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Marfa hotelier redevelops Fort Davis ranch into luxury getaway and venue

By Rebecca ChristophersonMay 2, 2024May 6th, 2024No Comments

Marfa hotelier redevelops Fort Davis ranch into luxury getaway and venue

By Barry Shlachter
Photo above by Kirish Dirkson and courtesy of High Frontier

Something is stirring in the desert ranchland outside Fort Davis.

A complex of buildings has been pared to its adobe bricks and rebuilt into luxe accommodations for people attending weddings and events in the area’s rustic, natural settings, and folks seeking a weekend retreat just a short drive from Marfa and Alpine.

Marfa hotelier Tim Crowley is converting the 380-acre High Frontier ranch in Fort Davis into luxury lodging and an event and wedding venue. Photo by Kirish Dirkson and courtesy of High Frontier

The 380-acre High Frontier complex was the site of a ranch headquarters, then a summer camp and finally a residential school. It sat on the market with a $2.7 million asking price until the Marfa hotelier Tim Crowley saw the potential no one else glimpsed.

“The demand for nature and a unique experience is very much on the rise,” Crowley, who bought the property three years ago and began the work then, told 360West in an interview.

It went unsold because potential buyers couldn’t figure out what to do with the property’s 42 buildings totaling 82,000 square feet, he said.

“The property itself is beautiful, and I think that it would’ve been snatched up very quickly for someone’s dream ranchette and home if it had been empty,” he said. “People looked at it and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s gonna take, you know, an enormous amount of money to get rid of all this stuff, and I don’t want it.’”

Crowley knew from owning the Hotel Saint George in nearby Marfa that people come to this corner of Texas for the scenery.

“You look at the property, and you say, ‘Oh my God, there’s just beautiful places where you could get married. And you have these large buildings where you can either hold a reception or be the backup plan if the weather turns badly.”

He sees church groups, yoga enthusiasts, family reunions and music festivals having part or all of the complex to themselves. The property hosted its first events last year and already has hosted a number of weddings and other gatherings, including a hummingbird festival.

High Frontier owner Tim Crowley is refurbishing the Rock House, a three-bedroom lodge set off by itself. Vrbo has it listed for $500 a night during an October weekend.
Photo by Barry Shlachter

High Frontier is in the final stages of transforming staff houses and former ranch bunkhouses into fully equipped suites and lodges, each with a bit of outdoors that guests can have to themselves. Crowley expects to complete 20% of the accommodations by June and 50% by August. He also plans to add an outdoor pool and farm-to-table restaurant this year, and hiking and biking trails in 2025.

Crowley acquired the Rock House — a comfortable, three-bedroom lodge on an adjacent site — and is refurbishing it. (Vrbo has it listed for $500 a night during an October weekend.)

Crowley, who practiced law in Houston — including class action suits against major manufacturers — also does business with Chinese suppliers. He’s active with the USA Table Tennis team (his wife is a professional ping pong coach), and spends considerable time in Marfa. There, he built the nonprofit Crowley Theater and owns several prominent businesses.

His presence is so keenly felt in the Brewster County seat that Texas Monthly ran a 7,800-word article (“A Battle for the Soul of Marfa”) in 2020 highly critical of the town heavyweight, who makes political donations seen as outsized by local standards and has served as an unpaid assistant county attorney.

Afterward, the magazine ran a 15-point correction, with an abject apology by the editor-in-chief. Among the errors, Texas Monthly clarified that Crowley’s gym is not the only one in town. That was in reference to the Marfa Public Radio’s director finding herself barred from his gym after the station reported how Crowley was granted an after-hours liquor permit. He told 360West that, yes, he did have the director’s membership canceled — but only after gym members complained about having to exercise near “this terrible person” behind the “gratuitous hit job.” Crowley added, “If anything, I fall on the side of always being too nice to people.”

Directly across from High Frontier’s entrance is the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center. (Officially the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, but the name sounded so stuffy that it scared people away, its executive director, Lisa Gordon, told me). There are excellent hiking trails — from a fourth of a mile to 2 ¼ miles — around scenic grounds. Not to be missed are the botanical garden and the greenhouse exhibits of some 200 flowering cacti that are almost too beautiful to describe.

Historic Fort Davis is a few minutes away. The town of 1,201 has a more laid-back vibe than nearby Marfa and its stylish boutiques, art galleries, posh restaurants and the much vandalized “Prada store” art installation in the desert.

Chainsaw sculptor Doug Moreland’s Fort Davis studio is open to visitors. Moreland also writes songs and performs Western swing with a fiddle.
Photo by Barry Shlachter

On a drive down State Street, Fort Davis’ main drag, you might pass a high school student casually riding her horse past Manny Dutchover’s popular Poco Mexico Cafe eatery for late breakfasts and lunches (rated 4.6 on Yelp). Then you could see wood chips fly at Doug Moreland’s open air studio. A Renaissance chainsaw sculptor, Moreland writes his own songs and performs Western swing with a fiddle (which he did not carve).

By chance, you might spot hotelier-artist Lanna Duncan, owner of Marfa’s Hotel Paisano, walk into her studio literally next door to complete a canvas. And purchase a Fort Davis watercolor like I did.

At 4,900 feet, Fort Davis is Texas’ highest town, giving it a moderate climate. Decades ago, a University of Texas Lands official told me the area’s Blue Mountain microclimate is blessed with the state’s best wine-grape growing conditions. There have been several tries and Chateau Wright’s winemaker, Adam White, is succeeding with award-winning vintages including red blends that I found simply exquisite. And the winery has a B&B room above the tasting patio.

There’s also a high-end hunting lodge, Sproul Ranch, with superb lodging and food, on the drive to the McDonald Observatory, which has night sky viewing events (advance booking required). The Sproul Ranch offers well-appointed rooms at its Harvard Lodge, built for researchers from the Ivy League university to run a mammoth radio telescope house next door. (The research site is now run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to keep an ear open to outer space murmurs.) Nonhunters can stay at the lodge, but unlike those with long rifles and deer in the scopes, the sumptuous meals are not included. Our meal featured lamb chops and garlic-kissed, sautéed zucchini prepared by owners Roy and Audrey Hurley. 

Nearby is the Fort Davis National Historic Site, a well-preserved, 19th-century cavalry fort where the legendary buffalo soldiers were based. During spring break and holidays two cannons are fired — if the volunteer reenactors in period uniforms can be rounded up, a park official told me, “It’s not always easy.”