Mechelle Slaughter (left) and Phyllis Gamble envisioned the renovation of a downtown Clifton building into a bed and breakfast. With the help of about 30 local craftsmen, it is now the Screen Door Inn

 
 

Screen Door Inn

110 N. Avenue D, Clifton

254-675-7829

screendoorinn.com

On a clear mid-morning, Clifton’s downtown main street is doing brisk business. People move in and out of cafés, retail shops, offices. The Cliftex movie theater, in operation since 1916 and the star of downtown Clifton, shines quietly in bright daylight, movie posters gleaming.

Across the street, well, it’s chaos.

A crew scrambles to put the finishing touches on a stunning renovation that runs the length of the block and wraps around the corner to historic Avenue D.

Phyllis Gamble is standing right where folks in this town have become accustomed to seeing her the last several months: Nearly into traffic on the main street, pointing upward to some specific aperture, deep in conversation with a contractor.

She is almost sheepish about the beginnings of this project, but not about its purpose: The Screen Door Inn is a breathtaking bed-and-breakfast that goes into the heart of what small-town life means to Gamble and project partner Mechelle Slaughter. The two stared at the crumbling property from their own Cliftex Theatre across the street — itself the subject of a serious renovation when they purchased it in the late 2000s — and wondered when someone would come to rescue the historic building.

The “someone” turned out to be them.

For both women, the project has been a labor of love. “I’m not sure anyone does this kind of thing for their health,” Gamble said, laughing. “You have to love history; you have to love treasures like this.” She gestures at the freshly painted exterior of the Screen Door Inn, which has been renovated to reflect how it was rebuilt after the 1906 fire that consumed much of downtown Clifton.

Gamble gamely acknowledges that a certain birthday played a big role in her current perspective on life, including her eagerness to take on such daunting projects. “I always got it, really,” she says of her innate love of history and historic treasures. “But 50 is a great change. Things that didn’t used to seem important become so. You begin to ask yourself what you hope to leave behind. I want so much to leave something that will live longer than myself. I really hope and feel that the inn will be providing someone with work and purpose 50 years from now, long after I’m on the other side of Glory.”

Slaughter makes a brief appearance, but is flying off to work at the Bosque Museum. Immediately after, a friend drops by to chat, an occurrence that repeats itself near-constantly on this morning. It’s Kim Dahl, wife of Henry Dahl, who owns and operates the longtime television sales and repair shop beneath the Screen Door Inn. The couple is one of several tenants on the ground floor, and though Dahl admits they were at first nervous about the renovation (“Of course, we worried they’d want to kick us out,” she says), they’ve come to love the whole experience, dust and all.

“These ladies are amazing,” Dahl said. “Favorite landlords ever. People just cannot be this decent, I thought, but they just are. Although, to be fair, Clifton is full of good people; this is the most wonderful Utopia to raise a family in. And can I just say it is so good to see this building brought back to its former glory.”

Gamble says that far from wanting to “kick out” the Dahls of Mac’s TV Sales & Service, she and Slaughter believe that small businesses like the Dahls’ are the key to successful downtowns. “People like Henry Dahl are the people who built this town,” she said. “His family was among the original settlers of Clifton. Henry started working for Mac when he was 15 years old and never left. People just don’t do that anymore. That in itself is something worth protecting.”

The Good Side

Gamble leads the way through the unfinished side of the structure, the part she and Slaughter have termed Phase 2.

“We call this the good side,” Gamble said, pushing past sheaves of antique wallpaper smattered with roses, peeling car siding and endless piles of dusty television tubes, a legacy from Mac’s downstairs shop. “That’s because it’s actually in better shape than the other side (now completed as the Screen Door Inn) was. We decided it was best to tackle the hard part first.”

Where the renovated section of the Screen Door Inn is a sleek bed-and-breakfast environment, “we envision this side as more lofty, industrial, modern,” Gamble said. “We’re thinking a space where we can rent out the whole side to families, reunions, wedding parties and the like.”

When in use as a modest hotel decades ago, this section alone contained 10 rooms that shared one cramped bath, with only one “bath-en-suite” tucked into a dark northwest corner.

