For a century a series of hotels stood on the downtown block bounded by 3rd and 4th streets and Main and Houston streets.
Today that block is Sundance Square Plaza.
We can trace the history of Fort Worth’s “hotel block” back to August 1865. The Civil War had ended in April. Future civic leader Major Khleber Miller Van Zandt (1836-1930) visited Fort Worth from Marshall, Texas and found Fort Worth to present “a sad and gloomy picture.” Indeed Fort Worth was not much to look at just after the war: not many people living in a few modest wooden buildings on a few dirt streets. Nonetheless, Van Zandt, who would be president of Fort Worth National Bank for forty-six years, rented a house at 5th and Commerce streets and returned to Marshall to fetch his family. In early December 1865 the Van Zandts moved to Fort Worth by wagon. For $300 ($4,600 today) Van Zandt bought the entire city block bounded by 3rd and 4th streets and Main and Houston streets. He was gambling on a brighter future for his adopted “sad and gloomy” hometown. He moved his family into a house located in the northeast corner of the block. (Photo from Makers of Fort Worth.)
Fast-forward to 1877. Fort Worth’s future indeed improved after 1865. In 1877, one year after the railroad came to town, the eighty-one-room El Paso Hotel opened in the southeast corner of Van Zandt’s block under the proprietorship of Colonel Cyrus King Fairfax. The El Paso was the city’s first three-story building. It was “substantially built of stone” and “thoroughly ventilated.” It featured gas lighting, walnut furniture, and a billiards room. The stage coach also stopped daily at the hotel en route to Yuma, Arizona, fifteen hundred miles away. The trip took seventeen days. Note the horse-drawn streetcar in the ad from the 1877 city directory.
The opening of the El Paso received grudging mention in the Dallas Daily Herald of September 26.
The El Paso was a favorite with out-of-towners. One of the El Paso’s early guests was said to have been outlaw Sam Bass. On December 21, 1877 Bass and associates checked in to enjoy the amenities after holding up a stage coach to Cleburne. Their take: $11. Clip is from the January 14, 1883 Gazette.
In 1884 the hotel changed its name to “Pickwick.” Ad is from the 1885 city directory.
On December 19, 1885 Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and his father-in-law, Chief Yellow Bear, came to Fort Worth. Yellow Bear was father of Wec-Keah, Quanah Parker’s first wife. Quanah Parker and Yellow Bear checked into the Pickwick Hotel and were assigned to an apartment in an adjacent building. That night Yellow Bear went to bed early, but Parker went out on the town with the foreman of the Dan Waggoner ranch. Two hours later Parker returned to the apartment and went to bed. (Photo from Tarrant County College Northeast, Heritage Room.)
The next morning the two men had not appeared for breakfast. The Daily Gazette wrote: “The failure of the two Indians to appear at breakfast or dinner caused the hotel clerk to send a man around to awake them. He found the door locked and was unable to get a response from the inmates. The room was then forcibly entered, and as the door swung back the rush of the ‘deathly perfume’ through the aperture told the story. A ghastly spectacle met the eyes of the hotel employees.”
Yellow Bear was dead; Parker was near death at one point but recovered. Parker later told the Daily Gazette that he had returned to the apartment about midnight and found Yellow Bear in bed and the gas lamp extinguished. Parker said he lit the lamp, undressed, and turned out the lamp. But he apparently did not fully close the valve. He woke in the night and smelled gas but merely pulled a bedcover over his nose and went back to sleep. Clip is from the December 22, 1885 Daily Gazette.
In 1894 Dr. Temple, the “boy phenomenon,” was at the Pickwick using his “strange power” to cure a list of ails that filled a long paragraph .
For the unfortunate folks whom Dr. Temple could not cure, in 1895 professors Myers and Sullivan of the Champion College of Embalming of Springfield, Ohio held a seminar for mortuary students in the hotel. Clip is from the January 21, 1897 Register.
