Photo: Cuate Santos / Laredo Morning Times
The two-story pink and red hotel that caught fire in Catarina last weekend was for many Laredoans a striking roadside attraction on the way to Eagle Pass. Surrounding a grove of tall palm trees and sitting right against Highway 83, the Palm Suite and Inn was a seemingly random blip of preserved history among large expanses of flat ranch land.
The hotel was built around 1925.
Charles P. Taft — half-brother of President William Howard Taft — and his wife Ann inherited hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Dimmit County in the early 1900s and headquartered the ranch in Catarina. A land promoter convinced them to let him build a railway line through the property, which was completed in 1910, and around which blossomed a depot, bunkhouse, post office, school house and other buildings.
The town became famous for the three-story mansion the Tafts built with over-sized bathtubs to fit his brother, the president, and which has since been moved 15 miles away to the nearby ranch of former Gov. Dolph Briscoe.
In the 1920s, a group of Kansas land promoters purchased the ranch, renamed it Catarina Farms, created a water system, a palm-lined boulevard and park, and began to parcel out the land to prospective fruit and vegetable farmers. As chronicled in the book “More Ghost Towns of South Texas,” a man hired to sell the ranches “ordered an entire orchard of full-grown citrus trees loaded with fruit to be shipped to Catarina.” Buyers had the impression they were purchasing fruitful, productive farms.
It worked. People bought the ranches and built hundreds of homes. In the town of Catarina a church, a drug store, bakery, bank, cafes, a swimming pool and grocery stores popped up. And of course, the two-story brick hotel was its centerpiece, described by a local newspaper as “a credit to a city many times the size of Catarina.”
At its peak, Catarina was home to as many as 2,500 people, but its population fell continuously after the Great Depression.
The two-story brick hotel was one of the last standing pieces of the city’s former glory.
Ownership has exchanged hands “a gazillion” times, joked Alvin Burns, who himself was a former proprietor of the hotel and whose family owned Catarina’s water for decades.
He purchased the hotel around 2011 and sold it to a group of investors called Peony River in 2013.
Fiona Fan, one of Peony River’s eight partners, said her aunt was just driving by one day and saw the building. It was run down, but she could see the historical value of the structure. It was a piece of heritage.
At this time the nearby oil fields were booming, so it made sense as a business investment. They set out to restore the property, which was in disarray. The roof was leaking, and there was nothing on the second floor. Fan said she had done this kind of historical renovation work in China, but this was her first project in the U.S.
The work took them about two years to complete, doing most of the labor themselves and taking special care to be historically accurate. Fan’s cousin Matthew, now 14, even put his Christmas money toward the project, they noted.
They opened in 2015, selling Chinese food and hamburgers in their restaurant on the first floor and opening up 24 rooms on the second floor. The family went from being renovators and construction workers to being cooks, cashiers and managers for the business. At first, their parking lot was packed with visitors, Fan remembers.
But then the oil boom busted, and their project began to lose money. Family members moved back to California and New York and sent money back to Catarina to keep the hotel afloat. They ended up having to close it a couple of years ago.
Last Sunday night, the only person on the property was a truck driver who was staying in an RV behind the hotel. There was a thunderstorm, and smoke started coming into the RV through his air conditioning unit, according to Alvin Burns, who had been speaking with the truck driver. He walked out and saw that part of the hotel was on fire.
Burns called Fan when he heard the news that night and told her that there was no point in driving over there while it was burning. Several fire departments had responded to the fire.
Fan couldn’t go back to sleep for hours. And when she work up Monday morning, for a moment she thought it had been a literal nightmare. She put off calling her elderly family members for fear of giving them a heart attack. All the work they had put into the building was gone.
Peony River was not able to insure the Palm Suite and Inn because the building was so old, making it too expensive, Fan said.
What’s left of the hotel is essentially its exterior walls. But they want to fix it up again. Peony River is seeking grants and aid that would help them accomplish this. And it might take years, but they want to rebuild, she said.
Julia Wallace may be reached at 956-728-2543 or email@example.com