Marfa, Texas is a town with one stop light named after a character in a Dostoevsky novel and a far drive from just about everywhere else in the world. But its isolation hasn’t prevented it from becoming a destination and famous place for longer than I have been on earth. You can begin with the lovely Second Empire Presidio County Courthouse in the center of town, preserved as part of the great courthouse preservation program of the Texas Historical Commission.
The courthouse square seems unfinished, with most of the buildings on one end of it, closer to the intersection two blocks away with the road that matters, the one that connects to Alpine, at 5700 people nearly thrice as large, and El Paso, 3 hours distant. Marfa has some great buildings from the early 20th century, most notably the Hotel Paisano, with plaques aplenty describing its architectural landmark status and shops dedicated to the Marfa’s first great film, James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Burton’s GIANT (Dennis Hopper also appeared).
Marfa Bank and part of the 1931 Brite Building
Marfa also hosts an inexplicable meterological phenomena called the Marfa Lights and they have even built a viewing platform outside of town where you can see these floating, colorful lights that appear and disappear like mirages in the early evening.
Marfa got its next burst of fame in the 1970s when the minimalist artist Donald Judd began transforming an old military base into a massive exhibit of his own and other guys (heavy emphasis on the male gender) modern art the Chinati Foundation, which still attracts carloads of artsters and hip types to see what is an impressive place on the edge of town and several buildings in town as well. Judd’s aluminum and concrete boxes and Dan Flavin‘s flourescent light installations are the highlight on the old military base, while John Chamberlain’s crushed car sculptures fill the downtown gallery.
Marfa still attracts artists and the Chinati Foundation has sponsored a great range of new and diverse work. A few years ago, Marfa became home to a public radio station, thanks to the efforts of my brother Tom Michael, who runs KRTS. The establishment of the radio station provides a cultural anchor for this unexpected cultural mecca – I know my brother meets more artists and musicians in Marfa than I do in Chicago
Marfa has more than its share of artists and entrepreneurs, and it needs them because it is out in the desert. Yet the town has a lot – the Marfa Book Company has an astonishing selection of literature and book and there is even a fabulous restaurant Cochineal with a massive wine list (5 different kinds of Grüner Veltliner! – I NEVER find Grüner Veltliner in towns 20 times as big!!) and lots of other interesting shops and venues, like Katherine Shaughnessy’s Wool & Hoop and the Ballroom.
And then there is the adobe, because while Marfa lies in Far West Texas, the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend, it is southwestern and adobe is found a lot.
this is an adobe wall at Judd’s town complex
In this regard, I spoke on Marfa Public Radio about the preservation of the Hunter Gymnasium, which may well be the only Art Deco, WPA-built adobe gymnasium in the United States of America.
I met with Mike Green, the architect completing the Historic Structures Report on the gym, which is remarkably intact with its earthen buttresses and subtle streamlining. It needs work, thanks to rising damp and water infiltration that has been made much worse by the application of elastomeric paint on the interior.
The gym also had a pitched roof installed to replace the original flat one, but it has very solid bones and I would love to see this one-of-a-kind treasure restored.
A National Trust for Historic Preservation motto is “This Place Matters” and Marfa is a place that really matters.