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Marfa's Thunderbird

Written by June Naylor.

While it would seem that there’s been some enormous shift in the zeitgeist that has long defined this old ranching town in West Texas’ Big Bend region, there’s no reason to panic. Yes, folks from the East and West coasts have discovered Marfa, and real estate prices have taken off like a rocket, but so far, I’d say it’s working out nicely.

For ages, soul-searchers and artists of varying spiritual pursuits have taken refuge in this lonely, starkly beautiful, mile-high town some three hours southeast of El Paso. In 1986, the late Donald Judd completed the two main installations of what would later become the Chinati Foundation, an Army post-turned-contemporary art museum comprising more than 20 buildings. Others with extraordinary creative abilities have settled here, too, and Marfa has quietly become an attractive vacation spot for such luminaries as actress Julia Roberts and hotel mastermind Ian Schrager.

When I first visited Marfa in 1986, the best eating in town was at the now closed Thunderbird Cafe, adjacent to the old Thunderbird Motel, where ranchers tucked into monster chicken-fried steaks at lunch. The best shopping was at El Cheapo Liquors. When I returned most recently, last winter, I eagerly took my party of four—all newcomers to this Presidio County crossroads—to the newly remade and remodeled Thunderbird Marfa, suitably impressive accommodations for this now ultrahip outpost.

I wanted to impress them with the striking development that’s taking place in the Chihuahuan Desert, and I’d been dying to see how Austin lawyer-cum-hotelier Liz Lambert had revamped this formerly dilapidated joint. The greatest test of how impressive the place is came when my friend Vicki, an interior designer from Dallas, cast her eyes upon my suite.

“Oh, yes,” she purred in her southern drawl. “Very New York loft.”

It certainly wasn’t what Vicki and the other travelers in my group expected to find in a town best known as the location for the 1956 film Giant. And few people who actually knew of the old Thunderbird Motel, which opened in 1959 and went to seed a while back, would have guessed that the old T-bird would become this phoenix. Unless, of course, they knew Liz Lambert, a woman who knows precisely how to breathe life into a seemingly lost cause.

A native of Odessa and member of a generations-old West Texas ranching family, Liz made her mark in Texas’ high-concept hospitality realm when she turned a fleabag on Austin’s South Congress Avenue into the chic Hotel San José. She did that with Lake/Flato Architects of San Antonio, with whom she also launched her Marfa vision. When the two-phase project is complete in late 2006 or early 2007, the Thunderbird will have annexed the defunct Capri Motel across the street, where the famous old Thunderbird Cafe was located.

The Thunderbird we enjoyed for a few chilly evenings soothed our spirits with its desert-sky-blue exterior, outdoor lounge with fireplace, and orange-and-white chairs by the pool, an oasis surrounded by a fence of live ocotillo seemingly plucked from the surrounding desert landscape. My suite’s pendulum lights, flat-screen TV (with DVD player), cushy pillows, platform bed covered in Peruvian blankets, leather butterfly chair, and fluffy towels provided just the luxury I wanted after the eight-hour drive from home.

During the days, which began with a brewed-to-order cup of coffee at the nearby Brown Recluse, we wandered the galleries along Highland Avenue and browsed through the art and architecture books at Marfa Book Company, where regulars hang out to read The New York Times and sip a glass of cabernet at the wine bar. Quick visits took us to the Chinati Foundation, and to ogle the vast collection of Giant memorabilia at the Hotel Paisano, another lovely, recently renovated lodging that was headquarters for the film company a half-century ago.

We popped into the still-hopping El Cheapo to buy wine to drink with the stunning pies served at the Pizza Foundation, and we drove the town’s residential streets to see the numerous vintage stucco-home renovations undertaken by part-time residents from Dallas, Houston, and New York. After dark, we drove nine miles east into the desert to gaze at the strange and wonderful Marfa ghost lights from the nifty viewing center.

At each evening’s end, we took delight in returning to our stylish cocoons of comfort at the Thunderbird. I like to think that James Dean would have approved of this place as much as my fashionable friend Vicki did.

Thunderbird Marfa, 601 W. San Antonio St. (US 90), Marfa; 432/729-1984. The hotel has 24 rooms, four of which have private patios. Four rooms share a balcony. A new wing featuring more rooms and a full bar is being built across the street. For general information on Marfa, contact the chamber of commerce at 800/650-9696;

Dining The Pizza Foundation, 100 E. San Antonio St. (US 90), 432/729-3377, serves bodacious pies topped with such goodies as feta, ricotta, spinach, fresh basil, local tomatoes, and chorizo, and don’t miss the tomato-bread salad. BYOB.

Upscale cuisine is the specialty at Maiya’s, 103 N. Highland Ave., 432/729-4410. A good wine selection is available.

Find excellent coffee and pastries at the Brown Recluse, 111 W. San Antonio St. (US 90), 432/729-1811.

Attractions View the Chinati Art Foundation’s collection on guided tours, which take place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wed.-Sun. (The 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. tours include separate itineraries of the museum’s permanent installations.) Admission: $10, $5 for students and seniors, free for foundation members and age 11 and younger. Call 432/729-4362;

The Marfa Book Co. is at 105 S. Highland; 432/729-3906;

The National Historic Landmark Hotel Paisano is at 207 N. Highland; 432/729-3669;

The Marfa Lights Viewing Center is 9 miles east of town on US 67/90.

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