Southwest Texas in the late 1920s was little more than ranch country, accessible only by train or by horseback over a long desolate road. But that was where rancher Alfred Gage built his hotel in 1927. He hired El Paso architect Henry Trost to design it, and for several decades it served those who ventured into the region. Mr. Gage died one year later. Mount Rushmore sculptor, Gutzon Borglum stayed there; and it is reputed that writer Zane Gray, an early chronicler of life in the wild West, penned his most famous novel there. However, the lack of commerce in small town Marathon eventually deteriorated its population, and the hotel offered little more than haunted hallways, until an enterprising oil man named J.P. Bryan could revive the hotel’s prospects.
Bryan might be viewed as an anomaly, when one considers his professional background. An undergraduate degree in art and a law degree and graduate degree from the American Institute of Foreign Trade made him ideally suited to a career in investment banking and then, as founder of three oil companies. However productive those accomplishments were, they merely allowed him the opportunity to pursue his first passion as a man committed to Texas’ heritage and historic preservation.
Bryan earned his credibility as an advocate for Texas and art history, first as President of the Texas State Historical Association and then of the Texas Historical Foundation. He subsequently became chairman of the Institute of Texan Cultures, and was appointed by Governor Bush to the Texas Historical Commission. Each of these roles enhanced his interest, both for his collection of Texana and for his commitment to preserving Texas’ past. Bryan has a family tree to back him up, with great-great-uncle Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas”, and a grandfather who founded Bryan, Texas.
In many ways, that legacy has become part of his own life’s work. His career in the west Texas oil industry led him to buy several ranches, and ultimately, to the little town in the Big Bend country called Marathon, Texas.
Fate had plans for J.P. Bryan when he passed through Marathon one day thirty years ago. He was hoping to find a house in town for his family to live in, since there were limited amenities at his ranch, when he noticed an old building on the main road with a hand-written “for sale” sign out front. When he called the number, he asked the owner if the property was still available. Without hesitation, he admitted that, so far, Bryan was the only interested buyer, and asked $30,000 for it. At the time, Bryan considered the price “a steal,” but that was before he had a look at the inside. Though structurally sound, it would require close to two decades of renovation and ten times the investment to recreate the grandeur of its 1927 beginnings. And despite his original intent to buy a “home” in Marathon, when he realized the historic value of the building as a hotel, the decision to restore it was irresistible, out of respect for the incredible accomplishment of Alfred Gage in settling a vast part of west Texas.
The Gage Hotel provided Bryan with the perfect convergence of his life’s experience. His historical background afforded him the contacts to acquire a significant collection from a friend in Cody, Wyoming, that provided a wealth of memorabilia for the hotel’s interior decor. The artifacts included the head of a rare white buffalo, sacred to the Sioux blood tribe of Dakota Territory. It is a fixture in the White Buffalor Bar named for it. Bryan’s business experience helped him realize that for the hotel to be a success, he would need other services and attractions, and to that end, he added a soda fountain, a gift shop, a reception hall, health club, a 7.5-acre garden filled with desert plants and bird life, venues for weddings, meetings, or of course, just a quiet repose.
It’s safe to say that J.P. Bryan has remained true to his family’s heritage. He has brought his love of Texas history into a unique reality that is The Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas that will preserve his own piece of Texas for generations to enjoy.