HISTORIC ABILENE


When the workmen of the Texas and Pacific Railway laid tracks over the grassy plain of Taylor County in early 1881, the only inhabitants to greet them were millions of barking prairie dogs. But, just weeks after the rails (and stacks of East Texas lumber arrived) native Abilenians showed up to place their bids for a brighter future. The staked lots of the “Future Great City” were auctioned off on a damp and cold March 15th with many of the new arrivals relocating from Buffalo Gap. Frame homes and businesses were quickly hammered up along numbered streets and others named for trees (with so few trees at the time, some say the street names were designed to be reminders!)

The intrepid and hardy West Texans who chose to create a town and devise an economy alongside the tracks quickly set out to improve their new village.  Churches and a college were started. Culture clubs cropped up and creeks were dammed up to provide water. Wholesalers set up shop to supply far flung merchants and the ranches beginning to spread throughout the western fringes of Texas. Abilene was quickly voted the county seat and the citizens of the newly-incorporated city began a steady movement of growth.

Today, the grassy plains of northern Taylor County are a hub of commerce, higher education, arts, healthcare and a proud host of the military. The pesky prairie dogs have moved on as the optimistic descendants of those who first set down their lives in this railroad town continue to create the city we call home.

Jay Moore

 

The Swenson House History 

This two-story brick home was designed by Abilene architect William Preston for the family of William Gray and Shirley (McCollum) Swenson and was completed 1910. William Gray and Shirley Swenson met as students at Southwestern University. They married and settled in Abilene, where he had grown up.

Swenson was a first generation Swedish-American, and he was a lifelong entrepreneur and businessman in Abilene. His father, who died early, was a nephew of S.M. Swenson, who was the first Swedish person to come to Texas and was Secretary of State under Sam Houston. 

Swenson held leadership positions at Citizens National Bank from the time of its founding in 1902 until the 1960s and also presided over Abilene Light and Abilene Ice Company. Swenson worked to establish and to serve on the boards for Abilene in Northern Railroad and the Rasco Snyder and Pacific Railroad. His real estate projects included the Mims building in 1926 and the Hilton hotel in 1927. Mr. Swenson had a gift for organizing businesses and was involved in many that helped Abilene grow, including West Texas Utilities, Citizens National Bank, the Hilton (now Windsor) hotel, a streetcar company and others.  

The Swenson's were founding members of Saint Paul Methodist Church, and they raised their four children in this home. The house's is original cypress siding was covered with buff brick veneer in 1928, exterior cypress columns were replaced with brick columns, and the wood shake roof was converted to clay tile. Also during this renovation, a porch on the southside was enclosed and the second floor sunroom was added.  The home features the bride overhangs and long, where is Anna lines indicated of the prairie architectural style. Mission style elements include quarter for oil windows and a covered dormer over the front entrance. After the death of W.G. Swenson in the 1969 and Shirley Swenson in 1974, ownership of the house remained in the Swenson family until 1986, when it was donated to the Abilene Preservation League. With few exceptions, the home is as it was when it was given to the Preservation League. 

The Swenson House stands as a unique monument to the glory of Abilene’s past while looking toward its future. Money raised through donations, fundraisers and by property rental for community events is used to help renovate, maintain or improve the property. 

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Swenson house before the east porch addition  

