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It’s great to know that the City of Fort Worth does not discriminate when it comes to demolishing historic properties. Cultural resources relating to all segments of our community get equal treatment: the wrecking ball.

The historic William Coleman House, built by a prominent local African-American citizen, dodged a bullet on Monday. The city’s Code Compliance Department did not get approval from the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission to raze this highly significant property. Code Compliance agreed to a one-month continuance to explore alternatives.

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It’s true that the owner of this property had let it deteriorate to the point where tearing it down was a possibility. And who is that owner? The city.  This is the second time in a year that an important and endangered landmark in the African-American community was granted a reprieve. Last summer the historic Knights of Pythias Hall was slated for destruction. Fortunately, a local developer took an interest in the African-American fraternal lodge, purchased it, and now plans to adaptively reuse it as a multi-family residence.

Another piece of luck: The city’s historic preservation planner, Larry Abrigg, took an interest in the Coleman House and recommended against demolition. Many features of this substantial 1930s brick home in the Terrell Heights Historic District reflect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School of architecture. More significant, however, is its symbolism for the city’s black community. William Coleman was vice president of the Fraternal Bank and Trust, founded by African-American businessman William Madison McDonald.

The tear-down request was particularly galling because the city has owned the property for several years. The city’s poor custodianship of our heritage (not to mention outrageous violation of its own building code) is reflected in the fact that the property is actually on Historic Fort Worth Inc.’s Most Endangered Places list for 2007. This is truly frightening, since the city owns numerous historic properties. What can we expect in the future for such unprotected structures as the Will Rogers Memorial Center or the Public Safety and Courts Building?

The city’s excuse is that the Coleman house has been vandalized and partially burned by vagrants. That ignores the fact that the city never did anything with the property in the first place. It’s as if the vagrants did the city a favor.
The city’s approach to its own properties is symptomatic of its overall lackluster approach to historic preservation. The council approved a great Citywide Historic Preservation Plan in July 2003, but it is essentially an unfunded mandate, a paper tiger.

Even when it doesn’t cost money, the council is not interested in historic preservation. For example, council members have the power to designate local historic districts to protect neighborhoods. In five years only one member, Kathleen Hicks, has done so. Is this because there are no worthy neighborhoods? No. I suggest it is because the only service the council gives to historic preservation is of the lip. Historic preservation projects can spur economic growth, result in neighborhood revitalization, generate revenue from tourism, and protect property values – not to mention building civic pride.

The City of Fort Worth is a poor leader in preserving our architecture and history. How many city-owned properties have been historically designated under the city’s own ordinance? How many historic preservation planners has the city had in the past six years? (Answer: six). These professionals probably realized there’s no future in Fort Worth’s past and took jobs in places that actually care about (and care for) their architectural heritage. I hope that the city will find a way to save the William Coleman House. The home and the people who lived there are a tribute to freedom, minority achievement, and perseverance – an inspiration to us all.

I encourage the city to start a revolution in historic preservation and start it with the William Coleman House. It is time to live up to our own preservation plan and ordinance. Do the right thing: Find a creative and beneficial way to restore the Coleman House. Start following the advice of the city’s historic preservation planner. Begin to designate city-owned historic resources. Fund worthy preservation projects. Provide adequate incentives to developers who will save neighborhoods rather than razing them to build McMansions.

Right now, I think the council isn’t convinced that anyone in Fort Worth cares about historic preservation. We have to change their minds. Write, call, telephone – but tell them they must act. I’m sure someone has said it before: Sometimes the people must lead those who govern.

Fort Worth resident Kip Wright is an architectural historian and preservationist and a reservist currently on active duty with the U.S. Navy.

 

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