As the World Churns
Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury
As a four-year-old when World War II began in 1941, my understanding of the enormity of it all escaped me. I was busy perusing comic books at the time, intrigued by Superman jumping tall buildings in a single bound.
It was his “bounding,” I’m thinking, that caused my lingering gazes at real skyscrapers a few years later during my first visits to Waco and Fort Worth.
During my pre-school years, our lone “skyscraper” in Brownwood was the tallest building I had ever seen. With 12 stories and 216 rooms, Hotel Brownwood seemed to scrape the sky on days when clouds hung low. It was the tallest structure between Austin and Abilene, Fort Worth and San Angelo and Wichita Falls and San Antonio. It was viable for three-plus decades, despite opening in 1930, when the Great Depression began its stranglehold on the USA. Long languishing, it is a shell of its former self.
Visible from most highways leading into Brownwood, the old red brick building still looms skyward, but when visitors are in proximity of the structure, gaping holes where windows once were in place invite mind games. With windows removed as safety precautions, it looks like it’s awaiting dentures.
In the early days, the place dazzled. With nightly rates of $3-$4, it had a bustling restaurant, a roof garden ballroom for diners and dancers, an attendant-operated elevator and both barber and beauty shops.
It had bellmen who carried luggage to patrons’ rooms, working largely for tips. Such remuneration typically was in coins, and small ones at that. My late Uncle Gene Gotcher was himself a “bellboy.” I thought he looked silly in his uniform and pillbox hat, as if outfitted to hawk Phillip Morris cigarettes from a tray strapped on his shoulders, like ads slapped on billboards of the day.
There was oil activity in the area, and a decade later, the economy boomed with the opening of Camp Bowie, a large military base deactivated soon after World War II ended.
For most travelers, hotels were preferable to what were then called “tourist courts,” most of them subpar. Later, they were upgraded and called “motels.”
As an aside, the late George Dolan, a valued friend, delighted readers daily for three decades with his front-page column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Anything but an outdoorsman, he thought himself “roughing it” when he stayed at “tourist courts” with evaporative cooling.
By the time Dolan started making his writing jaunts throughout West Texas in the mid-1950s, motels were coming into their own, offering refrigerated air, swimming pools and close-in parking.
By the early 1960s, Hotel Brownwood–as well as most others throughout the land–were on shaky economic footing. Eventually, it was sold to local investors who kept it going for a few years. Then, it was given to Howard Payne University by Fort Worth’s Sid Richardson Foundation, serving for few years as a men’s dormitory.
Initially, it was popular. The guys didn’t have room service, but they liked having an on-site cafeteria, plus opportunities for pranks they say defied description.
When I became HPU president in 1985, “Sid Rich Hall” was no longer needed. Early in my presidency, I received a phone call from a Virginian offering $425,000 for the property.
It was tempting to accept the offer on the spot. The board agreed, and a check sent by special mail eased some financial tensions at the university.
Who knows why the new owner wanted the property. Sadly, it has gone untouched since 1986, save numerous vandals and curiosity-seekers who have made their way inside. In its final year of use, most floors were totally vacant. Though I can’t verify it and have no plans to try, it is my understanding that students raised turkeys on one of the vacant floors, some using proceeds to pay tuition. Whatever, the old building still stands tall, with 100 percent vacancy for the past 35 years.
Dr. Newbury is a long-time public speaker and university president who writes weekly. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 817-447-3872. Facebook: Don Newbury. Twitter: @donnewbury.