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Motel Chic

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Photo: Catherine Ledner

Deep in the Art of Texas

"It’s a pilgrimage to get here," says Heidi Poulin, general manager of the Thunderbird Motel in Marfa. The west Texas town is best known as the home of the late artist Donald Judd, who moved here in 1979 and established the not-for-profit Chinati Foundation, a 340-acre museum on the site of a former Army facility that permanently exhibits the work of Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin, among others.

According to Poulin, most of the Thunderbird’s guests are "culture tourists," art lovers from New York, California, and Europe who enthusiastically make the trek to visit Chinati, as well as the new galleries currently sprouting in the city.

Built in 1959 as a classic horseshoe-shaped single-story roadside motel with 24 rooms and a swimming pool at the center, the stucco-over-concrete block Thunderbird was owned by a local family who ran it, without fanfare, for decades. The motel has a sister property, the Holiday Capri Inn, situated directly across the street in an adobe building that also houses a bar that serves beer, wine, sake, and tamales. A renovation is currently in progress, scheduled to be completed in September.

If there are those who remember the Thunderbird Motel as the place where, in the mid to late 1990’s, the management provided paper napkins in lieu of terry-cloth towels and the state of the shag carpeting was particularly egregious, that all changed in 2004, when the shuttered motel was bought by a consortium led by Liz Lambert, the attorney turned motelier who was responsible for the first-rate transformation of the San José Motel in Austin. Just as she’d done there, Lambert called in Bob Harris of Lake/Flato Architects, a well-respected San Antonio-based firm, for a complete renovation.

Minimalist sculptor and furniture-designer Judd would surely have approved of the no-frills aesthetic of the born-again motel, with its polished concrete floors and rooms outfitted with simple pecan furniture by Marfa-based artist turned designer Jamey Garza. However lean, the Thunderbird is not mean: the beds have white cotton sheets from India, wool blankets with a band of slate blue or charcoal gray at the top, and, at the foot, a colorful handwoven Peruvian blanket. Though something short of traditional room service, each morning at 7 a.m. a thermos of coffee is delivered to each room, suspended in a cloth bag from the doorknob.

Though everything may be new, the Thunderbird has not, in fact, substantially changed since 1959. It is still a straightforward roadside motel with no illusions of being anything more, though it is distinguished by the care and flair its new owners bring to the enterprise.

601 W. San Antonio, Marfa, Tex.; 432/729-1984; www.thunderbirdmarfa.com; doubles from $125.

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