When Stephen F. Austin and his colonizers first happened on the Brazos River in the 1820s they found a band of Wichita Indians known as the Wacos living in the rich bottomlands. Austin first tried to destroy the village and then settled for making a treaty which accomplished the same thing. After the Wacos left the area George B. Erath, a surveyor representing land speculators from Galveston, named the town he laid out in 1849 after the original settlers.

The new Waco citizens lined up with the Confederacy and even produced a handful of high-ranking CSA officers but as soon as the Civil War ended the town’s leaders got down to drumming up business. Their solution was a bridge across the Brazos River and the pioneering 475-foot Waco Suspension Bridge was completed in 1870. 

Waco now had the only bridge across the Brazos River and soon cattle herds on the Chisholm Trail were being driven through downtown streets. The bridge attracted so much traffic that nickel tolls paid off its $141,000 cost within twenty years. As Waco grew cotton fueled its economy and the community entered the 20th century as the sixth largest city in Texas.

Steady growth was stalled at 4:36 in the afternoon of May 11, 1953 when a rare F5 tornado hit the downtown area. More than 600 people were injured and 114 died as the funnel roared thought the heart of the business district. Only ten tornadoes in American history have been deadlier. Damage was estimated at over $41 million and hundreds of businesses were destroyed, forever altering the Waco streetscape.

In the aftermath of the tornado Waco energetically rebuilt but by the 1960s downtown was a ghost town. The wind spout was not the culprit, however. Suburbanization was sapping the life from Waco as it did to countless towns across the American landscape. Revitalization came to the rescue in the 1990s, first with Baylor University and then with downtown. Our walking tour will investigate the streetscape six decades after the Waco tornado and we will begin on historic Waco Square... 

City Hall/Municipal Building
301 Austin Avenue between Franklin and Washington avenues

The federal government went on a building spree to provide jobs during the Great Depression. Often the architectural style of choice was the stripped down classicism of Art Deco. Such was the case here when the new Municipal Building rose on the foundations of its predecessor in 1931 in historic Waco Square. So as not to embarrass its new building the city energetically began to clean up the Square, a job considerably hastened by the 1953 tornado. In 1969 the Urban Renewal initiative brought down 199 buildings in town, including all of those around the Square. 


Waco Suspension Bridge
Doris D. Miller Park, Brazos River between Washington and Franklin avenues

The country’s first suspension bridge west of the Mississippi River rose here in 1869 to breach the Brazos River. The towers that anchored the bridge were constructed with three million locally fired bricks. Cables to construct the bridge came from John Roebling’s wire company in Trenton, New York - two decades before he and his son would finish the Brooklyn Bridge. Since the railroad had not yet reached Waco the bridge materials had to be hauled overland from Bryan via ox-drawn wagons. The price tag was $141,000 which was rapidly recovered from tolls, including five cents a head for cattle. The tolls were removed by 1889 when McLennan Country acquired and rebuilt the bridge. Today the historic span is open to foot traffic only.  


Chamber of Commerce
101 South 3rd Street

The Waco Business Men’s Club that would evolve into the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce kicked off in 1899. This sparkling new home opened in 2008. You can’t see it but the roof is a reflective white to reduce cooling costs and is also Waco’s first living roof, planted with succulents that require little maintenance. This is the first Green Chamber Building in America.


Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Company Building/Dr Pepper Museum
300 South 5th Street at northeast corner of Mary Avenue

In 1885 Brooklyn-born pharmacist Charles Alderton was working in W.B. Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store when he devised a concoction for the soda fountain with a blend of 23 fruit flavors. Alderton called his new drink “Waco” and customers soon came into the shop asking for him to shoot them a Waco. Alderton eventually gave the patented formula to Morrison and went off to become chief chemist at Behrens Drug Company and eventually Waco Drug in 1919. Morrison took the drink and gave it the name Dr. Pepper (with a period until the 1950s) either to support its medicinal claims or for a real Doc Pepper back in Virginia or for a favorite horse. There is no definitive answer. In 1891 the Artesian Manufacturing and Bottling Company was created to make Dr. Pepper and this bottling plant, blending Romanesque and Spanish Mission styling, was built in 1906. Waco architects Glenn Allen and Milton W. Scott drew up the plans.The vacant and crumbling bottling plant was renovated in 1990 to become the depository for all things Dr Pepper. 

Waco Drug Company/Insurors of Texas
225 South 5th Street at southwest corner of Mary Avenue

The Waco Drug Company was started by James Marrs Penland, a North Carolina native, in 1911 when he was 35 years old. It would eventually merge into the Southwestern Drug Corporation with six other firms to become one of America’s most powerful wholesale drug concerns. This large red brick warehouse, trimmed in classically cast stone, is one of last such souvenirs in downtown Waco. Waco architects Glenn Allen and Milton W. Scott were busy again on this corner and probably incorporated an earlier structure into their design which was finished in 1925. Southwestern Drug continued operating here until the 1980s and the building has since received a facelift by Insurors of Texas, with roots back to 1900 and an insurance agency started by John Francis Marshall.


