“Austin Askew”–Chapter XXIII– The Curse of the Alamo

I spent the first half of my life in the Houston area. Every time I’d come into Houston from the north I’d pass a huge billboard just at the edge of downtown, and I’d never fail to take notice of the fact that the billboard was affixed to one side of the upper stories of a sleazy old hotel, the Tennison, and I’d always wonder if that building was filled with  homeless people or merely ghosts. (For what it’s worth, the building now houses several stories of trendy lofts.)

Hotels, especially old ones, have interested me for years. Sure, there’s the architectural and historical side to it, but I’ve also always wondered what stories old hotels hold, how many of life’s anonymous little joys and sorrows have been played out year after year in each little room. Maybe I’ve just watched “The Shining” one time too many.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I collect old postcards, and one of the areas I focus on is postcards of old hotels. I thumb through my cards and wonder how many of these buildings are still standing. And no matter if the postcard depicts an extravagant tower in New York or Chicago or a small, squat structure in Nowheresville, Nebraska, it’s obvious these hotels were built to reflect the most noble and lofty ambitions of a given community, because hotels presented a city’s public face to visitors and served as a place for locals and out-of-towners to gather and mingle.

Some of the great old hotels still exist of course, though many have been gutted and remodeled to a point they scarcely resemble their original glory. But once in awhile I’ll come across a small hotel I recognize from my postcards, still clinging to life. Last year I was in downtown San Antonio with a friend, and came across an old business hotel  turned flophouse, with a facade that resembled the cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” album. I recognized it immediately, and dragged my friend into the lobby to take pictures, but the place gave off such strong vibes of menace and doom and failed last chances that we beat a hasty retreat.

During one of my first visits to Austin I was taken on a whirlwind tour of downtown and the UT area. At Sixth and Guadalupe we passed a rundown old building that seemed vaguely familiar, and I asked the guy driving me what that place was. “The old Alamo Hotel. It’s an old flophouse they’re about to tear down.”

Eventually I figured out where I knew that building from: the music video of “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash. This video mixes Clash concert footage with images of a Hassidic Jew and an Arab oil sheik as they take a magical mystery tour through early ‘80s Austin. In one snippet the Jew and the Arab are shown dancing and clicking their heels as they go west down Sixth, the Alamo Hotel in the background.

As Austin landmarks go, the Alamo Hotel had a very short life-span–just 59 years. Construction began in 1924, and the still-unfinished structure was opened to the public September 1, 1925. The cost was between $250,000 and $500,000, depending on which source you consult. The hotel consisted of five stories, eighty rooms, an Art Deco lobby, a roof festooned with marble urns, and a basement parking garage with spaces designed to fit Model Ts. The staff consisted of eleven maids, four bellhops, and a hall boy.

One of my sources indicates that there was a chain of low-budget Alamo Hotels throughout Texas. Rooms went for $2.50 night. For breakfast you could have coffee, tea, milk, a doughnut, or a cinnamon or pecan roll for five cents. A ham or jelly “omlet” [sic] would run you forty cents. If you were a big spender you could get either orange juice or fruit juice with cereal, toast, and coffee, or a broiled T-bone steak, with hot biscuits or rolls and coffee, for fifty cents.

For decades, nothing much happened at the Alamo. It became popular with salesmen, conventioneers, politicians, and prostitutes. For a time the Alamo Lounge on the ground floor drew a crowd because the proprietor was related to Austin’s most prominent madam.

The Alamo was never the kind of hotel you’d go to for a debutante ball or a honeymoon, but apparently it was a popular place to commit suicide. It eventually became long-term housing for retirees on fixed incomes, welfare recipients, poor students, singles, drag queens, alcoholics, and drug addicts. Cabdrivers told newcomers to town that the Alamo was the place to go to find prostitutes.

It also attracted the famous and the near-famous. Skid Row troubadour Tom Waits stayed there in the ‘70s, and rock critic Lester Bangs enjoyed an extended alcohol- and drug-fueled stay in the early ‘80s. Waverly Scott Kaffaga, daughter of actor Zachary Scott and step-daughter of John Steinbeck, lived there with her family. Sam Houston Johnson, younger brother of Lyndon, lived there for years in a four-room suite, constantly talking on the telephone and dying slowly of cancer and alcoholism.

