Fort Worth: Hourglass is Running on Fate of KKK Hall
Feature Photo (above): The Ellis Pecan Co. building, originally a Ku Klux Klan assembly hall, is scheduled for demolition. But a social justice organization is trying to save it. Image: Google Streets.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Fort Worth (Tarrant County) — There is an old brick meeting hall on the desolate early industrial landscape that passes for Panther Island that has a gross area of 34,891 square feet–plenty of room for a fairly large assembly.
It stands on a 1.26-acre lot and the Historic & Cultural Landmarks Commission approved a request Monday for its demolition, with the caveat that the owner wait at least 180 days because people listening to their better angels hope to bring a teaching moment.
The hall was built in 1921 by and for the Ku Klux Klan. The white supremacist organization occupied it for about three years. During the 1930s it was a boxing arena and first home of the Fort Worth Golden Gloves. But for most of its history the building was used as a warehouse for the Ellis Pecan Company.
Anyone unfamiliar with Fort Worth should know that for the time being Panther Island is not an island but a peninsula-shaped bend in the West Fork Trinity River that creates the southward curvature of downtown Fort Worth’s northern boundary.
The Trinity River Vision Authority plans to create the infrastructure that would allow for urban development on Panther Island by rerouting the river to the north (thus creating an island) and constructing bridges capable of handling 21st century traffic.
The need of developers to grow downtown northward has been a major driver behind the project and if it weren’t for that the old hall at 1012 N. Main Street (aka U.S. 281) would have lingered on in relative obscurity.
The Trinity River Vision Authority is rerouting the river to create an island north of downtown for future development. The black water course is existing and the dark blue is proposed. The area highlighted in yellow is the former KKK assembly hall. Map courtesy of Trinity River Vision Authority.
Billy Ray Daniels Jr. is pastor of the First Greater New Hope Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in the Glencrest neighborhood of southeast Fort Worth. Daniels also performed as chairman of the city’s landmarks commission, which on this vote was comprised of two blacks and four Caucasians.
Billy Ray Daniels Jr. | Courtesy: City of Fort Worth.
Daniels had his suspicions about the demolition request and after ample discussion of the issues cast the only vote against its approval. He objected, not because of the demolition request, but because the owner agreed to a delay in order to continue talks with groups that want to renovate it into an education center for social justice and the arts.
“The Klan built this house. Everything that stands don’t necessarily need to be preserved,” Daniels said after the public hearing concluded. “In my opinion, for us to leave this standing would be to perpetuate that racial problem that we have yet to really get a handle on.
“I know that the commissioners sitting around this table don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body and so we’re going to hug and we’re going to shake hands. But I am not going to vote for this building to stand another day,” Daniels said.
Justin S. Light, a real estate attorney with Pope, Hardwicke, Christie, Schell, Kelly & Taplett LP, represented the owner, Sugarplum Holdings LP, and was pressed by Daniels to explain what Sugarplum’s original intent was and why they would agree at this late hour to the 180-day delay.
Sugarplum purchased the property in 2004 as an investment, but had been in a holding pattern ever since, waiting to see how the immediate area developed, Light said.
“As you know, there’s a brand new bridge being constructed immediately adjacent to the building,” Light said. It was the Trinity River Vision Authority’s activity that spurred Sugarplum to do anything. The planned Main Street Bridge will go right by the front of the property and the rerouted river means the land will be on the waterfront.
In the meantime, however, the roof of the KKK hall has been collapsing.
The roof of the Ellis Pecan Co. building is in a state of collapse. Panther Island is an obsolete industrial district being targeted by developers for high density urban projects. There are also plans to bring minor league baseball back to the long abandoned LaGrave Field by 2020. Image: Google Earth.
Light explained the delay was instigated by the city’s Historic Preservation office. Preservation officer Murray Miller noted the structure is the only one still existing in the nation known to have been purposely built by and for the KKK.
On June 7, well after Sugarplum submitted its application, Light agreed at the city’s request to meet with interested parties who offered an alternative to demolition.
Adam McKinney, co-director of the arts and services organization DNAWorks, proposed that their organization be allowed the opportunity to purchase the building to transform it into an international center for the performing arts and community healing, “thereby transforming a history of hate and injustice into one that is of healing, peace and community.”
The center as envisioned would have an educational wing for training people in the theories and practices of peace and reconciliation, he said.
Daniel Banks, the fellow co-director of DNAWorks, noted that such transformations have occurred before.
“Film titan Tyler Perry has done something similar in Atlanta by purchasing a former Confederate Army base and transforming it into his film production studios,” Banks said.
Fort Worth history professor Richard Selzer was one of several speakers that supported the DNAWorks idea.
“This building deserves to be saved for the same reason we saved the old slave cabins,” Selzer said. “Not because we want to honor the people that built them, but so we can use them as a teaching moment.
“I do step-on bus tours and when you drive past this building on a step-on bus tour you stop and talk about it and that’s a helluva lot more effective than stopping at a place on any bus tour and saying, ‘You know, there used to be a building there. It looked kind of like that and it meant that.’”
Libby Willis, a former executive director of Preservation Texas, recognized that the KKK hall “is certainly a child” of the old north side of Fort Worth where it stands.
“The initial story for this structure is not wonderful. There’s no question about that. But its past does not have to dictate its future,” Willis said.
The view south toward downtown from 1012 N. Main Street toward downtown. Plans are to route the West Fork Trinity River right next to the building and build a bridge across the river. Image: Google Streets.
The Historic Preservation office conditions for issuance of a Certificate of Approval for the demolition are as follows:
Sugarplum Holdings must get estimates for making the exterior watertight.
The owner is to consider having scopes of work developed, with input from a preservation professional.
The interested parties in talks with Sugarplum are to identify funding sources and further develop specific alternatives for the owner’s consideration.
All documentation regarding the three aforementioned stipulations is to be submitted to the Planning & Development Department prior to demolition.
The Historic Preservation staff is to report back to the commission with a summary of the progress made.
Light added that the owners are not in a hurry to tear the building down. Depending on how talks proceed, he suggested they would be willing to wait well past the 180 days.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.