Praetorian Building
601 Franklin Street at southwest corner of 6th Street

The Modern Order of Praetorians was a fraternal organization founded in Dallas in 1898 by C.B. Gardner who took the name from the legendary Praetorian Guards of the Roman Empire. In 1907 the Praetorian Insurance Company built the first skyscraper in Dallas and was in Waco six years later to construct this seven-story home. The Dallas architectural firm of Charles William Bulger and his son, Clarence, designed both buildings; here they tapped the Chicago Commercial Style infused with classical ornamentation and a mission-style parapet. The Praetorians sold the building in 1956 and it has operated under a parade of nameplates since. Most recently it has approached its second century as residential lofts - a better fate than befell its landmark predecessor in Dallas, which was modernized and is now facing demolition. 


500 Franklin Avenue at southeast corner of 5th Street

Although the ground floor has been compromised this three-story commercial building from 1915 retains some of its classical ornamentation from its construction, including a dentil-block cornice and keystones over the corner windows. 

Professional Building/Waco ISD
501 Franklin Street at southwest corner of 5th Street

This 124-foot tower, now occupied by the Waco Independent School District, dates to 1928 although it has been given a makeover with modern materials. In its early days it was primarily an office building for doctors. The firm of Lester Flint and Thomas Dohoney Broad drew up the original plans.


ALICO Building
425 Austin Avenue at northwest corner of 5th Street

Architects Maurice Sanguinet and Carl Staats joined forces in Fort Worth in 1903 and for the next three decades erected nearly every tall building in town. They also aggressively sought work in other Texas towns, including the commission for this headquarters in 1909 from the newly created Amicable Life Insurance Company in tandem with Roy E. Lane of Waco. ALICO was looking for a building that would advertise its strength and long-term viability. Initial plans called for an eight-story tower but when ground was broken in August 1910 there were 22 stories on the drawing board. When construction was completed one year later the ALICO Building was the tallest commercial building west of the Mississippi River; it remains by far the tallest in Waco a century later. Like most early skyscrapers the ALICO tower was designed in the image of a classical column with a base (the elaborate ground floors), a shaft (the unadorned central stories) and the capital (the ornate upper four floors that were originally dressed in terra cotta). The 282-foot tower took a direct hit from the 1953 Waco tornado, swayed a few feet but withstood the winds. The rooftop neon letters were 1960 addition. 


McLennan County Courthouse
501 Washington Avenue between 5th and 6th streets

Virginia native James Riely Gordon made a career out of designing courthouses across the United States. During his architectural career he drew up the plans for 72 courthouses, including a dozen in Texas. This classically-inspired Beaux Arts confection was one of his last in the Lone Star State before taking his talents to New York in 1902. The symmetrical building boasts Texas pink granite and limestone on the exterior and shows off marble imported from Georgia inside. The eagles with flapping wings that adorn the central dome are outfitted with wires that enabled the eyes to glow red. The final price tag was $210,000. Although the restored outside remains true to Gordon’s vision the interior has been so radically altered in a quest for office space that the Texas Historic Commission has so far denied restoration funds.


Liberty Building
100 North 601 6th Street at northwest corner of Austin Avenue

This early Waco skyscraper rose in 1923; thanks to a recent renovation its Beaux Arts detailing and crisp lines are clearly evident. It still features the tripartite conformation of base-shaft-capital that soon would disappear from America’s streets. 

National City Bank Building
528 Austin Avenue at northeast corner of 6th Street

The National City Bank of Waco was chartered in 1903 and by 1916 was prosperous enough to begin taking deposits in this handsome two-story building on one of the key intersections in town. The first floor is completely compromised by blocks of red stone but you can look up and see essentially the same facade as those bank customers did a century ago. Corinthian pilasters split the window arrangement and lead to an intricate rooftop balustrade. At the cornice level are carved eagle medallions and lion heads. The former bank stands as the most finely ornamented commercial building in Waco. 


Kress Building
613 Austin Avenue

Samuel Henry Kress looked on his stores as public works of art and he retained a staff of architects to achieve that end. He took as much pride in the appearance of those stores as the nickels and dimes that piled up in his coffers. There would eventually be 264 Kress five-and-dime stores throughout the United States and many of them adopted the Art Deco style in the 1920s and 1930s. The Waco store is an early link in the Kress chain that started in Memphis in 1896; it was developed in 1910. Seymour Burrell, the company’s head architect from 1910 until 1918, is considered to be the architect. Although the 1953 tornado claimed part of the building you can still look up and see the trademark company script set into the parapet. Next door was competitor Woolworth’s for many years.

724 Austin Avenue

The Hippodrome debuted on February 7, 1914 as a vaudeville house. The bill on opening night was shared by a magician, a seal act and a five-piece orchestra; tickets were a dime for adults and a nickel for kids. T.P. Finnegan headed up the business group that funded the theater; it was sold to Paramount which converted the stage into a silent movie theater. A fire crippled the Hippodrome in 1928 and it re-emerged the next year outfitted for the new “talkies” and sporting a new Mediterranean Style appearance. The Hippodrome battled suburban multiplexes and color television until it went dark in the late 1970s. After dodging the wrecking ball the venue re-opened as a performance house in 1987. 

