Hilton Hotel

Looking Back: Hilton Hotel was the place to slake your thirst

By DOUG McDONOUGH Herald Editor

 Contrary to legend, Plainview’s Hilton Hotel in its heyday was not the place for men to satisfy their sexual desire with ladies of the night. But if they had a thirst for intoxicating liquor, it paid off to be friends with one of the two regular bellhops.

“Charlie Morgan was the part owner and manager back then,” recalled local auto dealer Don Johnston. “He was a really good guy, but he would not allow ladies of the night to work at the Hilton. If men were looking for prostitutes, they probably would have gone across the street to the Ware Hotel because we didn’t have them at the Hilton.”

Johnston, who graduated from Plainview High School in 1949, worked as a bellhop at the Hilton for two years — in 1948 and 1949.

“I would go in after school and work from 4 to 8 in the evenings and weekends,” he explained. “Mainly I would work on Friday nights and Sunday afternoon. The two regular bellhops were named Curley and Fred, and they were in their late 20s or early 30s. They weren’t married, and they both lived in the basement. Back then the bellhops didn’t get a salary — we worked for tips. But Curley and Fred always drove brand new cars.”

They were able to supplement their meager incomes as bellhops, Johnston explained, by providing bootlegged pints of whiskey to their regular customers.

“I didn’t do any of the bootlegging, but I got to catch most of the bags while they were busy with their other business, which suited me fine,” he said. “And I also got a good education . . . a real good education.”

Curley and Fred often would coordinate their liquor sales with the elevator operator, who often would stash the pint bottles of whiskey on top of the elevator after lifting up the trap door.

“At that time the Hilton was the nicest place to stay in Plainview,” Johnston said. “I guess about the only other decent place for a traveler was the old Plainview Motel at Fifth and Columbia, but we had some good entertainment and a high class cliental. People like Eddie Arnold and Little Jimmy Dickens would stay there.”

In addition to a restaurant and cafe, the Hilton had a drug store, barbershop and cleaners. “Upstairs, there were a stockbroker and bonding room, along with ballroom and numerous meeting rooms. All the civic clubs met there, and there were lots of dances, Christmas parties and entertainment. And just about everyone ate at the Hilton on Sunday after church.”

A regular poker game was held on the second floor each Friday night, with many of Plainview’s leading citizens participating. “There were several local bankers who would take part, along with several others that you might not suspect. Sometimes they would come downstairs singing and cutting up.”

About the bootleg whiskey, Johnston said it was brought in during the afternoon in several bags and suitcases.

“It would be delivered by Douglas Cab Company, unloaded and taken up to the top floor,” he recalled. “There were a couple of loose cinder blocks on the eighth floor that Curley and Fred would pull out and hide the whiskey behind.”

The pint bottles of whiskey would come wrapped in brown paper, six pints to a bag. In turn, they would be sold for $5 per bottle.

“That was really good money back then,” Johnston said. “And the regular customers would start coming by about 5 p.m., when they got off of work.”

To avoid problems with the law, Curley and Fred had an informal arrangement with the local liquor control agent, Johnston claimed.

“They had a payoff going,” he explained. “The liquor agent would always call ahead before a raid. Curley wasn’t that particular about who he sold to, but the law at the time was such that if you got caught eight or more times, you likely would go to jail for awhile. The liquor agents had to make so many arrests, to show they were doing their job, so they tried to spread them around. Most of the time they would simply pay their fine, which was $115, and just go on.”

Normally the cheaper brands of whiskey were the only ones available from the bellhops.

“Working for tips, I would usually make about $4 a night,” Johnston said. “But when Curley and Fred were busy with their other customers, I would end up taking just about all the bags of people checking in.”

One particular traveler who would often stay at the Hilton customarily carried a small bag, about the size of a shaving kit, but would always tip a dollar.

“Sometimes we would get 50 cents to a dollar, but for the men who were really dressed up in suits and ties you might be lucky to get a dime or quarter — even if they had several bags.”

