Five tepees came into view as I pulled into the parking lot of El Cosmico, a luxe bohemian hotel and campground in Marfa, Tex. The circular complex was dotted with yurts, safari tents and a rainbow of vintage trailers with names such as Battleship and ’49 Mansion, all for rent. Because the tepees were booked, I checked into a spacious safari tent with a comfortable double bed and electricity.
El Cosmico is one of Marfa’s many unique attractions. The small southwest Texas town, population about 1,700, was founded in 1883 as a railway water stop and became the seat of Presidio County two years later. A military camp established southwest of town in 1911 led to population growth and later became Fort D.A. Russell, which was decommissioned in 1946. These days, Marfa is a world-renowned art destination thanks to artist Donald Judd, who moved from New York in the 1970s when the town was in severe economic decline after boom-and-bust cycles in the cattle industry.
Judd was inspired by the landscape — the vast openness of the nearly mile-high plain in the Chihuahuan Desert — and was able to manifest his idea to create public large-scale permanent art installations. Many people were skeptical about the long-haired hippie that liked bagpipe music and building bonfires, but he later became one of the biggest employers in town. He bought several properties, including 34 buildings and 340 acres of the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell grounds, which became the Chinati Foundation, a world-renowned contemporary art museum, in 1987. Although Judd repurposed buildings, he largely preserved the overall structural configurations and architectural qualities.
“Marfa made Judd as much as Judd made Marfa,” says Jenny Moore, the foundation’s director. “There’s a sense out here of possibility, but also, as long as nobody’s hurting anybody else, you’re kind of able to do your own thing. And there’s a spirit … of potential that I think is one of the reasons Marfa has become what it is.”