Anyone who has entered the Strater Hotel can attest that history is important to Rod Barker.
Barker, 64 – whose family has been involved in the operation of Durango’s iconic inn, the Strater Hotel, since 1926 – is looking toward retirement, and that means a new era is approaching for the downtown hotel.
A deal to sell the Strater, which was built in 1887 and opened in 1888, was close to being finalized before falling through last week, and the hotel remains on the market, Barker said.
Adjusting for inflation, the $70,000 to build the Strater in 1888 would amount to just over $1.9 million in 2019 dollars. Of course, the business has grown into something much more than it was 130 years ago.
“It’s a bummer for all the time and effort I put into it,” Barker said about the collapse of the deal. “At this point, no sale is pending, and it is available, but until that time, our family continues to enjoy being stewards of it.”
Barker said he would like to retire, and while he may still dabble in business in Durango, he is looking for “something that’s less demanding of my time.”
Beyond an appreciation for history, Barker is an antiquarian, and it’s a family thing.
He is especially pleased that the family’s passion for antique furnishings and all things Victorian has created an inn that’s not just a place to lay your head but a place to step back in time.
“We’ve sourced antiques for the hotel all over the United States,” he said. “We have the largest collection in the world of its kind, American Victorian walnut antiques. And so as a consequence, the Strater is actually a museum.”
Barker, CEO and president of the Strater Hotel, said the family was specific about its quest. It focused on walnut, which is the wood of choice for the finest craftsmen. The Barker family collected some oak antiques, but the vast majority of the collection is walnut.
“It’s all American except for one or two beds that were made in Austria,” Barker said.
The driving force of Marion Jarvis, Barker’s grandmother, is behind the Strater’s antique collection. And Jarvis is whom Barker credits with setting the Strater on its path to offer guests not only a nice room but a place that honors the Victorian era.
“She was really a pioneer in many things,” he said. “She inspired my mom – my mom who wanted not to live in Durango, she wanted to live in San Francisco or some big city and really get out of the town that she was raised in – to realize that she had a gem here. And why not spend some time and make this hotel special.”
So, inspired by Marion Jarvis, the family began buying antiques.
The family’s history with the Strater is what swayed Barker to return to Durango, his hometown, when he received a fateful phone call in 1982 from his father, Earl Barker, with the news he intended to sell the Strater.
“You know I had fully planned on being in the hotel business, and I was doing well with Westin Hotels, and I would have had a general manager’s position before too long, and my dad said he was going to sell the hotel, and I said, ‘No, dad, don’t do that. I’ll come back and run the hotel.’”
With the Strater, Barker knew the family had a “diamond in the rough.”
At the time, the inn needed some maintenance, and Barker didn’t have a big budget for major renovations. It was a financial pickle, but with the assistance of the family’s appreciation for antiques, Barker said everything worked out in the end.
“I had to do all of the renovation of the hotel out of the operating funds, and instead of having a hotel where you trash everything every five or six years and throw it in the landfill, we bought wonderful assets that last. Some of the beds in the rooms have been here for 40 or 50 years. We are one of the most green hotels you could find in the country.”
Tim Walsworth, executive director of Durango’s Business Improvement District, said no set of downtown photos is complete without a shot of the Strater.
“His attention to the details, and all the craftsmanship that he has continually invested in, are a huge part of how downtown Durango maintains its history,” Walsworth said.
Barker, he noted, helped start the BID in 1997, and his vision for an organization that would foster cooperation among local businesses continues to help commerce thrive downtown and in the North Main District.
Monique DiGiorgio, executive director of Local First, said Barker has been instrumental in supporting local businesses.
“Rod’s leadership and dedication to local business is apparent throughout the Strater, from their commitment to sourcing food locally to the historic preservation you witness down every corridor,” she said.
Today, the essential aspect that remains central to Durango, Barker said, is its vibrant downtown and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. He sees new cookie-cutter hotels now going up around town as too sterile: “standard chains you see everywhere else, and so they don’t really say Durango to me.”
When a sale of the Strater does come to fruition, Barker said he may work on redeveloping his property next door to the inn, which includes Magpies Newsstand.
Barker believes if Durango protects its downtown and the train, its future is likely to be healthy.
“My grandfather once told me, ‘Take good care of this hotel, and it will take care of you,’ and I think the same thing is true about downtown Durango.” He said, “As locals, whether you live in Hesperus or Three Springs or the north county, if we take care of downtown Durango, this town will take care of us and our interests. That’s important.”