Texas Travel

Visit Marfa’s World War II Barracks Turned Art Gallery

By Peter Simek 6.4.18

The tiny, sleepy town of Marfa has emerged as one of the world’s most unlikely art centers. Once founded as a railroad water stop, it sheltered soldiers during World War II before settling into its quiet existence as a county seat of the sparsely populated area between Big Bend National Park and the Davis Mountains.

Save for serving as the backdrop to a few classic films (we’ve all seen Giant, right?), Marfa would have settled into a simple country existence as a ranch hub had not an artist named Donald Judd discovered the place and made it his home in the 1970s. Today, thanks largely to Judd, Marfa is an art pilgrimage site and the home to a number of museums, galleries, and art institutions.

Chinati Foundation

Minimalist Donald Judd was attracted to the sparse beauty and particular light that defines the serene and severe high desert landscape around Marfa. He purchased the old army base and turned it into one of the most unique museums on the planet. Multiple former barracks contain artworks by Judd, while other buildings include works by other formative American artists, such as Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain.

Ballroom Marfa

Thanks to Judd’s minimalist experiments in the desert, a number of galleries and art spaces have chosen to make Marfa their home as well. Perhaps the most well-regarded is Marfa Ballroom. Housed in a converted 1927 dance hall, this nonprofit contemporary art space showcases work by artists from around the world. Throughout the year, the organization also hosts films and musical performances. 

Marfa Lights

If anything rivals art for drawing visitors to Marfa, it is the mysterious Marfa Lights. Thought to be a paranormal phenomenon — or perhaps just an optical illusion created by refracted automobile headlights — but probably a paranormal phenomenon — the Marfa Lights have befuddled scientists and UFO-seekers alike. To catch a glimpse, head to a widened shoulder on U.S. Highway 90 about 9 miles east of Marfa. 

Marfa Lights

The Marfa Lights Viewing Station on Highway 90.

Marfa Book Company

Marfa retains its small-town charm, but its connection to the wider art world, and the cultural tourists who flock through each year, lend it some big-city flare. The Marfa Book Company is an exceptional book shop that specializes in art volumes and independent presses. After browsing the racks, head around the corner to Do Your Thing Coffee, a hip coffee shop tucked behind a few old industrial buildings not far from the main square. 

Marfa Book Company

The Marfa Book Company in the Saint George Hotel.

Hotel Paisano

The Paisano, which opened in 1930, was intended to be the “most elegant hotel between El Paso and San Antonio.” Throughout the 20th century, it was the social center of town and a meeting place for desert travelers, railroad passengers, and ranchers headed to town to market their herds. Today, the hotel offers 41 historical rooms, a ballroom, a pool, and a beloved restaurant.

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