Photo courtesy Hotel Drover.……

Unlike Dallas, her fast-moving, sky-scraping big sister to the east, Fort Worth, steeped in tradition, clings to her cattle-driving past so fiercely that change comes slowly … if at all.  You just don’t mess with Texas mythology, and you sure don’t mess with Cowtown’s historic Stockyards, anchor point of Jesse Chisholm’s legendary cattle trail and iconic symbol of the American West.

No wonder it took nearly a decade of deliberate planning, patient negotiations, and visionary creativity to achieve a triumphant repurposing of long-forsaken brick barns and an idled creekside arena at The Stockyards into the newly christened Mule Alley.  The project’s helmed by Craig Cavileer of Majestic Realty, who leads the team for the redevelopment of the mule barns and its crown jewel, Hotel Drover.

At the far end of Mule Alley, a gargantuan campy neon cowboy crafted by Austin’s famed Evan Voyles swings his lariat and literally ropes me in.  In a triumph of imaginative reuse, what was once a row of 108-year-old horse and mule barns suffering from more than 60 years of idleness and neglect has been reborn as a vibrant array of restaurants, shops, a winery, and a brewery lining my approach to Hotel Drover, a 200-room luxury destination hotel ensconced where the dusty arena once stood.

The fragrance of fine saddle leather wafts in the air as I enter what appears to be the grand foyer of one of Texas’ legendary cattle empire estancias.  It’s emanating from the three expansive pillars of intricately hand-tooled leather bearing the Hotel Drover brand that serve as check-in stations.  Beyond these, a two-story lobby library filled with Texas-inspired books and illuminated by bespoke antler-and-handcrafted-blackened-steel chandeliers beckons me to “come sit a spell” in one of its expansive cowhide lounge chairs.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Each of the 200 rooms has its own unique decor; The Chef’s Table at 97 West; 97 West’s Signature Branded Burger; Hotel Drover Lobby.

My eyes feast on remarkable pieces of Western art—paintings, photographs, sculptures, and signage—that festoon nearly every nook, cranny, and wall space.  “Interior designer Kayla Wilkie spent four years sourcing, curating, and acquiring Western artwork,” Hotel Drover’s Jackie Logue tells me.  “Not only for the common areas, as each of the 200 guest rooms has its own unique art.” 

Some stunning pieces have been created specifically for Hotel Drover, such as the mustachioed steely-eyed drover created from bronze and steel by John Lopez Studios that stands just inside the main entrance and the imaginative chandeliers in the 97 West Kitchen & Bar, crafted from assemblages of antique branding irons.

CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT: The oversized ranch-style pool alongside Marine Creek; The dramatic Hotel Drover entrance; Outdoor dining at The Courtyard at 97 West.

I’m chomping at the bit to explore Mule Alley, but I change my mind after entering my impeccably appointed top-floor room, which overlooks The Backyard, a sprawling outdoor oasis along Marine Creek.  Anchored by a Texas-sized ranch-style heated pool with a hot tub and rimmed by three private cabanas outfitted with hanging daybeds and custom crystal chandeliers, and an enticing poolside bar crafted from a horse trailer, it’s the ideal spot to decompress from a long drive.  Surrounding the pool, hand-selected mature oak, magnolia, cypress, crepe myrtle, and Texas pines wreathe gardens studded with agave and cacti.  I opt to languish in this serene setting for the afternoon.  Guests can enjoy lawn games in The Backyard by day, and come nighttime, be entertained by live music under the Texas stars.  Billy Bob’s Texas, less than a 10-minute walk from Hotel Drover, draws marquee entertainers: Tonight, Dwight Yoakam’s headlining.

On my way to supper downstairs at 97 West Kitchen & Bar, I veer into the Lucchese Custom Collection just off the lobby.  It’s Lucchese’s initial entry into a custom-only boutique concept and a monument to the legendary craftsmanship Sam Lucchese first brought to Texas in 1883.  Alongside this shop, the charming ladies’ boutique Little White Lies offers a curated collection of apothecary, jewelry, accessories, and one-of-a-kind vintage items, all in pale shades and beautiful hues that reflect the store’s intriguing name.

Executive Chef Grant Morgan’s cuisine comprises contemporary Texas fare, elevated ranch classics, and reimagined Southern comfort foods, such as sweet tea-marinated fried green tomatoes.  The focus is on house-cut steaks and includes some Texas seafood standouts, such as the warm blue crab dip and cast iron-seared redfish I devoured.  His signature burger features wood-fired grilled house-ground beef, crowned with pimento cheese, black pepper bacon, and all the fixin’s.

Just off the lobby, Hotel Drover’s two-story library features Texas-themed books.

The dining room itself is a tour de force, showcasing custom hand-crafted furniture and art, authentic repurposed wood floors, a hacienda-style open kitchen, and seating for more than 200 separated into three private dining rooms, an indoor Chef’s Table adjacent to the open-air kitchen, and an outdoor Chef’s Table situated underneath a pergola overlooking the lush landscaping alongside Marine Creek.  Even on this grand scale, the groupings offer a sense of intimacy.

The following morning, I map out my day’s plans over steaming coffee and a freshly baked biscuit smothered in sausage gravy at Biscuit Bar, just a few paces from the hotel on Mule Alley.  Outside the window, a sculpture of running Paint horses graces the middle of Mule Alley and heralds the new headquarters of the American Paint Horse Association.

The re-envisioning of Mule Alley, led by the Stockyards Heritage Development team and architect of record Bennett-Benner Partners, began with each brick being re-laid by hand; a half-million bricks, to be exact.  Original windows were restored, haylofts transformed into beautiful dining areas, and original steel fire doors repurposed as both art and function.  Current tenants include HBarC (high-end Western apparel), the King Ranch Saddle Shop, Kimes Ranch, Lucchese, MB Mercantile, and the iconic Western brand Wrangler, with more on the way.  Sprinkled amongst the stores, AVOCA Coffee Roasters, Cowtown Winery, and Second Rodeo Brewing offer libations to cowgirls looking to wet their whistles during their shopping forays.  Eateries, in addition to Biscuit Bar, include Provender Hall and Shake Shack.

My morning scouting trip is nipped in the bud by torrential thunderstorms, but I find the silver lining: It gives me all the more reason to return—which I’m already plotting as I depart.  My birthday’s coming up soon, and this will be a dandy place to celebrate it.