The soft Australian sheepskin rugs in the rooms at Marfa’s just-opened Hotel Saint George are the perfect welcome after a day of trekking through the grounds of the Chinati Foundation, Donald Judd’s contemporary art museum. It’s just one of the stops on my mission to capture some of the magic that swirls through this mythical desert settlement, the kind that entices such a stylish boutique property to open in a remote locale with a meager population of 2,000 people. Part of Marfa’s appeal is also its most unpleasant attribute—it’s arduous to get to, and that reduces the number of visitors.
My ten-hour journey from New York was draining, though the three-hour drive through the Chihuahuan desert softened the burden. The wide-open landscape and endless expanse of sky attracted Judd to the area in the 1970s; they remain a major draw today. So does one of the unlikeliest culture scenes anywhere in the world. “Judd really filled up the town, and when he died, it allowed other people to think, what could I do in Marfa?” says Joey Benton, founder of the design and fabrication studio Silla.
After studying sculpture, Benton moved here in 1994 to document Judd’s estate, and ended up staying. He’s behind many of the hotel’s custom pieces, including a mahogany-and-steel reception desk, white cylinder hanging lamps, and wet bars in the 55 charcoal-hued rooms.
Owner Tim Crowley arrived about a year after Benton. Over two decades later, the duo has teamed with Houston architect Carlos Jiménez to restore the original grand hotel, built in the 1880s on the same site. So they kept the walls low in the social spaces and exposed some architectural elements, including the beams and columns, but Jiménez says it’s by no means a preservation project. “It’s more an inheritance, but you also have the freedom to manipulate it and make it more congruent with contemporary needs.” For that, they brought in Dallas-based HKS Hospitality to help with the clean-lined interiors.
While it’s easy to draw parallels between Judd’s minimalist art and the hotel’s striking chalk-white boxy facade, the connection between Marfa, Judd, and Saint George is more complex. “There was a conscious decision not to make this some type of Judd land,” Crowley tells me over dinner at LaVenture, the hotel’s brick-strewn American restaurant that is lined with paintings by Marfa-based artists, including Christopher Wool and Jeff Elrod. “We wanted to emphasize the architectural elements without adopting the Judd aesthetic because you might be able to do that in New York, but you can’t do it here where the real stuff is.”
The outcome is a tasteful—and accessible—design scheme, with classic armchair designs by Alvar Aalto, Benton’s century-old black marble bar in the lobby, and handcrafted furniture in the rooms. The renowned Marfa Book Company, which relocated to the lobby, is where a curated selection of Mykita sunglasses and products by homegrown Marfa Brand Soap share real estate with temporary exhibitions and performance art shows. In addition to his foundation, Judd’s legacy will always be laced with the ideals he espoused: that art lies in the relationship between an object and its environment. In that sense, Hotel Saint George embodies the spirit of Marfa itself.