Clovis and Maryann Heimsath, owners of the Country Place Hotel in Fayetteville, have been in the hospitality business longer than Texas Monthly has been in the publishing business.
“I got a phone call from a guy who identified himself as part of a group that was starting a new magazine about Texas,” said Clovis, who is the founder of Heimsath Architects in Austin. “They were doing a story about ‘funky hotels.’ I told him, ‘I’m glad we’re going to be in an early issue because there is no way a statewide magazine about nothing but Texas will succeed.’”
Almost 45 years later, the Country Place Hotel is still welcoming guests, and Texas Monthly is still cranking out copy. (Recently, according to Clovis, the tastemaker of Texas revisited the topic of country inns and designated the Country Place Hotel as “the best place to spend a night in the slow lane.”) With that said, both businesses probably operate a little more formally now than they did in the early days.
“We were architects first,” Maryann said. “We just backed into inn keeping because our architectural staff thought it would be a good way to use the second floor of our historic building.”
In 1975, the Heimsaths purchased the Zapp Building, built in 1900 and located on the square in Fayetteville, as part of their plan to move their Houston-based family to the country. They set up shop on the first floor of the historic structure that began life as a department store in 1900 and was repurposed into a boarding house sometime in the 1920s.
The only bathroom was upstairs. As employees made the trek to the facilities, they opined that the couple should use the second floor bedrooms as guest lodging. Over time the plan began to appeal to the Heimsaths who installed a second bathroom, designating one “men” and the other “women.” The women’s had an antique claw-foot tub, while the men’s had a three-foot by three-foot shower.
The casual destination combined the aura of the free-wheeling 70s and the make-yourself-at-home hospitality of small town Texas. The front door didn’t lock. If the sheets hadn’t been changed, the Heimsaths directed guests to the linen closet for a fresh set. The kitchen, which stocked raw milk from the Heimsaths’ dairy cow, was open for all. Coffee was made by whoever got up first in the morning. The second floor wasn’t air conditioned.
“We charged $15 a night,” Clovis said. “We had a wonderful series of people who dropped in. We really liked the people we met and the interest it added to our lives.”
When the number of local cafes in Fayetteville dwindled to one, the Heimsaths thought a restaurant would be a natural fit for the inn. They planned to attract a young chef from the University of Houston’s then-new Restaurant School. Young chefs didn’t see Fayetteville as a career launching pad, so the position remained unfilled until one night when the family was eating dinner. Clovis counted heads.
With a total budget of $100, the family set up an eight-table restaurant. Their only major purchases were dishes and flatware from a restaurant supply store. They used their own pots and pans and made do with the existing kitchen that has supported the boarding house.
Each night Maryann offered one meal that consisted of soup, salad, an entrée and a dessert for $7 per person. On Saturday nights they turned the tables three times.
“Maryann cooked marvelous meals—and we ended up being cool,” Clovis said. “All of our city friends wanted to know what happened to us, so they came out. We made it a grand party.”
Then the economy cooled. To survive the downturn, the Heimsaths moved the architectural firm to Austin and shuttered the restaurant and inn. At one point, the couple tried to sell the building, but there were no takers. Over time the elements and disuse began to take a toll on the structure. In the interim their son Ben had taken over the firm, and they were working part-time, so they had more free time. The deteriorating building nagged at the Heimsaths.
“Our problem was that we were architects who lived and worked in Fayetteville—and we owned arguably the best building in town,” Clovis said. “We could either be remembered as the people who let the town’s best building go to pieces or as the people who restored it so it would last another hundred years.”
In 2003, they chose the latter. Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, the restoration had to maintain the original integrity of the building as much as possible.
Neither Heimsath had any experience running a hotel, but each had plenty of experience staying in country inns. Maryann, who claimed the project as her own, had very clear ideas about how she wanted it to look and how the lodging venue should be run.
“From years of talking with inn owners across the country, I knew what worked for them and what didn’t,” Maryann said. “As a guest, I also knew what I expected and needed to have an enjoyable stay.”
First, the couple donned their architect hats. Each made a list of repairs and renovations they thought were crucial, attached a price tag them and agreed the whole project had to be completed for no more than $175,000. Then they brought in Alvin Minarcik, a local contractor with extensive experience in historic restorations, to make his own estimates. He figured it would cost $250,000. Together, the trio whittled the bottom line to $215,000.
The Heimsaths went to the Fayetteville National Bank and secured a loan.
“We were in our 70s. We had never run a hotel and had no idea whether or not we’d ever get the money back,” Clovis said. “We just knew we couldn’t let the building go down without a fight.”
Maryann oversaw every phase of the renovation from conceiving plans to selecting paint colors and choosing every piece of furniture.
“Make no mistake about it, this is Maryann’s hotel,” Clovis said. “I introduce myself as the sous chef. I’m in charge of the muffins for breakfast.”
While Clovis was content to take a back seat during the renovation, he contributed one of the hotel’s most unique features. The Heimsaths had to reconfigure the space to provide a private bath for each of the eight bedrooms. Seven of the bathrooms have no windows.
The lack of a view bothered Maryann, who is a photographer. She tasked Clovis, who is artist, with the solution. She asked him to paint fall scenes on Masonite based on photographs she had taken in surrounding communities. They framed the paintings as if they were a window and named each room after the community represented in the painting. The roster of rooms includes: Cummins Creek, Halstedt, Live Oak, Walhalla, Rek Hill, Ross Prairie, Park and Willow Springs.
“It was a real ordeal for me to paint that many panels,” Clovis said. “The entire restoration took nine months. It took me the same amount of time to finish the paintings.”
His large-scale paintings also hang in the Moravian room, the hotel’s gathering space that accommodates up to 100. It is the site of events ranging from the annual Fayetteville Chamber Music Festival in May to the Heimsaths’ annual Thanksgiving dinner where they host 50 family members and friends.
“Maryann just had her 85th birthday party in the Moravian room—and she’s still bragging about how many people came,” Clovis, who celebrated his 85th birthday last year in the same room, said laughing. “It’s a place for the community to come together and celebrate the things that bind us.”
In the couple’s experience, history and architecture will always be two of the ties that bind humanity.
“The character and spirit of a community resides in those good bones of a historic building,” Maryann said. “We need our history to live as we move toward the future.”
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography