Thursday, September 17, 2009
Hell’s Half Acre is Fort Worth’s greatest preservation loss
Photos from Hell’s Half Acre prior to demolition show an area that had massive potential.
We’re often asked what we think the biggest loss, in terms of architecture & historic preservation, has been in Fort Worth’s history. The answer depends – are you talking about a single building, or something bigger?
If it’s a single building, there are many worthy candidates: the demolition of the beautiful Medical Arts Building on Burnett Park to construct the lifeless, depressing concrete slab of Burnett Plaza; the demolition of the incredible Art Deco gem known as the Aviation Building to build the blank glass box of Carter + Burgess Plaza; the Fort Worth Club knocking down the lovely Worth Hotel & Theater to build their ugly, gritty parking garage & office tower; the demolition of the Westbrook Hotel across the street from the Burk Burnett building for a Sundance Square parking lot that’s still there despite long-standing plans for a public plaza. There is no shortage of choices.
If you’re talking cumulative loss, that’s different. In our view, if you’re talking the greatest overall preservation loss in the city’s history, we’re going to go with the massive wave of demolition in southern Downtown that removed an entire district: Hell’s Half Acre.
Hell’s Half Acre was Downtown’s “red light” district. It was known for its bars and flophouses. In the 1960s, it was decided – in the spirit of “urban renewal” at the time, which basically amounted to “demolish everything and build concrete boxes and parking lots” – that the entirety of Hell’s Half Acre would be removed and replaced by a big new convention center and seas of parking for it.
So it was.
It’s sad, because photos from Hell’s Half Acre prior to demolition show an area that had massive potential. If it had survived mostly intact until the present day, with our more sensitive attitudes about preservation and the growing demand for cool urban neighborhoods for redevelopment, Hell’s Half Acre might have turned out to be an honest-to-goodness gem. Here was block after block of small, easily-walkable blocks, filled with tons of lovely, historic buildings of a classically urban style, in heights that allowed for a mix of uses without being inhumanly-scaled. It might have wound up as Fort Worth’s Sixth Street, or Deep Ellum (but denser and with more uses), or Pearl District. Instead, it was removed from the surface of the Earth. Today, only a small plaque near a Water Gardens entrance mentions it.
This aerial image, from HistoricAerials.com, shows the south end of Downtown Fort Worth in 1956. The area was nearly completely intact. It’s amazing how dense and built-up it was. The lower edge of the photo is Lancaster Avenue.
This aerial image, from Google, shows a relatively recent view of the south end of Downtown Fort Worth. The biggest change you’d see now is the completed Omni Hotel, which is just under construction in this image. This shows the amount of change and destruction brought to the south end: block after block after block of urban, humanly-scaled buildings, replaced by massive superblocks (such as the Convention Center) that impede walkability, overscaled architecture, and seas of storage for cars. The loss of density and walkable fabric is incredible.
(The Convention Center is better than it used to be, thanks to a remodeling that brought the building up to the sidewalk apart from the arena and gave it a more urban form, along with a pedestrian-and-bike-only plaza between the CC and the Water Gardens connecting Houston and Commerce, but it’s still a superblock. As is the Omni, actually – at least the Omni only takes up two blocks, instead of the Convention Center’s 12-14.)
In local historican Jack White’s amazing collection of old Fort Worth photos, he has several street scenes showing the incredible density, classical urban architecture, and street feel of Hell’s Half Acre. Here’s a few choice examples:
Were it not for some recognizable landmarks, it would be hard to believe that those photos were even taken in Fort Worth.
One of the largest losses was the gorgeous Majestic Theater, demolished for – not kidding – the air conditioning plant for the Convention Center:
Down it went:
So by our estimation, the demolition of Hell’s Half Acre is the largest loss in Fort Worth’s preservation history, especially from the standpoints of architecture and urban fabric. Imagine the possibilities had Hell’s Half Acre not been plowed into the ground – it would have been a potentially incredible redevelopment district.
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