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Much of W. Lancaster in downtown Fort Worth is thriving. But what about this landmark?

August 20,2022

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Hollace Ava Weiner here.

A mammoth, 91-year-old architectural treasure that anchors downtown’s southern end has deteriorated into a monumental eyesore.

The eight-story Texas & Pacific Warehouse — a Zigzag Art Deco landmark that baby boomers recall as a bustling freight terminal and Gen-Xers remember as a Halloween haunted house — looks ghostly and abandoned. Visions of converting the property into apartments with dramatic views and retail showrooms with canopied entrances have not materialized.

Yet, up and down the half-mile corridor where the building at 401 W. Lancaster awaits its fate, the avenue is budding into a trendy urban place to live and work. The warehouse’s sister building, the T&P Passenger Terminal at 221 Lancaster, has been restored, rejuvenated and leased to residents, businesses and event planners. Burnett Lofts, still under construction, is rapidly leasing 330 units, pitching the location as upscale, pet friendly, and walk-to-work. The Omni Hotel plans a 400-room tower with a restaurant facing Lancaster. At Pinnacle Bank Place, with 130 apartments, clients stream into new storefronts like Novak Hair Studios, which has more than 70 stylists; Dentistry of Downtown, where Diana Raulston, DDS, moved her practice in 2018; and Sons of Liberty, a coffee shop where law students work on their laptops.

Activity is obvious everywhere except at the T&P Warehouse.

Dallas owners Cleopatra Investments purchased the five-acre property in 1998 for $6.4 million, according to the Fort Worth Business Press. Following two decades of delay and decay, the appraisal is now $1.2 million.

Redevelopment was repeatedly postponed as an overhead section of Interstate-30 was dismantled in 2001 and until an adjacent tunnel connecting Lancaster to the Near Southside was completed in 2020. Proposed alterations to the building — such as inserting dozens of windows into the buff-brick west facade — led to years of negotiations with preservation entities at the local, state, and national level.

In 2017, city code inspectors nearly condemned the building, citing crumbling concrete, fallen masonry, damaged timber, broken windows and flooding in the basement. Because of standing water on the leaky roof, a tree sprouted. The city ordered remediation and stabilization. The owners complied.

“This is demolition by neglect,” said an angry Judith Singer Cohen, author of “Cowtown Moderne: Art Deco Architecture of Fort Worth.” “This is a very sore spot. Wonderful adaptive reuse projects were proposed. This warehouse was built to echo Chicago’s premiere Merchandise Mart. This is among the buildings that put Fort Worth on the map.”

The stunning, utilitarian freight terminal, designed by Herman Paul Koeppe of the architectural firm of Wyatt C. Hedrick, opened in 1931 when Cowtown was a regional rail center. The building had 200,000 square feet of cold storage and 11 high-speed elevators, each with 10,000-pound capacity. Night and day, workers and machines could simultaneously load and unload 90 rail cars. Semi-trailer trucks drove into 48 canopied docks to receive produce and products from eggs to automobiles. The building’s enormity and artistry symbolized the city’s dominance as a distribution hub and the importance of the rails.

Ascendancy of the automobile became clear in 1958 when the East-West Freeway was completed with an elevated stretch that bisected Lancaster and cut off the avenue from the rest of downtown. Passenger train service ceased March 22, 1967. Freight traffic tapered off.

By then the T&P Railway had merged with the Missouri Pacific Railroad. After MoPac sold both the passenger terminal and warehouse in 1978, joint owners Halden Conner and John O’Hara planned to develop the premises. Ultimately, Conner retained ownership of the passenger terminal at the east end of Lancaster. O’Hara retained ownership of the warehouse at the west end.

O’Hara sold the property in 1985 to Princeton Group of California, which advertised bids for a shopping mall and office-apartment complex dubbed Fort Worth Town Square. Those plans, according to a business column in the Star-Telegram, fell victim to an oil bust, costly asbestos abatement and “gun-shy lenders.” The property returned to O’Hara’s portfolio. In 1987 David L. Maddox, a prospective buyer with visions of converting the warehouse into a city jail or state prison, signed a 30-day contract to buy the building. The contract lapsed.

By 1992, the homeless were camping in the building until headlines announced the discovery of a corpse on the seventh floor. Tires dumped in the basement led to a five-alarm fire April 15, 1992, snarling rush-hour traffic.

The building flipped buyers several times in the 1990s. An entrepreneurial grad student leased a floor and transformed it into a haunted house with a Halloween maze that drew 10,000 visitors. After the holiday, he opened a paint-ball arena. Recreational activities ended when the Dallas investors, who could not be reached for comment, purchased the building in 1998.

Jerre Tracy, executive director of Historic Fort Worth Inc., remarked that every time the building is in the news, architects and developers with track records for adapting historic properties to new uses call to ask if the abandoned warehouse is for sale. “The location is hot,” she said. Frustration at City Hall is so high that the City Council withdrew the historic site’s tax exemption in 2019. The Lancaster tax increment financing district rescinded $11 million in proposed incentives.

According to District 9 City Councilmember Elizabeth Beck, an attorney with a background in city planning, “We’re working to save it.”

Locations Mentioned: Burnett Lofts, Fort Worth City Hall, Novak Hair Studios, Omni Fort Worth Hotel, Pinnacle Bank, Sons Coffee, T&P Station Main Waiting Room