Swenson house before the east porch addition  

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WG Swenson 4 years old

WG Swenson 4 years old

Three of the four Swenson children

Three of the four Swenson children

WG Swenson on the left

WG Swenson on the left

WG Swenson at his collage graduation

WG Swenson at his collage graduation

WG Swenson

WG Swenson

Earl Gray Swenson and Evelyn Swenson

Earl Gray Swenson and Evelyn Swenson

WG Swenson and his Mother 

WG Swenson and his Mother 

The Swenson and  Guitar families on  1914 Trip to Yellowstone 

The Swenson and  Guitar families on  1914 Trip to Yellowstone 

WG and Shirley Swenson

WG and Shirley Swenson

The WG Swenson Family

The WG Swenson Family

The Elks History 

The Elks Arts Center was built in 1913 as the Lodge for the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks Lodge 562 which existed from 1900 to 1937.  The Lodge reorganized in 1955 and closed permanently in 1964. The building was used as the USO Club headquarters during WWII. An Abilene girls group called the "Blue Bonnet Bells" danced with the soldiers in the ballroom during the war years. The City of Abilene has owned the building since 1945 and used it as a City Hall annex and police training facility. The structure's facade, one of the best preserved historic buildings in downtown, is characterized by distinctive brick and masonry work and arched windows.

A newspaper article in the Abilene Reporter News recalls the fabulous grand opening of the building on January 1, 1913, with guests traveling to the event in their buggies to dance all night. 

It was restored in 2000-2001 by the Abilene Preservation League and its supporters. The Building has been restored, renovated and renamed The Elks.

 

The Elks serving as the USO 

The Elks serving as the USO 

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T & P Historic District

A district prepared for the Abilene Preservation League, Inc by Weatherly & Welch Architects as a strategy for Abilene's first Historic District.  This 1989 action was to promote historic renovation as the highest and best use of the older properties in the district.


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Abilene T&P District Walking Tour 

  1. Step Into the Past...

Join us for a walking tour of a West Texas town that's more than a century old. Follow in the footsteps of the builders of the frontier that made Abilene what it is today.

Created by the T&P Railway, Abilene rose from the prairie to become a vital center of activity in West Texas. Abilene began when lots were sold at auction in 1881. Oil strikes and record harvests led to unparalleled prosperity in the 1920s, the decade in which many of the buildings on this tour were constructed. Now the home of three universities and a large air force base, Abilene, a leader in the oil industry, serves as the medical, shopping and cultural hub for this area of the state.

Enjoy the efforts of Abilene's recent downtown revitalization, which has become a model for other communities interested in preserving their heritage. The Abilene Commercial Historic District, created in 1991, preserves the unique architecture and cultural landscape that developed from Abilene's position as the regional trade center.

Begin your tour by walking west from Frontier Texas! down North 1st St. until you reach the first building on the walking tour, the T&P Depot (see map of Abilene Historic Downtown Walking Tour).


1.     T & P Depot - 1101 North 1st St.
One of Abilene’s most outstanding landmarks is the Texas & Pacific Railroad Station that was built in 1910. The last passenger train left the Depot in March 1967 with only 39 passengers aboard. Its exterior was restored in 1994 to its 1920s appearance.
 

2.     REA Building - 1201 North 1st St.
Located to the west of the Depot, the REA building was built in 1936 to house Wells Fargo Express. Next it housed the American Railway Express Co., followed by the Railway Express Agency Inc.

3.     Concrete Overpass - 1100 to 1200 Blocks North 1st St. 
This long concrete overpass and retaining wall was built in 1936 by Austin Bridge Co. of Dallas as a WPA project. The structure, extending from Pine to Cedar streets, was constructed to ease traffic flow near the railroad and boost the local economy during the Great Depression. The automobile underpasses built on the Pine and Cedar street crossings include a pedestrian underpass that provided access to the railroad from the south side of town.

4.    The Boyd Building - 1292 N. 1st St.
Built in 1925, the Boyd Building is one of Abilene's premier examples of an early service station. The original station was Gulf Refinery Company, No. 3, and was later taken over by the C. H. Boyd and Sons Tire Co.

5.    The Elks Building - 1174 N. 1st St.
The Elks Building was built in 1913 to house the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. Lodge 562 existed from 1900 to 1937.  The Lodge reorganized in 1955 and closed permanently in 1964. The building was used as a USO Club during WWII. The City of Abilene has owned the building since 1945 and has used it as a City Hall annex and police training facility. The structure's facade, one of the best preserved historic buildings in downtown, is characterized by distinctive brick and masonry work and arched windows. The Building has been restored, renovated and renamed the Elks Art Center (676-3775). It houses the Abilene Preservation League.
 

