Culture / Travel / Architecture

How First-Time Hotelier Lauren Werner Crafted the Coolest Spot in Terlingua, Texas

And What's Next for the Willow House Founder

BY Mary Cate McMillon // 04.16.24

Lauren Werner has never been one to overthink things. The first-time hotelier opened Willow House in Terlingua, Texas about five years ago to much critical acclaim. From design to architecture to construction to overall vision, Werner is the sole mastermind behind the hotel

As she set out to execute her vision of a space that honored and blended in with the beauty of the surrounding Chisos Mountains, the fact that she had no previous experience or classical training didn’t cause her a moment of worry. What Werner lacked in experience, she made up for with confidence in her vision, a knack for creating compelling spaces, and pure determination. 

“As long as you believe in what you’re doing and have the willpower to keep moving forward, it really does not matter if you make small mistakes here and there,” Werner said. “You have to believe in your concept. But then, really it’s just about doing it.” 

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Casitas at Willow House.

The Willow House Vision is Born

Born and raised in Southern California, Lauren Werner’s introduction to Texas began during her time studying at Southern Methodist University. She graduated with a pre-law degree and began working in commercial real estate in Dallas, but was quickly convinced that she wanted to start a project of her own.

“I’ve always liked creating spaces– dinner parties, and forts growing up, sketching out houses– but it’s never been focused or had a ton of direction,” Lauren Werner says. “It just felt like something I was naturally good at.”

At age 25, Werner first visited the Big Bend area on a solo road trip to West Texas. She was struck by the beauty of the land and instantly fell in love with the area. In fact, she began to look into purchasing some land during her very first visit. 

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Over the next few years, Werner’s vision for the project began to take form. Inspired by the hospitality experience at friends’ West Texas ranches, she imagined individual casitas grouped around a main house. A central, communal experience, paired with the private seclusion of stand alone guest quarters. 

On a road trip with a friend to Santa Fe in 2017, she heard word about a piece of land, just under 300 acres, with spectacular, unobstructed views of the Chisos Mountains. She redirected their trip to Terlingua, saw the land, and made an offer on the spot for the piece of desert that would go on to be the home of Willow House. 

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A piece from esteemed Peruvian artist Victor Delfin hangs in the main house.

Creating Willow House

Reflecting and showcasing the surrounding desert landscape was a core tenant of the project from the beginning, a quality that Werner felt was lacking in the available accomodations in the area. 

“There was nowhere that I had seen around Big Bend that focused on the Chisos as the primary view, which is the whole reason people go out to Big Bend,” Werner said.

From construction (which was no small feat in such a remote location) to greeting the property’s first guests, Werner had her hands in every part of the project.

“I really, really believe in keeping tight teams with low overhead, and touching every single part of the project yourself for the first project you do,” Werner said. “Because then you’ll know it better than anyone and you won’t have anyone else to blame if anything goes awry. It’s all on you, for the good or the bad.”

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A sitting area in a Willow House casita.

Throughout the construction process, Werner slept on a mattress in whatever room wasn’t being worked on, and she still stayed around after Willow House opened in June 2019. She shared her story with guests, observed how people used the space and made continuous plans to improve the hotel based on these observations. People were using the communal kitchen more often than expected? She expanded the kitchen space. Bookings were low in the hot Texas summers? She added a swimming pool. 

“When you are doing anything in hospitality, I think it’s extremely important to be there meeting every person, because how are you going to train a team to bring warmth and connectivity to guests when you haven’t done that yourself?” Werner says. 

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The Willow House pool in Terlingua.

What’s on the Hotel Horizon 

It’s been nearly five years since Willow House opened, and Werner feels that the hotel is hitting its stride. After several big additions over the years — such as the yoga deck, manager’s house, and the pool – there are no further plans for construction from this point forward. 

With her first hotel well-established, Werner is working towards a second hotel, Oxido, a nature retreat located on 30 acres of mountainside property in Sedona, Arizona. Like Willow House, Oxido will include standalone guest rooms gathered around the main house, with a focus on unobstructed desert views and good design. The project has not yet broken ground, but the team has been coordinating permits, raising money, and wrapping up design for the past one and a half years.

Unlike her work on Willow House, Werner is collaborating with a broader team this time around, including the architects behind Auberge’s The Lodge at Blue Sky. With a seasoned team handling construction and architecture, I’m excited to see how Lauren Werner’s intuitive eye for a good hospitality concept and design will continue to shine.

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