said) the building was as sound as the day it was built. Basically what they’re saying is, that building will be here 100 years from now because of the way it was built and the structure of it.”
Some of the interior has been vandalized and graffiti is present, Murray said.
“As far as the way the building is laid out, the structure and the rooms, they’re all still intact and in very good shape.
“The building’s pretty amazing when you go inside of it, actually. They’ve got the upstairs ballroom, and they’ve got the marble flooring downstairs, an open area, kind of a meeting/ballroom area downstairs. And of course the stairways and stairwells are pretty neat looking.”
Because of the building’s architecture and design, Murray said, “it’s kind of like going back in time when you go in there.”
When asked if the hotel would have to be gutted to be renovated, Murray replied, “not so much. The infrastructure such as the plumbing and electrical would have to be updated. A lot of it is old cast iron and a lot of the electrical had been vandalized and cannibalized.
“As far as the rooms go, basically, go in and scrape the old paint and repaint the walls and put new flooring down, and (install) new windows. The most expensive part would be the plumbing and the electrical in that building.”
While DeHay’s students had offered to get him into the building in 2004, DeHay had no desire to enter illegally. DeHay contacted a member of the Phelps family.
“One of Phelps’ sisters lived here, and she was kind of the primary person responsible,” DeHay recalled. “When (city) inspectors or engineers wanted to go in the building, they had to go through her. She said ‘if you’ll come by, I’ll give you a key to the building.’ Then she went on a trip somewhere and I couldn’t get a key.”
But since DeHay had received permission to enter, he told his students, “All right, you take me in.”
The students took DeHay to a window that was partially boarded up.
“We climbed in and went inside, and of course the elevator’s not operating, so we had to go up to the 12th floor to the roof garden,” DeHay recalled. “On the way, I just kind of wandered into some of the hallways and looked.
“The place was trashed. It was just unbelievable. The whole interior is in very bad condition as far as usability is concerned. The whole infrastructure — the plumbing, the electrical, the elevator, all that kind of stuff — it’s going to be a major project to renovate that.”
DeHay and his students climbed to the roof garden on the 12th floor, where DeHay took photos of downtown Brownwood.
“The roof garden was pretty well trashed as well, which was kind of sad,” DeHay said.
DeHay clarified that the conditions varied according to location, and the areas toward the center, away from the exterior windows, were in better condition.
Tucker, the owner of soon-to-be-opened Teddy’s Brewhaus, said he and a partner had at one time been interested in buying the hotel. Tucker said he obtained permission from Myrna Phelps to go inside.
“The building’s actually in pretty good shape,” Tucker said. “It’s all concrete. There’s been some water damage down in the basement and maybe in the lobby area.
“Every room is basically concert walls and concrete floors. All of the bathrooms that I saw were intact. The old art deco stuff is there. The second floor area — what they referred to as the writing room, what we would now call in internet wifi office — still had the old Western Union in there as well.
“We went all the way up to the top dining hall. That’s probably where the most damage really is. There’s been a lot of water that’s gotten into that area.”
Tucker said he saw debris and trash, “some bat guano, there’s some pigeon stuff up there. In some areas it’s pretty rough. In some areas it’s actually pretty impressive how good a shape it’s in. Just depends on what area’s been left to the elements.”
Tipton, the Brownwood Municipal Development District director, recalled going inside the hotel several years ago. Tipton was working then as the marketing director for the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We had a tour,” Tipton recalled. “I believe it was an architect looking at it on behalf of somebody, and I got invited.”
Tipton said his visit left him with a “two-fold” impression. “Number one, what a really cool building,” Tipton said. “There are a lot of neat aspects to it as far as woodwork, and even he doors and some of the hardware, and things like that.
“From my untrained eye, I felt, structurally it looked really sound, and I did see a lot of potential. But at the same time, when you’re talking decades of a building sitting there, it does need a lot of work.”
Tipton said second impression was related to the size of the hotel’s rooms. “The individual hotel rooms are very small compared to current standards,” Tipton said. “I’m assuming that was just from the time period standpoint — that’s how they did hotel rooms at the time.
“I would say the rooms are the small end of what a standard household bedroom would be these days.”
Tipton said he did not see damage to interior walls. In the bathrooms, Tipton said, some of the fixtures have been removed. “As far as the structure of the walls, I don’t know what they’re made of — if they’re concrete or stucco or whatever — there aren’t holes in the walls or any of those kind of things.”
Tipton said he also visited the hotel earlier this year with the developer who is currently interested in buying the building.
Tipton said the hotel’s appearance had changed “a little bit” since his first visit. “I could’t put my finger on it,” Tipton said. “I could tell from a condition standpoint that it was a little bit worse, but not shockingly so.
“A lot of what I see in there that has any kind of condition issues seemed very cosmetic to me.”
Some buildings are “just too far gone” to be renovated and end up being condemned by the city and demolished, Murray said.
“This building,” Murray said, referring to the Brownwood Hotel, “in its current state and current condition, is very sound and very well built, very well architecturally designed.
“So the right person with the right vision and the right amount of money could come in there and renovate this building, and really turn it into something good for Brownwood.”
Murray noted that hotels in other cities “in way worse condition” have been renovated by investors and “turned into some pretty neat places.”