“A B&B experience is sometimes just not as fun with kids,” Gamble acknowledged. As aunts to a number of nieces and nephews, she and Slaughter declare that “anything we do must be kid-friendly. So this side, we hope, will be very kid-friendly.”

The pair are in no hurry, though, to begin on the west side of the building the project they’ve only just completed on the east.

“What we’ve learned is two things,” Gamble said. “First: Don’t start a project in the summertime. I give full credit to our wonderful contractors, who were with us every step of the way through this particular summer; but we were burning up. And, second: Don’t start a project anytime from January through April, because that’s Baylor basketball time. So we’re agreed that we’re going to begin on Phase 2 in September. Baylor football is just so much easier to manage.”

Gamble, a former Lady Bear basketball player, and Slaughter are both die-hard Baylor fans.

The Screen Door Inn

Stepping across the divide between the two phases takes you from a dusty, ghostly past to one that is very much alive.

A long hallway, floored in hardwood and softly lit by hanging dome lamps and peeks of sunshine, is punctuated at regular intervals by wooden-framed screen doors that echo childhood summers spent flitting indoors and out. The doors are more than decorative: They’re a reminder of the decades-ago days before air conditioning, when doors like these allowed a breath of fresh air to flow among what were then 10 rooms sharing a single hallway bath.

Gamble and Slaughter have found ingenious ways of incorporating modern essentials — air conditioning, en suite bathrooms, even miniature Keurig coffee pots and discreet hair dryers — within an atmosphere that evokes a time before such things were common.

Behind each screen door lies a re-created fragment of Bosque County history. Each of the six upstairs rooms announces its heritage in script on the transom above each screen door: Norse, Lone Star, Bosque, Marquee, Heritage, Jennie’s Garden; downstairs, the Studio Room reflects Clifton’s modern distinction as a community of artistic welcome.

“This is the only floor we replaced,” Gamble said, gesturing to the pale pine finish on wide boards that floor the Lone Star Room, a wide space overlooking Avenue D from its tall windows. “Actually, this was the floor we used to patch the other floors.” The room is a subtle evocation of Texas heritage, from its dusty sage, cocoa and crimson colors to its staunch, handcrafted wood furnishings and thinly whitewashed western wall.

This spare purity extends to every nook and cranny of the Screen Door Inn.

Those nooks and crannies break out in worn, authentic charm. Swaths of underlying original brick and stone peek out in every room beneath the wall finishes. “We didn’t do that,” Gamble said in mock protest. “The building did that, I promise you. Joe Brooks, our masonry man — a third-generation local brick mason, by the way — just helped us fix it so it would stay. We really tried to let the building talk to us, and, believe me, it did.”

Gamble gives credit for the Screen Door’s authentic décor to neighbor Julie Phillips, wife of a local physician and mother of two boys who also is an expert hand at interior design. Phillips oversaw the selection of many pieces and necessary refinishing as well as subtler elements like wall finishes and lighting. All interior doors are original, and most elements of the inn, new or old, were discovered locally.

“You wouldn’t believe the things people just gave us that were absolutely perfect,” said Gamble, gesturing to artwork and historic baubles. “We also picked up a ton of things at local estate sales and garage sales.”

Stepping across the hall, Gamble opens the door to a particular joy of hers: the Norse Room. “No way could we not have a Norse Room,” she said, referring to Clifton’s deep history with Norwegian settlers. A restored mid-century trunk is a local treasure washed in watery blue and painted in the delicately floral Norse style. “A local artist did the rosemaling on this armoire,” Gamble said, gesturing to yet another piece that evokes the Scandinavian folk art.

Old photographs shine in the hall lamplight between rooms. First, the building exterior as it looked originally, then what remained in downtown Clifton from the 1906 fire. The rebuilt structure in a mid-century photograph is the style Gamble and Slaughter chose to echo, its embellishments presenting a more interesting visual style.

In another room, Gamble can’t help playing favorites. The Marquee, overlooking the historic Cliftex that she and Slaughter own.

