Retroplex Cruiser: “To the Past, and Step on It!”

Let us once again climb into the Retroplex Cruiser and take a little spin back in time. Today I’ll set the “place” dial for the block downtown bounded by Main and Houston, 3rd and 4th streets. And I’ll set the “time” dial for December 1865.

Here’s the block in the present time. It’s obscured by a construction wall now, but you recognize it.

For years it was the best-known parking lot in town because of the Chisholm Trail mural on the wall of the only building still standing on the block. Now big changes are coming to the block as Sundance Square commercial development has begun. But then this block has always known big changes.

As we go back in time we’ll see some of those changes. All buckled up? I’ll shift into reverse, and we’ll hit the ol’ Einsteinian highway. On our way back to December 1865 we’ll make a few stops in time—but always in the same space: this downtown block. And remember: We’ll be seeing events in reverse order, from newer to older. (Oh, and if you feel the Retroplex Cruiser shimmy a bit, don’t be alarmed. It does that when it hits about seventy-five years per minute. Never again will I buy a used time machine from T. Fugit’s Pre-Owned Chronomobiles.)

1978, January 29: Our first stop finds the block already much changed from 2012. Look at this grand hotel. Remember it? The Westbrook Hotel stretches along West 4th Street from Main to Houston. But wait! The earth is trembling. Look! The hotel is shuddering. Now it is collapsing in a choking cloud of dust. The Westbrook Hotel has just been imploded—to make way for the parking lot that stood from 1978 until mid-2012.

(One of the buildings being constructed on the block in 2012 is a hotel to be named . . . the Westbrook.)

1911: Now we have gone back in time 101 years. Wow. Fashions have changed radically. There are horses on the streets. Roll down a window of the Retroplex Cruiser and let in some Irving Berlin. Look: There’s the Westbrook Hotel again, but now, in 1911, the hotel has just opened for business. The new hotel is luxurious, will become popular with wheeling-and-dealing cattlemen and oilmen such as Burk Burnett. (Photo from University of North Texas Libraries.)

1907: Now we stop to watch the demolition of the previous hotel that stood on this site—the Delaware. It is being torn down to make way for the Westbrook. (Photo from University of Texas at Arlington Libraries.)

1902: Now we stop the Retroplex Cruiser to watch as construction of the little Jett Building, just north of the Westbrook/Delaware site, is being completed. The building won’t have the Chisholm Trail mural on its wall for decades. In 1902 the building is headquarters of the new Northern Texas Traction Company, which will operate the interurban line between Fort Worth and Dallas until late 1934.

1898: We stop to watch the Delaware Hotel being remodeled and renamed. Before 1898 the Delaware Hotel was named the Pickwick Hotel. In the northeast corner of the block a saloon occupies the future site of the Jett Building.

1885: We stop to watch the hotel change names again. Before 1885 the Pickwick was named the El Paso.

1877: We stop to watch the eighty-one-room El Paso Hotel being built in the southeast corner of the block. It is the city’s first three-story building. It features gas lighting, walnut furniture, and stagecoach service to Yuma, Arizona. On December 21 Sam Bass and associates will check in to enjoy the amenities after holding up a stagecoach to Cleburne. Their take: $11.

1865, early December. Whoa! Here we are. Wow. There’s not much to Fort Worth just after the war. A few modest wooden buildings. Dirt streets. In fact, the Fort Worth that future civic leader Khleber Miller Van Zandt (1836-1930) first saw when he visited in August 1865 “presented a sad and gloomy picture.” 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 then returned to Marshall to get his family.

In early December 1865 the Van Zandts move to Fort Worth by wagon. For $300 Van Zandt buys the entire city block we have been viewing during our time trip. He is gambling on a brighter future for his adopted “sad and gloomy” hometown. He moves his family into a house located near where the Jett Building and its mural now are. And what does Van Zandt do with the rest of the block—the part that in 2012 has again become a construction zone and that for a solid century was home to a series of upscale hotels that hosted high-rolling oilmen and cattlemen?

Van Zandt wrote in his autobiography: “Down on the end of the block where the Westbrook Hotel now stands, I put my pigpen and cow lot.”

That explains why we see Hampshires and Holsteins where we’re accustomed to seeing Hondas and Hyundais.

Well, that’s the 147-year history of this city block. We’d better head back to the present before rush hour (1937 is always a bottleneck at this time of day). The Retroplex Cruiser’s transmission has been hard to shift lately, so while I try to get it out of reverse gear and into forward gear, feel free to get out and stretch your legs. But watch your step: Pigs and cows have no regard for history.

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8 Responses to Retroplex Cruiser: “To the Past, and Step on It!”

  1. Ramiro Garza says:

    Hi Mike. I started what I like to call my time in the wilderness, or job relocation that ending up lasting 25 years, not far from that hotel in 1976. Thanks for another time trip. It was there, and then it wasn’t.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Ramiro. Between us, we spent almost a half century within a couple of blocks of the Westbrook. But they haven’t imploded us. Yet.

  2. Gary Yeary says:

    My wife is a descendant of the original Fort Worth Van Zandt family. Sure would have been nice if the property was still in the family.
    Great blog and a wonderful story. Please keep them coming.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Gary. The state owes a lot to the father and the city to the son. K. M.’s autobiography shows us a remarkable era and a remarkable man.

  3. Steve A says:

    Cool! Quite a history for a simple, ugly parking lot. However, is there ANY connection between Sam Bass and THAT family? Your link never even speculated. I suspect not, but inquiring minds still want to know!

    • hometown says:

      None that I have run across casually. Sam was from Indiana; Perry’s father was doctoring in east Texas before moving to Wichita Falls.

  4. Judy Hamill Bailey says:

    My paternal grandmother, Emogene Owens, lived most of her later adult life in the Westbrook. I visited her several times at very young ages. I always felt like I was in a palace. I was looking it up and saw your site. So sad to think that grandness is gone. What happened to all the beautiful architecture inside? Do you know?

    • hometown says:

      Judy, it indeed was a grand building that deserved better than to be replaced by a parking lot. (Although a new Westbrook Hotel is now replacing the parking lot.) All I know about the furnishings is that the Golden Goddess has been restored and is at the Petroleum Club.

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