Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Arlington Baptist College’s sordid past lives in the underground tunnels from gambling days
Known as Top O' Hill Terrace in the 1930s and '40s, the college was haven for gangsters and prostitution.
ARLINGTON Tucked behind gorgeous stone-and-iron gates on a nondescript stretch of Division Street in Arlington sits the landscaped, peaceful campus of Arlington Baptist College. Bibles? Yes. Booze? No. Preachers? Certainly. Prostitution? Heaven forbid!
You’d never know it from the façade, but the liquor and licentiousness once flowed freely on these grounds, in the 1930s and ’40s, when it was known as Top O’ Hill Terrace and was one of the most notorious gambling dens and brothels in the area. Vickie Bryant, wife of a former college president, is happy to tell you all about it, in her fascinating information sessions and tours.
It wasn’t always so. When the property was first bought by Bible Baptist Seminary of Fort Worth and for years after, the powers that be stayed hush-hush on the property’s tarnished past.
“They didn’t think it was quite appropriate,” Bryant says with a chuckle. But when she arrived in 1993 with her husband, David (who has since resumed pastoring), and started putting together a history of the college, she spotted a loophole: If they could show how J. Frank Norris, longtime pastor at First Baptist Church in Fort Worth and a co-founder of the seminary-college, had taken sin and turned it into salvation, why not tell the story?
Turns out Norris had railed against Top O’ Hill in his sermons, and Bryant has recordings of them. Norris even vowed that the Baptist seminary would own the property one day, taking it back from the devil and his underlings. That promise was fulfilled, and a bronze statue of Norris now gazes out over the grounds. The property, incidentally, is so named because of its spectacular views as one of the highest points in Tarrant County; it began its existence as an innocent tearoom along what was then known as the Bankhead Highway.
Top O’ Hill began its seedy downfall when it was purchased by Fred Browning, who turned it into a casino and added escape tunnels, secret rooms for hiding paraphernalia and gamblers during raids, and cozy dens where ladies of the evening could ply their trade. Those rooms, by the way, later served for a time as the women’s dormitory. Louise Oldham, wife of Earl K. Oldham, who was president of the seminary at the time of the property’s purchase, actually found a black velvet cape there that she kept and wore to church. “We figure it’s been sanctified by now,” Bryant says.
On the tour, depending on time of day, visitors may get to see the main escape tunnel, a 50-foot-long route leading off from what is now the cafeteria kitchen, as well as a recently discovered underground room. “We think there are two or three more [tunnels] under here,” Bryant says, but of course it costs a lot to excavate, so those secrets may remain buried.
The cross-country Bankhead Highway (from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, Calif.) was named for Alabama senator John Hollis Bankhead, whose niece was sultry actress Tallulah.
She never visited Top O’ Hill, as far as Bryant knows, but it did enjoy the patronage of prominent Dallas-Fort Worth businessmen, as well as gangsters Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow and Bugsy Siegel; gambler and later Vegas impresario Benny Binion; Ted Hinton, one of the lawmen who gunned down Bonnie and Clyde; actors Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne and W.C. Fields; stripper Sally Rand; reclusive businessman Howard Hughes; boxers Jack Dempsey and Max Baer; band leaders Tommy Dorsey and Tex Beneke; pianist-showman Liberace; cowboy star Tom Mix; and many others.
Most of the Top O’ Hill evidence is anecdotal, Bryant says, because names of local folks caught “sinning” were typically not printed in newspapers of the time.
Bryant says she’s amazed at how many times during tours, someone will say something along the lines of, “I came out here when I was 4 with my granddaddy and we met Mae West.” Top O’ Hill was “Vegas before Vegas,” she says, noting that on some weekends up to a half-million dollars would change hands, the equivalent of several million in today’s money.
As she talks and runs the slide show, Bryant occasionally pulls out artifacts she’s gathered from Top O’ Hill’s sordid past: a spiked guard-dog collar, a blackjack sap (considered a lethal weapon), some poker chips. “Here I’ve been married 45 years and we’ve never allowed a deck of cards in our house,” she says, “but I paid $250” for a handful of historic poker chips.
As William Cowper’s 19th-century hymn says, “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform.”
Top O’ Hill Terrace is at 3001 W. Division St., Arlington. Tours are offered daily by appointment. $5 donation requested per person. For tour reservations, call Vickie Bryant at 817-461-8741, ext. 109, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. topohillterrace.com.