Also in 1895 new management took over the Pickwick Hotel, changed its name to “Delaware,” and remodeled it. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)
In 1902 the Delaware was remodeled again and got an electric elevator. Clip is from the November 30 Telegram.
In 1905 “clairvoyant and palmist” professor Bentley Sage set up shop in suites 115 and 116. There the professor gave “readings” to residents who sought insights into “marriage, sickness, deaths, changes, travels, divorce, separations, lawsuits,” and so on. The professor listed “prominent people whom he has read,” including Queen Victoria, Grover Cleveland, President McKinley, John D. Rockefeller, Admiral Dewey, Ethel Barrymore, and “Holmes (the murderer).” “Fees within reach of all,” Sage’s ad read in the Telegram of April 5. “Ladies’ entrance on Fourth Street.”
Perhaps the professor saw this coming: On April 1, 1908 the Telegram reported that Benjamin Tillar, who had bought up much of “hotel block,” including the Delaware Hotel, would build a huge new hotel on the site of the Delaware.
The venerable Delaware was living on borrowed time: In the April 4, 1909 Star-Telegram architects Sanguinet and Staats advertised for bids to tear down the hotel. Two columns over was an ad for the doomed hotel: “first-class in every respect.”
Tillar’s new hotel was even grander than the Delaware, stretching the length of 4th Street between Main and Houston streets. Benjamin Tillar named his hotel “Westbrook” after his father, J. T. Westbrook Tillar.
At the right edge of the postcard at Main and 3rd can be seen the little Jett Building (1902), Fort Worth headquarters of Northern Texas Traction. The Jett Building—with its Chisholm Trail mural—can be seen in the recent photo of Sundance Square Plaza at the top of the post.
The Westbrook opened on December 15, 1910. Clip is from the December 16 Star-Telegram.
Photo from University of North Texas Libraries.
W. D. Smith photos from 1940.
The new hotel, especially the lobby, was luxurious.
As a centerpiece in the lobby Benjamin Tillar placed the Golden Goddess, a large golden statue that he had brought from Italy in 1909. The Golden Goddess is a minimally dressed woman who holds a torch over her head. When the hotel opened she quickly reigned as queen of the lobby.
The Golden Goddess and her hotel became popular with wealthy cattlemen such as Burk Burnett. During World War I the Goddess and the Westbrook became popular with British Royal Flying Corps cadets stationed at the three training fields around Fort Worth. The Goddess was especially popular with oilmen. Oilmen crowded the hotel lobby on October 17, 1917 after Texas & Pacific Coal Company, drilling on the McClesky farm near Ranger, Texas, struck oil, sparking the Ranger oil boom. Superstitious oilmen at the Westbrook soon embraced the custom of rubbing the golden backside of the goddess for luck. Oilmen even wrote her an ode, “The Oilman’s Lament”:
Listen to me, you Golden Goddess
Standing high on your pedestal . . .
Let me rub your derriere for luck, for courage,
For bonanza . . .
And bequeath me your favors . . .
In black gold!
Many of those oilmen had better luck than the Westbrook Hotel had. The Westbrook was imploded in 1978, and most of “hotel block” served as a parking lot until 2012, when construction of the Westbrook retail building began as part of the Sundance Square Plaza development.
The Golden Goddess also had better luck. In 2003 Fort Worth’s Petroleum Club bought the Golden Goddess, had her restored (covered with 250 sheets of gold leaf), and put her on display in the club. A new generation of oilmen revived the good-luck custom.
Sam Bass, Quanah Parker, Temple Houston, embalming classes, the Golden Goddess—“hotel block” had a full history, considering the humble purpose it served originally in 1865 after Major Van Zandt bought the property in his adopted “sad and gloomy” hometown. Years later, in his autobiography Force without Fanfare, Van Zandt recalled the first use he made of the future hotel site: “Down on the end of the block where the Westbrook Hotel now stands, I put my pigpen and cow lot.”