Raleigh Building
801 Austin Avenue at southwest corner of 8th Street 

Born in Tennessee in 1849, James Wyatt Riggins set out for the Texas frontier in 1878 and landed in Waco. He worked as a railroad agent and land developer and banker. He also spent eight years as the mayor of Waco. In 1913 he set out to give Waco a first class, fireproof hotel and hired Roy E. Lane, not yet thirty years old, to design it. Lane delivered a restrained Beaux Arts design for the ten-story building. Riggins died in California in 1921 and the property was acquired by Albert Pick, who ran a string of hotels across the midwest. He re-christened it the Hotel Raleigh. After a $5 million facelift in the 1990s the high-rise became state government offices.  


United States Court House  
800 Franklin Avenue at southeast corner of 8th Street

This federal building joined the Waco streetscape in 1937 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era stimulus works. The Spanish Colonial Revival design was selected by the United States Treasury Department to blend in with the predominant styling in Waco at the time. The courthouse boasts buff bricks, terra cotta detailing and a low-pitched tile roof. The building replaced Waco’s first Post Office and Courthouse, a grand Victorian pile that had stood at Franklin and South 4th streets since 1885.


Medical Arts Building/National Lloyds Building
900 Austin Avenue at southeast corner of 9th Street

This eleven-story buff brick tower with spare classical ornamentation rose in 1929 as a medical office building. It still trundles on as an insurance building.

Waco High School
815 Columbus Avenue at northwest corner of 9th Street

Public high school was available in Waco in the early 1880s; this temple of education was constructed in 1911. The building graduated its last class in 1971 and stood empty for four decades until a recent conversion into residential lofts. Remnants of its educational past remain, including a trophy case in the entrance hall. The Neoclassical tour-de-force is another creation of Milton W. Scott, who was responsible for many of Waco’s early 20th century landmarks. Scott was self-taught, having never gone to college and picked up his architectural sensibilities from books and on-the-job training. He became known for exactness and attention to detail and often oversaw construction of his designs. Scott would design 18 schools and educational buildings in Waco before his death in 1933 in his sixty-first year.  

Grand Masonic Lodge Temple
715 Columbus Avenue at northwest corner of 8th Street

The first Masonic meetings in Texas were held when it was still a Mexican colony in 1835 and the first lodge was established the following year. Bosque Lodge No. 9 was chartered in Waco in 1852. This is the fourth home for the lodge for the Waco masons, erected in 1948 and inspired by the Temple of Solomon. The facade is inscribed with Masonic symbols passed down through the history of the world’s oldest fraternal organization. In the early 2000s the Grand Lodge of Texas, that moved to Waco from Houston in 1901, was the fourth largest in the world.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
515 Columbus Avenue

St. Paul’s was organized as a parish in 1868 and services began in the present building in 1879. The consecration of St. Paul’s occurred in 1890. These grounds have witnessed several expansions including the Parish Hall in 1907, Memorial Hall in 1954, and, after St. Paul’s Day School was founded in 1956, a school building was completed in 1971.

McCulloch House
407 Columbus Avenue at southwest corner of 4th Street

Josiah H. Caldwell, a doctor in Waco, constructed the core of this house in 1866. Champe Carter McCulloch, a son of Missouri, who was a major in the Confederate Army and later a grocer in Waco where he also served as mayor, bought the house in 1872. McCulloch met his future bride, Emma Marie Basset of Alabama, when she was teaching penmanship at what would one day become Baylor University. The McCullochs enlarged the house to its current Greek Revival appearance as they filled the home with ten children over a 23-year span. The pink brick house was donated to the Historic Waco Foundation by the McCulloch family in the 1970s.     


The Roosevelt
400 Austin Avenue at southeast corner of 4th Street

The first Hilton hotel was set up by Conrad Hilton in his family’s adobe home in San Antonio, New Mexico in 1907. Business reversals in his father’s general store necessitated the conversion of six of the rooms in the house into quarters for transient lodgers. Hilton, then 19, worked all day in the store and went to the train station at 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. to meet the train and solicit guests. Room and board was $2.50 a day. When Hilton began building hotels this was the third in his chain, replacing the McClelland Hotel that had stood here since 1872. The Beaux Arts hotel for “traveling men, transcontinental tourists, and permanent overnight guests” was completed in 1922 and re-named in honor of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. In between it gained notoriety in 1929 when Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were arrested here. During the 1953 tornado the 186-foot high Roosevelt was left undamaged, not even a hair on its head was mussed - its rooftop sign was still standing. The hotel shuttered in 1961 and was given to the Catholic Church. For forty years after that it was home to Waco seniors and has now been reconfigured for business use, including the Roosevelt Grand Ballroom.