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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    White Wing Hotel

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox
    Born with great expectations in the optimistic post-World War II days, death came 63 years later amid gangs and drug dealers. Only this was a brick and mortar Baby Boomer, not a person. Nevertheless, when the end came, it was not pretty.

    But first, the upside of the story.

    As one newspaper writer put it, Raymondville for a good while had been “a forgotten city in a lost county.” The county is Willacy, organized in 1911 and reorganized a decade later. It’s one of the youngest of Texas’ 245 political subdivisions.

    While Raymondville had some 8,700 residents by 1947, its streets lay mostly unpaved and unlighted. The South Texas town afforded its citizens, many of whom lived in near poverty, no recreational possibilities. Consequently, even though the community lay on the mainline of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, Raymondville’s few small hotels did not enjoy much business.

    But Mayor Charles R. Johnson figured the town could do better. Johnson had resigned his county judgeship and gotten elected mayor. He inherited a weak municipal government that basically subsisted on its water utility revenue. The city had only been using its tax revenue to retire bonded indeptedness.

    Johnson changed all that, applying tax money on a pay-as-you-go basis to start making improvements. First the city made substantial water and sewage improvements, followed by 175 blocks of new paving and nearly as many new streetlights.

    Amid this civic reawakening, businessman Bill Youngblood decided to build a first-class hotel in Raymondville just off U.S. 77, one of the main highways to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Constructed of cinderblock and then covered with white stucco, the one-story, 50-room hotel cost $300,000.

    Designed by the Corpus Christi architectural firm of Wade and Gibson and built by Harlingen contractor R.E. Smith, the hotel featured “modernistic” red and green furnishings, bamboo chairs and lounges, and murals. In addition, according to a newspaper story published the day the hotel opened on Sept. 7, 1947, the hotel featured “indirect rose and white neon lighting” that gave it “a plushy, salon look.” On top of all that, it had airconditioning, a big deal back then.

    Youngblood named the hotel the White Wing for the variety of dove then huntable only in the Rio Grande Valley. In fact, the white wing hunters who came south each year for the short September bird season made up much of the hotel’s clientel for years. Beyond catering to visitors, the hotel quickly became Raymondville’s social center, the venue for scores of weddings and banquets as well as the meeting place of local civic organizations and the Valley Sportsman’s Club.

    Two years after it opened, the White Wing hosted Gov. Beauford Jester, television star Donald Novis and newly crowned Miss America, Bebe Shopp. All had come to town for the city’s 16th annual Onion Fiesta, an event the Willacy County News commemorated (much to the annoyance of postal officials) with publication of a special edition soaked in onion juice.

    The White Wing Hotel and I became acquainted in 1957, when I traveled to the Valley for the first time with my grandfather. We didn’t spend the night, but stopped there for lunch. I don’t recall what I had to eat, but I remember the crisp white linen tablecloths in the hotel’s dining room and the swaying palm trees in front.

    Earlier this decade, nearly a half-century later, I decided to see how the White Wing had weathered the flight of time. This required exiting U.S. 77 and driving into town. The highway once had gone right through town, but in later years, the state expanded the roadway and rerouted it along the eastern edge of town.

    Long closed, the White Wing stood in ruins. The building had been used for a time as a nursing home, but that too had since closed. An out-of-state partnership owned the vacant building. The absentee landowners paid their taxes each year, but the old hotel had continued to deteriorate. Gang members and drug dealers broke into it, covered its walls with graffiti and added to the trash accummulating in and around it.

    The owners told Raymondville officials they wanted to use the foundation and walls to build a new motel, but they either couldn’t get financing or found that the cost of converting the old hotel into a new place to stay would have been too high. So the old White Wing just sat there, an ever-worsening eyesore and crime magnet.

    Finally, the city had enough. Not willing to spend the $75,000 to $100,000 it would have cost to pay a private contractor to raze the old hotel, the city used its own public works employees to do the job in mid-May 2010.

    Recently, I revisited the site of the once “plushy” hotel. All that remains is a foundation covered with a scattering of white flooring tile and the palm trees.


    © Mike Cox -
    September 1, 2011 column
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