6.     The Grace - 102 Cypress St.
Originally constructed in 1909 by Colonel W. L. Beckham and named for his daughter, Grace.  For many years it was Abilene's premier hotel and the first sight seen by railroad passengers as they approached the city.  The hotel, originally only three stories, had a fourth floor and a one-story section on the ground floor added in 1924.  In 1946 it was remodeled and the named changed to the Drake.  The hotel closed in 1973 when its boiler failed.  The Grace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1986, the Abilene Preservation League purchased the hotel in order to preserve it. It was renovated and restored in 1992.
 

7.     Abilene Reporter News - 101 Cypress St.
The Reporter News is Abilene's oldest business and was founded in a tent by Charles E. Gilbert in 1881, just a few months after the town was founded.  The first copies of the newspaper were printed on a “G Wash” press similar to the one on display at the Abilene Reporter News.  The building, although not an historic structure, has a Texas State Historic Marker noting the paper's prominent role in Abilene's growth and development.
 

8.    The Compton Building - 158 Cypress St.
Built c. 1923, the Compton Building housed a drugstore and cleaners for many years. The second floor was used for medical offices. The building, after many years of standing vacant, was rehabilitated in 1993 and opened as a restaurant.
 

9.     The Cypress Building - 174 Cypress St.
The original Windsor Hotel was built in 1890 and is the oldest commercial building in Abilene. It featured arched openings on the second and third floors and a 16-foot high balcony with ornate iron decoration. The 1997 renovation returned the facade to its original hotel look.
 

10.  The Vera Minter Memorial Park - N. 2nd and Cypress Sts.
Minter Park is the site of one of Abilene's first businesses, Fulwiler's livery stable. The beautiful Queen Theater replaced the stable in 1915. The Queen was torn down in 1974 and the property was purchased by the Minter family. The park, honoring Vera Hall Minter for her dedicated community work, was developed after a community fundraising effort. The focal point of the park is the 16-foot high, 34-foot wide waterfall.
 

11.   The Paxton Building - 202 Cypress St.
Built by George L. Paxton in 1923 and rented to Gambill Brothers for retail hardware store. Mr. Paxton was President of Citizens National Bank from 1910 to 1934. His name was associated with many of the buildings that were constructed during this period.
 

12.  The Grissom & Popular Buildings - 220 and 242 Cypress St. 
The Grissom-Popular Building dates to 1925 and housed Grissom's Department store from 1925-1939. The store then moved next door to 220 Cypress and 242 became known as the Popular Building. The buildings still retain some of their historic fabric.
 

13.   The O'Kelley Building - 290 Cypress St.
Designed by David S. Castle and Company this building was constructed in 1929 to house the W. G. Waldrop & Company furniture store. Montgomery Ward occupied the building from 1934 to 1959. Many of the original Art Deco architectural features of the building remain intact.
 

14.   The Mims Building - 275 Cypress St.
Built in 1926 by W. G. Swenson, George Paxton and H. O. Wooten; the Mims was designed by David S. Castle. This eight-story building was one of two major buildings constructed during the 1920s boom. It was built to house Mim's Department Store coined "West Texas' Finest Store." The building provided office space to many of Abilene's prominent businessman. W. G. Swenson maintained an office on the 7th floor. The building was renovated in 1980. The original windows were replaced, but the building retains much of its original classical detailing and architectural fabric.
 

15.  The Wooten Hotel - 302 Cypress St.
The 16-story, 200- room hotel was built in 1930 by wholesale grocer W. O. Wooten. The hotel, designed by David S. Castle, had a ballroom with a balcony overlooking the dance floor. Its height and Art Deco design made the building a local landmark for many years. In 1963, the hotel was converted to apartments and the name was changed to Abilene Towers. The Towers closed in 1999, and the building was renovated in 2004 to house market-rate apartments and retail shops.
 