Years later, in either 1955 or 1956, Johnston ran into Curley. “I was already in the car business and was hustling up cars in Odessa when I happened into Curley. He was working at a hotel in Odessa at that time.”

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Hilton was the center of social activity in Plainview.

“The Hilton had several permanent residents back then, including Mr. Allen who was a major stockholder in the Hale Center bank, a Mr. Black from Ohio who stayed there four to five months each year because he had farmland northeast of town, and another farm owner named Joe Kelihor. And banker R.V. Payne and his family had a suite in the Hilton while they were building his house on West Seventh Street.”

Born in Hollis, Okla., and raised in Lawton, Johnston moved to Plainview in late 1946 when his father went to work for Harvest Queen Mill.

Johnston met his future wife, Mary Anne, while both were working at the Hilton. She was employed by Hilton Drug and worked at its fountain and behind the counter.


Hilton Hotel: Contractor gives renovation update
Gordon Ziegler, Special to the Plainview Herald
 Published  December 18, 2017


If the hallways of the Hilton could speak, what a story they might tell.

That was on the mind of at least a few in a tour group of about 16 onlookers during a walk-through at the Hilton Hotel on a cold morning Thursday.

The group included those with ties to the city, members of the Plainview Chamber of Commerce and the Plainview Main Street project, or the Plainview/Hale County Economic Development Corp., plus others having a longtime personal interest in a Hilton renovation.

A few in the group thought about that, and many had their own personal memories of events at the Hilton, dining there, or maybe knowing or remembering someone who worked there before its closure in 1984. The entourage toured the building  at the invitation of MLR Capital, the Kansas City-based firm renovating it.

Some of the younger participants, or those new to Plainview, listened intently as the Hilton’s life story was related to them by others.

Damon Admire of Dumas, the construction contractor, wanted to give the group an up-close look at progress made recently at restoring the brick and stone façade outside, and the extensive and thorough demolition of unneeded materials that has taken place inside over previous months – all leading to acceleration of work, expected to reach a crescendo in January.

Many in Plainview continue to wonder just what all the activity is about at the Hilton – whether it is being torn down, or just what is happening.  The tour helped those in attendance grasp the plan and imagine what the Hilton may look like in the years ahead.

The $7 million project is expected to begin taking rapid shape after the first of the year in 2018.

“This is probably one of the best built buildings we could deal with,” explained Damon Admire as he pointed out the structure’s concrete skeleton and features.

Admire ushered the group on a foot tour from first to third floors, mentioning how the basic structure is strongly built, solid, and that the workmanship of the 1920s was amazingly good, plus the materials used are on par or in most cases exceed that of today’s construction industry, he said.

Unlike some restoration projects in similar era buildings, where renovators discover vast discrepancies in measurements from window to window – the Plainview Hilton’s  window openings, for instance, were discovered to be consistently within a quarter inch tolerance all over the building – reducing expense of production considerably.

Progress not seen to the naked eye has taken place in many quarters:

Most windows for the building have been ordered, and are in production.  To preserve the period look, the decoratively designed windows with square transoms above will be installed wherever similar original transoms exist -- on the first floor and in many other places.  The original wooden sash designs will be recreated exactly out of metals.

A January 6 confluence of architects, engineers, plumbing and electrical contractors, heating and air conditioning personnel will take place to draw and finalize final working architectural drawings so work can move into high gear, Admire said.

High tech heating and air conditioning will be installed in a way that small so-called suitcase compressors and heating-cooling units will be individualized to each of the 27 loft spaces. A total of four lofts on each of the upper six floors will be constructed.

Plans have been discussed to route water and other utilities into a basement control room, rerouting the connections upward via booster pumps and valves for water.  The delivery system is designed to serve and isolate each of the units individually – and by adding pumps it negates the need for water tanks on the top floor.

Hopes for the Plainview Hilton are high among the project developers.