“Isn’t this the coolest?” she says of the room’s bright white walls, pop art and thematically appropriate large flatscreen outfitted with dozens of classic DVDs. “At night, the neon lights from the Cliftex across the street light up the room.”

Local artist George Boutwell’s cinema prints shine from the walls. A unique glass-topped table is balanced on a reel and lens original to the Cliftex. “That was Mechelle’s idea,” Gamble said. “Go Industries welded it together for us.”

Gamble and Slaughter often banter about ideas grand and minute over coffee; it’s how they created the individual themes for the inn’s rooms. “We are passionate about keeping rural communities alive,” Gamble said. “This is a real need. When we travel, we almost never follow the interstate. We look for the side roads that lead us to the main streets of small towns. When we see shoe polish and plywood covering the windows, it breaks our hearts.”

Across the hall from the Marquee, the Heritage Room’s twin wrought-iron beds, cool gray quarters and dainty clawfoot tub recall an earlier era. “We tried to think of every room arrangement possible,” Gamble said of the twin-bed placement. “This could be perfect for a ladies’ weekend, traveling with a child, you name it.” Rustic wooden furnishings here, as elsewhere in the inn, were crafted locally using wood found in the inn.

The Bosque Room stretches large and rustic in the southeast corner of the upstairs. Walls and shelves display Bosque County historical treasures, including some unearthed during the inn’s renovation. A sturdy metal fan mounted by the door evokes memories. “Remember being in your grandparents’ house as a kid, and the fan was always going?” Gamble said. “I love the sound of a fan. It’s the sound of childhood. We just thought it would be a neat touch, and different from a ceiling fan.”

The room also features the original iron tub that serviced all the rooms. Sleekly refinished and buffed to a shine, it’s a conversation piece of its own. “You can’t help thinking of what was happening here 100 years ago when you look at it,” Gamble said.

Past an Old World sitting room highlighted by a giant wall clock and antique mirror, beyond a staircase that leads down to the inn’s front door and main reception area, a room with pale walls and linens, sunny toile curtains, and generous expanses of exposed stone wall — bits of it scorched from the 1906 fire — is hidden. Gamble admits her passion for the room is completely personal, but then, so is the room itself.

“This is Jennie’s Garden,” Gamble says fondly of this room named for Jennie Gilliam, Bosque County’s oldest living resident. “We got to know her when we first moved here.”

“She’s 101 years old and still lives in

her own home that she’s lived in for ages,” Gamble added. “She’s just one of our most precious and respected residents in this county. In fact, when we grow up, we want to be just like her.” Gamble said the room’s theme and gentle floral décor, complete with a Roaring Twenties photograph of Jennie wearing an ethereal dress at Baylor University, is meant to reflect her. “We tried to make this room just as sweet as she is.”

Down a staircase featuring original treads and steps, the main reception area of the inn emerges as a sunlight-filled parlor with a massive desk crafted from antique doors and recycled bits of brightly colored glass. Tucked just behind is the Studio Room, which echoes Clifton’s thriving artistic community. In addition to an artsy vibe, the room is handicapped-accessible.

Asked where the breakfast in bed-and-breakfast will come from, Gamble steps through the front door onto Avenue D, where friends and neighbors who haven’t appeared during the tour of the inn seem to emerge.

Delicious smells fill the air from Something’s Brewing, which is in the downstairs corner of the building that houses the Screen Door Inn. Patrons of the inn can use a voucher for breakfast at the café, which sits at Fifth Street and Avenue D. Embodying the same design ethic as the inn, the café features an antique soda counter and fresh, local ingredients for coffee and breakfast food.

“If you grew up in a small town, there were people that made that town run, you just weren’t aware of it,” Gamble said. “If a small town is surviving and thriving today, there are lots of people doing lots of different things, weaving it all together to make it work.” Gamble said she and Slaughter couldn’t have better chosen the retirement community of their dreams.

“Everyone here in Clifton, and I mean everyone, breathes community,” she said. “This town is one small example of the sacrifice, the patience, the community spirit it takes to make a small town work.”

 

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