At one point the Alamo was also home to a low-power  “outlaw” AM radio station known as “Capitol-X.” The transmitter had wheels on it in case the station personnel needed to make a quick getaway. Eventually, though, a Federal marshal was able to prove Capitol-X was interfering with the reception of a licensed station outside town, and shut Capitol-X down.

The Alamo Lounge became a popular venue during the Outlaw Country days, hosting Butch Hancock, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Bill Neely, and Townes Van Zandt. The club closed on Friday, November 13, 1981, and the patrons transferred their allegiance up the street to 3023 Guadalupe–a club called “EmmaJoe’s.” The Lounge’s fixtures, including an oak and mahogany bar over a century old, stained glass windows, and gas lights, were dismantled.

Other businesses leased out space on the ground floor. M. B. Evans ran a barber shop there for 24 years, while Violas and Betty Davis operated a café/coffee shop for over three decades. Unfortunately, a massage parlor also leased a space on the hotel property.

David and Ruth Woollett bought the Alamo for $300,000 in 1972, agreed to sell it in 1980 to Ray Howard for $800,000, then changed their mind about the deal. Howard sued, and the courts decided in Howard’s favor. Howard then announced plans to demolish the hotel. Afterwards David Woollett commented, “I suppose they’ll turn it into a One Guadalupe Place…Austin has sold its soul, whoever Austin is now.”

By this point there were only four permanent residents at the Alamo, one of whom was Melissa Debardeleben, the 99-year-old daughter of cattleman Dick Debardeleben, “who once drove 10,000 head at a time up the Chisholm Trail,” a trail now replaced, in Austin anyway, by Mopac Boulevard. Miss Debardeleben moved into the Alamo in 1965 with her sister Annie, who died in 1983.

On August 16, 1984, one day after the Alamo closed its doors for good, homeless advocate “The Unreverend” Tony Hearn, “Accompanied by Derelict Men and Boys Choir of Mourners,” held a funeral for the old hotel. The flyer for the event announced “Poor transients and ‘undesirables’ beware!…The rich developer strikes again…When will his wrecking ball strike you?…Goodbye: poor man’s night’s rest!…Go To Basement For Free Syringes & Head Supplies…Police Will Protect Your Rights!…You are an honorary pall bearer! Come.”

Hearn summoned the press to this event and announced, “We are claiming it [the Alamo] in God’s name for the poor to have a place in Austin.” He then walked around the building pouring a red liquid from a plastic jug onto the ground. Some say the liquid was animal blood, but Hearn insisted it was wine vinegar and red food coloring. He pronounced a curse on the property, saying that if the new owners didn’t sell him the hotel for what they paid for it, then it would …“never yield a profit to anyone who holds it.”

The following week an auction was held of the hotel’s contents: “inclusing [sic] furniture, fixxtures [sic], carpets, et’c [sic] in rooms (none of this is collectors items)” [sic]. Doors, windows, bath tubs, toilets, signs, the fire escape, the elevator, and the air conditioning system were all put on the block.

Had the Alamo lasted another twenty years and considering the neighborhood it was located in, someone probably would have turned it into a boutique hotel with two suites per floor and a day spa where the old massage parlor had been. Instead, it was torn down and a vacant lot stood on the site until just a few years ago.

But the “Alamo curse” did seem to have some legs. Lamar Savings, the savings and loan that demolished the Alamo, went out of business, and its chairman, Stanley Adams, went to prison for bank fraud. When Antone’s nightclub decided to move back downtown in the 1990s, the backers looked into the Alamo site, but picked another location.

On the other hand, just a few years ago an extended-stay hotel for businessmen was erected on the site, and apparently it’s doing quite well. Austin still has alcoholics and drug addicts and prostitutes of course, and they’ve found other hotels and motels to stay in. But the poor and the homeless are still very much with us, and for all that has been done for them, much remains still to do.

—March 30, 2006

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