In an earlier interview with Daniel Sailler, a principle of MRE Capital, expressed optimism. His firm has lots of experience with similar projects, having renovated the successful Will Rogers hotel in Claremore, Okla., and two other projects in the Midwest.

Making the $7 million project possible was the successful application for affordable housing federal tax credits last year

The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs voted to approve hotel owner MRE Capital, LLC’s 9 percent Federal Housing Tax Credit (HTC) application for an adaptive re-use multifamily project at the Hilton Hotel, located at 191 W. Sixth St.

“When we do a project like this it stimulates lots of activity and business in the area around it,” explained Sailler.

The Conrad lofts are expected to increase real estate tax revenues for governmental entities. It will also result in stimulation of business in the surrounding area of downtown Plainview, creating overall positive economic activity for the city.

MRE hired the premier external renovation firm, Mid Continental Restoration Company specializing in facades of historic buildings.

MRE sought out the particular company in order to give its best shot to the appearance of the building because of the building’s design, beauty and history, according to Sailler.

“We discussed whether to do it right now, or do it right later,” he said.  “We decided that it was best to go ahead and do it right now.”  Just prior to the external work, a local demolition company removed a huge microwave tower from the roof, and the old fire escapes on the east façade.

CRC is based in Kansas with numerous projects across the country.

A huge list of projects are credited to them, from the huge Union Station in Kansas City, to the Texaco building in Houston, the Conoco Phillips headquarters in Bartlesville, Okla., to courthouses, hotels and government buildings in many states, and several in Texas.

A crew of 12 experienced brick and stone masons working the exterior of the Hilton had just finished work on the Texas State Capitol building before being assigned the Plainview structure.

Little did Sailler know that his property would soon, in the not too distant future, have a new neighbor across the intersection when the City of Plainview relocates its city hall -- after Centennial Bank builds a new headquarters here at Ennis and Olton Rd.

The City Hall move and renovation will follow the Hilton on the time line. Sailler was not aware of the development when he first linked up with Plainview/Hale County Economic Development Corporation executive director Mike Fox to consider the Hilton for a loft project. Centennial Bank is deeding their building to the city.

MRE is now in the process of renovating not one, but three buildings in Texas into loft apartments: Plainview along with the Laguna Hotel in Cisco and the Baxter Building in Harlingen.  MRE has worked on plans for the projects in Cisco and Harlingen for several years, and only last year applied for and were approved for the projects -- in each case they were rated with the highest project points among numerous competitors for affordable housing tax breaks.

Two government programs will be governing some of the construction considerations.

Approved for tax credits for ‘affordable housing’ by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, MLR is required to meet certain specs on the project.

In addition, those who like the idea of preserving ‘bygone days’ will like the plans for the Hilton.

The Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program also offers a 20 percent tax credit for the rehabilitation of historic buildings for preservation through the Texas Historical Commission. Under the terms, MLR must maintain the original ‘hotel’ look of the structure regardless of its repurposing as apartments.

Many interesting details of the original building have been ‘discovered’ covered and hidden through years of redesign, but much of that must now be exposed and preserved, Admire indicated

On the first level, Admire pointed up at a ceiling over the lobby which hides the original mezzanine of the second floor. The ceiling will soon be removed to add back the original high ceiling’s breathtaking expanse with its surrounding balustrade and rails, giving first floor observers a peek upward at the ballroom mezzanine.

Above a ceiling at the original check in desk, which will become the Conrad Lofts managerial office, some handsome crown moulding was found and will be exposed in the future.

On arriving upstairs on the ballroom floor, he made an announcement he said the city will like.

“I am announcing to you today, that we intend to restore the ballroom to its original state, and make it available to Plainview for events, meetings and special occasions,” he said.

At several stops along the tour, Admire explained how the rules of ‘preservation’ will impact the repurposing of the building for apartments.

The view down the central hallways of the former upper room floors – a scene that will remain the same as originally built.  The rows of doors will remain, though there will only be four separate apartments behind them on each floor.  

