San Angelo's Heartbreak Hotel
The character of a city is often judged by the quality of its cultural center, usually downtown. In San Angelo, Texas the downtown area’s dominant landmark is the 165-foot high, 14-story Cactus Hotel. Through history, successful businessmen and unsuccessful dreamers alike have contributed to the building, renovation and preservation of the Cactus to varying degrees of success.
The history can be digested into four periods, and each period ended until now is a failure of some sort. Hence, San Angelo’s tallest building, the one that defines the skyline and San Angelo’s architectural soul, has been a Heartbreak Hotel. Will it always be that way?
Today, the Cactus, under management of the for-profit Historic City Center Project, Inc. (HCCP) is showing signs of thriving once again. On the week we visited, the place was crowded with multiple weddings, receptions, and a bustling around businesses in the first floor commercial spaces of a hair salon, art galleries, and the Cactus Café.
The story of the Cactus is a long one. It is so long, in fact, that Virginia Noelke of the San Angelo Cultural Affairs Council wrote a 182-page book on the subject, The History of the Cactus Hotel (San Angelo Cultural Affairs Council, 1996). In addition to explaining the history well, Noelke marvelously captured the emotions of people who experienced The Cactus Hotel during its peak. The book is available at the Tom Green County Library, 113 W. Beauregard, San Angelo.
The words “Hilton Hotel” are carved in the exterior stone of the Cactus Hotel. Just about everyone around here knows that the 14-story building called The Cactus Hotel was first a part of the genesis of the late Conrad Hilton’s global hotel corporation. But few understand the details.
San Angelo’s Hilton Hotel was the fourth luxury hotel Hilton operated. According to reports at the time, it was the grandest of them all. But Hilton didn’t own it. It was owned by its builder, a regional lumber magnate, B.B. Hail. After the building was built by Hail, Hilton leased and operated it. It was completed in 1929.
The year 1929 was also a tumultuous time when the world stock markets crashed, bringing with it The Great Depression. During the Depression, demand for business travel as well as leisure travel greatly diminished. Hilton ran into financial trouble. The American Life Insurance Company of Galveston, owned by the Moody family, called a $385,000 note Hilton had with them and repossessed his hotel properties and leases. Then, the Moodys asked Hilton to join them in a partnership to manage a combined hotel chain.
The partnership only lasted a few years until lawsuits and counter lawsuits between the Moodys and Hilton made the arrangement dysfunctional. The two parties parted ways, but the Moodys kept the San Angelo property. The hotel that cost nearly $1 million to build only cost the Moodys $200,000. What a steal!
Hilton had to start over again.
The Moodys operated the hotel professionally and competently from 1934 until 1963, as if there was never any ownership change. Shortly after the ownership change in 1934, the hotel was renamed through the mechanism of a local contest. Lela Verge Sanders of San Angelo won twenty-five dollars for her suggestion to call the building “The Cactus Hotel.”
By 1963, commerce had moved sufficiently away from the downtown area that the hotel was not performing well financially. These were the beginning days of Interstate highways and Route 66. Motels, with the ability to drive right up to the room door, were less expensive to operate and more desirable to the car-crazy U.S. population. The Moodys moved to sell the hotel through an auction. The highest bidder offered only $160,000, well under the reserve price the Moodys wanted of $400,000.
Unable to find a buyer willing to pay their price, the Moodys decided to donate the building to charity. In October 1963, The Cactus Hotel was donated to Baptist Memorials Geriatric Hospital and renamed “Hotel Cactus, a Moody Memorial Retirement Center.”
And so the property remained as a retirement home until 1983. That is when a small fire broke out in a closet in the basement. Although the fire was quickly extinguished and no one was hurt, the fire highlighted a major concern the city’s fire marshal at that time had about the aging property. To bring the building into compliance with current fire codes, the cost was estimated at over $2 million.
Besides a commitment to spending over $2 million to fix the building, Baptist Memorials estimated that operating the old building was already losing the Baptists $250,000 to $300,000 per year anyway. They decided to close the old hotel and relocate its residents.
In 1983, a young Austin architect, Kim Williams, heard The Cactus Hotel was closing. He drove to San Angelo and bought a $10,000 option to purchase the property within 90 days, long enough to find financial backing to renovate the old building and turn it back into the cultural meeting place it once was.
Williams found substantial financial backing from the family of J.D. Burk, and together they formed a partnership called BW Alpha to finance and manage the renovation of the old Cactus.
Mounting costs above and beyond what was originally estimated to turn the property into a multi-use facility created friction in the partnership. It began to unravel over two primary issues. The Burks wanted to change the purpose of the renovations to create commercial office space; Williams disagreed and thought there was already too much office space available in San Angelo. The Burks pushed for the construction of the three-story parking garage adjacent (and attached) to the Cactus. Williams wanted to remain within the guidelines of the Texas State Historical Commission, having just placed the building in the National Register of Historic Places.
It was the parking garage that finally dissolved the partnership. Feeling as if his reputation as a professional architect was on the line over the modern-looking garage attached to the west wall of the historic Cactus, William abruptly resigned from the BW Alpha partnership.
BW Alpha continued to struggle with the Cactus, facing foreclosures, declaring bankruptcy, and holding creditors off. Even members of the Burk family held claims against BW Alpha. Finally, in 1991, creditors auctioned off the Cactus once again. Except this time, even the contents were sold too. People bought the contents as souvenirs, but no one bought the building. It had so many perceived liabilities that it had no value!
The Cactus became essentially property of the Tom Green County Appraisal District, which owned the first lien on the building for over $70,000 in taxes owed. And it was closed to the public.
While the Baptists didn’t want the Cactus anymore, the Methodists did. Ironically, the Methodists wanted the feature that was the catalyst for its final heartbreak: The parking garage. The adjacent First Methodist Church paid Tom Green County $70,000 for the entire Cactus Hotel, but only deeded the parking garage. The hotel itself was given to the entity that runs the place now, the HCCP.
Under the direction of Addison Lee Pfluger’s HCCP, and free of crippling debts the previous renovators could not overcome, the Cactus steadily and slowly came back to life as a community cultural center. Not only is the hotel free of financial liabilities, but also Pfluger has an unusual, if not innovative business plan to slowly restore and enhance the old building, while restoring its presence into the lives of people in the community.
He has done this by offering non-profit organizations reasonably priced office space. Income also comes from commercial enterprises that rent parts of the Cactus. The cultural non-profit organizations, such as San Angelo Cultural Affairs Society and the San Angelo Symphony office make the Cactus an important meeting place once again. The small number of art galleries and commercial businesses that ring the street level bring activity and vitality. That activity is exponentially increased with large gatherings, such as San Angelo Chamber of Commerce luncheons, club meetings, weddings, receptions, political rallies, and dances.
Slowly, over the past fifteen years, the San Angelo community has become reacquainted with The Cactus Hotel, not only as a visual landmark on the city’s skyline, but also as a place where life’s milestones are marked. Art classes, proms, dances, and certainly weddings are happening at the Cactus Hotel once again.
As Pfluger himself noted in HCCP literature, “Even with all the success to date, our community continues to devise additional uses for the historic hotel. Dreams of community utilization of the Cactus Hotel are only just beginning.”
After 15 years of successful management and growth, HCCP has proven to be a success that probably will not end in another heartbreak. That’s what Pfluger envisions. With so many emotional ties the community has with the Cactus, we can’t allow the Hotel to fall into disrepair again. It is our heritage.
For information on renting banquet facilities, office or commercial retail space, or using the Cactus Hotel for your club or organization, contact the Cactus Business Office at (325) 655-5000, or look online at
By Joe Hyde