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Ruins now mark the site of former mansion-turned-hotel that still houses mystery

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MONTE ALTO, Texas - Along a lonely stretch of Farm to Market Road 88 there stands what used to be a grand hotel once known as the "jewel of the Delta."

The brilliant-white, 56-room mansion held a splendid, tiled ballroom where residents from all around the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico would gather, dressed in their finest, to dance at monthly socials in the 1940s where a big-band orchestra would play.

"My mama used to go there," Gabriela Garcia, a 40-year-old Monte Alto resident and mother of three, told The Monitor ( of McAllen. "She would say that the men wore pocket watches and those baggy pants ... It's where you would go in those days to meet other young people and just have a good time. They played all Hispanic music and they loved that."

The derelict building now stands three stories tall and hollow in faded pink, surrounded by palms that have sprouted around the property and through the rubble. Palm fronds drape exposed rebar and flowers grow where the orchestra once played.

Today, the place is silent — a tomb of memories unopened, a question begging to be answered. It's a piece of Valley history, and more than that.

Over the years it has become a mystery, even a dare. Some have taken the unspoken challenge to cross the property's fence.

"They used to shoot trespassers there," wrote Joel Garza, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Texas-Pan American. "The highlight of every high school student in 2000 was trespassing and not getting caught."

Others simply pass it by and feel a quiet yearning to explore.

"I've always wanted to check that building out," said Edinburg resident Michelle Evins. "It has such a pull to it."

In 1928, a businessman named W.A. Harding purchased 53,000 acres in what would become Monte Alto, with plans to make a fortune in real estate in the undeveloped area. He started the Delta Orchards Company in a bid to lure other potential land buyers to the area with the promise of a mint to be made in agriculture.

According to records in the Margaret H. McAllen Memorial Archives of the Museum of South Texas history, it was two years and 10,000 labourers later that the land became a town site, ready to be filled with commerce and community.

Construction of the mansion began in 1929, when Harding realized he needed a place to house potential buyers in the lap of luxury while they considered the value of the land. He took them on a tour of the Valley and across the border — a selling point in his brochure which described the "primitive customs of Mexico."

But hit by the Great Depression in the 1930s, Harding could no longer support the property, and was forced to give it up to the American Life Insurance Company, from whom he had gotten a loan.

The Bentsen family purchased the property in 1945, then sold it to another prominent family, the Gattis.

The Gatti family converted the house into Delta Lake Hotel, which it remained through the 1960s.

Since then, the property has had several owners, none of whom have made any changes, according to Hidalgo County records.

Most recently, the derelict property was the site of a grisly discovery — in 2007, owner Laura Doyle was found dead, shot at least five times and burnt beyond recognition. Her son, Christopher Hughes, then 17, was convicted of the murder. By the time Doyle was reported missing, Hughes had used her credit cards to purchase more than $7,000 worth of video games and accessories, and upgrades for his car.

Before her body was discovered by her eldest son, Randy Langston, Hughes had continued to live in a trailer on the property with his mother's decomposing corpse a few yards away.

According to Hidalgo County records, Laura Doyle is still listed as the owner of the property, making it a true piece of the "Forgotten Valley."

"It's mysterious," Garcia said of the building. "There's just something about it. You want to know more."


Information from: The Monitor,

Ed: This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Monitor of McAllen.

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