On the ground floor, outside, where previous retail spaces opened out onto the sidewalk, doors will be preserved though only those strategic to entry into a ground floor apartment will open. The rest will be retained, non-functional, to preserve the original look.

There may be some changes on the first level, rumored at one time to become retail spaces again. Apparently, the planners are looking at adding some ground floor apartments to the mix, Admire said.  And the former first floor restaurant, to the right of the door on entry, is probably going to become a ‘library’ and sitting room.

The vast basement beneath the Hilton, will have a new purpose: to serve as a control room area for utilities to the apartments, but on a larger scale, off site storage areas will be built with coordination one-for-one with the 27 loft apartments, with a unique keying system that will allow tenants to open their basement storage with the same key they use for their loft apartment.

So, to those wondering about prospects for the Hilton’s future, a new story being told, here, is one of rebirth and renovation.

Admire wanted to show off to those who can remember the Hilton and many younger, who knew it only as a structure unused and abandoned since about 1984.

As they passed from first to third floors, visitors viewed and a man actually remembered seeing as youths the ornate second floor ballroom, the popular Hilton restaurant on the ground floor, a barber shop and laundry-dry cleaners.

Thoughts of the mass of humanity that has passed in and out of town through the downtown portal were on the minds of many on the tour.

From its dedication on July 4th, 1929 -- with Conrad Hilton himself in attendance – through last year, 2017, a total of 88 years have passed. The need for the Hilton lodging services ceased in about 1984, silencing its halls ever since.  About the only economic activity that continued was rental of space for a microwave tower on the roof, but modern fiber optic telecommunications made that obsolete and none of the subsequent owners came forward with renovation plans.

A seldom touted, and almost never mentioned fact is that the Plainview Hilton is truly historic in the scheme of things.

Sensing great potential of owning hotels he encountered in Cisco, Texas, during the oil boom, being convinced the mass of workers coming and going from a local hotel could translate into profit, Hilton bought the 40-room Mobley Hotel in Cisco in 1919, his first.

Information available to the Herald shows that only four other Hilton’s preceded it –all were reflagged ‘Hilton’ as they were functioning under other names when purchased – apparently holding the distinction of being the ‘first’ Hilton built from the ground up to carry the name

Wikipedia then lists the hotels he first purchased, and the years purchased, as follows:  the high-rise Dallas Hilton, opened in 1925; the Abilene Hilton in 1927; Waco Hilton in 1928. Judging from that, the Plainview Hilton, built from scratch, came in 1929.

As previously said, 88 years have passed since a momentous occasion in Plainview when on July 4, 1929, a gathering of civic boosters akin to the small group touring the Hilton Thursday sat down to a dinner of filet-mignon to dedicate the Plainview Hilton.

Many false starts and unsuccessful plans for renovations later, after many intentions went awry, the Hilton’s purpose will finally be changing in an abrupt but positive way in 2018.

For over 50 years after 1929, and through a handful of different owners, the Hilton served as a lively hostelry, even gaining a reputation as a popular restaurant featuring regular ‘noon buffets’ and gaining a big following as a fancy place to meet, celebrate a party of have a big gathering in its ballroom.

The eatery on the first floor, and its ballroom on the second floor pleased the palates of many, an experience complete with piano and organ music by a ‘resident musician’

In a rare find, a clipping from the Plainview Daily Herald was discovered in past years featuring a photo of Mr. and Mrs. Billy Graham dining alongside Cliff Barrows, his music director. They were happenstance diners being greeted at their table by Pollyanna Cavitt, then the resident pianist and official Hilton organist.  Graham apparently was conducting a crusade either north or south, and took the opportunity of the Hilton’s proximity to pull of US 87 to make a dining stop in Plainview.  When someone spied Graham’s party, they apparently summoned a local photographer to drive over to the restaurant and get the shot.


This is a view looking from the registration desk to the original  entrance of the Hilton. All original moulding and decor is to be preserved. As you can see, it's been quite a job!!