A HIGHER PLATEAU
Marfa’s transformation from railroad town to ranch community, serving as frontier cavalry outpost and World War II POW camp along the way, appears to follow a somewhat familiar trajectory experienced by many of its fellow Texas communities. But any similarities ended with the arrival of Donald Judd, a 20th century sculptor who developed a deep appreciation for the Marfan countryside. Much of Judd’s work, considered “Minimalism”, had entered the canon of art history by the 1970s. It would also be the decade Judd turned his eye to Marfa. Judd embraced the west Texas light and sense of space surrounding this high desert plateau, then purchased ranchland and area properties, re-imagined existing downtown buildings, and created the Chinati Foundation, a non-profit art foundation dedicated to his work and that of his contemporaries. Judd located the Foundation on the grounds of Fort D. A. Russell, a military outpost first called Camp Marfa and established in 1911. The Fort would remain active until 1945, serving as German prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War. Judd’s vision would have a permanent effect on many of the Fort’s remaining structures, transforming barracks and quarters into permanent installations for contemporary art. He would also have a similar effect on Marfa, transforming it from a modest west Texas outpost to modern, art world destination. Today, Marfa hosts music, art, and film festivals, theatrical performances and concerts, is home to contemporary galleries and fine restaurants, and features modern architectural designs among its many restored and re-configured historic structures. The renovated Henry Trost-designed Hotel Paisano and the mid-century modern Thunderbird Motel provide a sample paring of the unusual architectural icons that make Marfa unique and its mix of artists, ranchers, and locals create a culture found nowhere else in the state. Center stage, however, belongs to the Second Empire style Presidio County courthouse, restored through the Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program. Built in 1886, this edifice to Italianate detailing dominates the surrounding high desert plain, serving as solid reminder of Marfa’s pioneer past.