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Feature

Endangered Places

Preservation Texas campaigns to save beloved architectural landmarks threatened by adverse development, neglect or other risk factors

For just shy of 130 years, the railroad depot in the remote southwest Texas town of Sanderson stood witness to events both mundane and horrendous. One of the darker episodes took place in 1912 when folks gathered alongside the building’s covered walkway to pose for photographs with the propped-up bodies of two bandits, Ben Kilpatrick and Ole Hobek, killed in a thwarted attempt to rob a Southern Pacific express train a few miles down the tracks.

Considered by some residents as integrally woven into Sanderson’s historical and cultural fabric since its construction in 1883, the 130-foot-long depot nonetheless faced an uncertain future after railroad operations there ceased in the mid-1990s. Vandals repeatedly preyed upon the abandoned structure, and thieves picked its carcass clean of furniture, lighting and plumbing fixtures. Meanwhile, grassroots efforts secured a grant in 2002 to renovate the depot as a transportation museum, but local officials ultimately decided not to allocate the matching funds required for the grant. Advocates persevered, winning the depot a berth on Preservation Texas’ 2005 list of Most Endangered Places. Despite that coveted designation, however, the Sanderson Railroad Depot was torn down in 2012.

Fortunately for devotees of the state’s architectural heritage, other significant landmarks listed as “endangered” by Preservation Texas have survived. The Austin-based nonprofit’s public advocacy campaign, inaugurated with its 2004 list, has so far raised awareness about more than 100 buildings and places imperiled by the deleterious effects of adverse development, outright neglect or other risk factors. Modeled after an annual program begun in 1988 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Texas each year selects 11 nominees based on their cultural, historical and architectural importance.

In 2013, Preservation Texas compiled a 10-year retrospective, choosing a dozen places that either had been saved or lost or remained threatened since they were originally featured. Sanderson’s depot was among three of the “lost,” along with the Corpus Christi Memorial Coliseum and the port of El Copano.

For Texans who love architecture and the history manifested in a community’s built environment, the yearly announcement arouses both pride in their shared patrimony and trepidation over any potential loss.

“The Most Endangered Places list calls attention to the incredible diversity of places in need of attention,” says Gerald Moorhead of Houston, a preservation architect and architectural historian who is the author of the two-volume Buildings of Texas. He adds, “I dread the yearly publication of sites that I have studied but that future generations will not be able to experience. The list is not a ‘cry of wolf’ to go unheeded but a call to arms to protect local treasures and to strengthen statewide mechanisms for preservation.” 

Kaufman County Poor Farm

Preservation Texas’ retrospective list also comprised three examples of places that continue to be threatened, among them the Kaufman County Poor Farm, in the Trinity Valley Electric Cooperative headquarters town of Kaufman. In the same category was the roadside attraction known as Bob’s Oil Well in Matador, about 80 miles northeast of Lubbock, from the 2004 list, and the 1916 Duval County Courthouse in San Diego, about halfway between San Antonio and Brownsville, from the 2011 list.

The Kaufman County Poor Farm, originally placed on the 2012 list, is the last publicly owned remnant of the many “poor farms” created after state lawmakers approved an addendum to the Texas Constitution in 1869 mandating that each county care for its indigent population.

Kaufman County ultimately purchased approximately 408 acres and by 1883 had erected buildings to house individuals judged to be paupers and ordered to work on the premises, earning money for their labor until they were either financially able to leave or they died. The poor farm had 33 residents in 1886, according to a county report.

Over the ensuing decades, the acreage dwindled as tracts were either repurposed for other public uses or sold. The poor farm was decommissioned in the 1960s, according to the Kaufman County Historical Commission. Around that time, a survey indicated that several associated structures were extant on the property, some identified as damaged or in disrepair, along with a cemetery dedicated for the burial of indigents. In 1994, the county leased about 27 acres to the Kaufman County Historical Commission for use as a living history museum.

In nominating the poor farm, the local volunteer organization cited the obstacles faced in preserving its unique collection of artifacts, including vintage farming implements and buildings dating from the late 19th century: “A lot of progress has been made and then lost over the decades due to lack of county funding and outside support. Restoration work on the buildings has been vandalized and destroyed by trespassers and squatters. Posted signs have not been effective in securing the property, and perimeter fencing has been compromised.”

Since the poor farm achieved the “endangered” designation in 2012, the Kaufman County Historical Commission has raised funds for a wrought iron fence inscribed with the names of sponsors. But the group continues to struggle with many of the conditions outlined in its nomination letter, chiefly determining how to finance its strategies for establishing a heritage tourism destination to show “how governments and the people coped with, and overcame destitute times in this country.” 

Dallas Statler Hilton Hotel

The Statler Hilton Hotel in downtown Dallas, initially listed in 2008 and repeated in 2013 under the “saved” category, represents one of Preservation Texas’ success stories.

Built in 1956 and lauded at the time as “the last word in hostelries,” the Statler Hilton introduced an array of state-of-the-art amenities such as elevator music, combination television/radio sets and individual controls for air conditioning in all 1,000 of its guest rooms. Architect William Tabler of New York designed the 19-story building with an innovative flat-slab structural system and an alluring curved profile. Its boldly expressed form and exuberant exterior, a thin curtain wall composed of glass and porcelain painted panels, engendered an icon of midcentury modern design.

New owners bought the property in 1988 and renamed it the Dallas Grand Hotel, yet the erstwhile flagship of the Statler Hilton chain closed in 2001. The vacant building languished for over a decade as various developers, civic leaders and aficionados of modernism pondered its fate. Fearing that the passage of time would jeopardize the structural integrity of the derelict edifice, Preservation Dallas (allied with the statewide group but officially separate) formally asked Preservation Texas to deem it “endangered.”

“A listing on Preservation Texas’ 11 Most Endangered List would help market the property to developers outside of Dallas, who may have no knowledge of the project, nor its potential. A listing could also leverage support with city officials to consider the existing potential in redeveloping the project, and encourage offering financial incentives to future developers,” read the nomination letter, which successfully swayed Preservation Texas to include the Statler Hilton on its 2008 list. The “endangered” designation has proved to be a critical factor in arresting the hotel’s downward spiral.

Unlike in Sanderson, where pleas for support from local government fell on deaf ears, the Dallas City Council authorized $43.5 million in tax increment financing funds to assist a private developer with plans to rehabilitate the old hotel and the former central library that stands next door. Construction is underway on a $175 million mixed-use project scheduled for completion in late 2017.

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Stephen Sharpe previously served as the executive editor of Texas Architect magazine.