16.   The Paramount Theatre - 352 Cypress St.
Another David S. Castle landmark, the Paramount opened May 19, 1930, as part of the Wooten Hotel development. The 3-story theatre features Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, Art Deco light fixtures and is best known for the stars and clouds that move across its ceiling. The theatre closed in 1979 and was saved from demolition by local preservation efforts. A complete restoration of the theatre was completed in 1987. The theatre is now operated by a non-profit organization and is a center for classic and art films, and the performing arts (676-9620).
 

17.   The Hilton Hotel (The Windsor) - 401 Pine St.
Built in 1927 by the Abilene Hotel Co., which was then owned by one of Abilene's most prominent businessmen. The hotel was leased by Conrad Hilton and was the first hotel to bear his name. It was renamed the Windsor Hotel when Hilton's lease ended in 1945. The Windsor (677-0824) was restored and renovated to offer retirement apartments. The facade and first and second floors, including an exquisite ball room, were restored using David S. Castle's original drawings.
 

18.   The Federal Building - 341 Pine St.
The original Federal Building was constructed in 1901 and had a large Victorian bandstand located on the grounds. On September 27, 1927, Charles Lindbergh spoke to a crowd of thousands from the bandstand. A new Federal Building was constructed in 1937. Through local efforts, the original building was saved only to be torn down in 1964 to allow for the expansion of the current facility.
 

19.   The Minter Building - 244 Pine St.
Taylor County's first department store Minter's Dry Goods was built in 1925. The two-story structure with Gothic detailing and terra-cotta facade is one of David S. Castle's finest designs. Minter's was sold in 1974 and closed in 1986. The building is now a cooperative featuring arts and crafts, and gifts of every kind.  A restaurant is located on the mezzanine.
 

20.   The McLemore-Bass Building - 216 Pine St.
In 1991, the owners and craftsman used historic photographs to restore this business to its original 1930s appearance. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
 

21.  The Waldrop / Casa Authentique Building - 201 Walnut St. 
This building was constructed in 1927 by J. M. Radford and originally housed the Poston-Hemphill Department Store. G. W. Waldrop moved his furniture business to this site in 1934. In 1987, the Waldrops restored the façade to its 1927 appearance.
 

22.  The Wooten Wholesale Grocery (Pfeifer Building) - 101 Walnut St.
This structure, built in 1906, served as the headquarters for H. O. Wooten's Wholesale Grocery.  Established in 1898, this business was one of Abilene's best known and most important.  By 1948, the firm had 14-branch warehouses in West Texas.  In 1911, a fire destroyed much of the building and many of the business records. The building was rebuilt the following year.  Mr. Wooten was one of the most influential businessmen in the community and the Wooten name was connected to many other developments. The grocery business occupied this site until the 1950s.
 

23.  The T&P Freight Warehouse - 901 North 1st St.
Constructed in 1929 to serve as Abilene's freight depot, this warehouse was rehabilitated and reopened in 1999.  This building anchors the southwest corner of the historic district and represents the importance of the railroad in Abilene's history.
 

24.   The Alexander Building - 104 Pine St.
Construction on the Alexander Building began in 1925 and was completed in 1927.  The seven-story structure was built for Dr. James M. Alexander, a prominent physician.  Dr. Alexander practiced in Abilene for more than sixty years and built the Alexander Sanitarium, which was one of the first hospitals in West Texas.  This building was the first “high rise” in Abilene and housed many prominent physicians, attorneys, and other professionals.  The construction of this building, also designed by David S. Castle, marked the beginning of a construction boom in mid-20s Abilene.
 

End of Historical Walking Tour

 

The Old Weather Bureau - 1482 North 1st
While not located on the walking tour proper, this historic building is located within a short drive from the downtown (see map). Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Old Weather Bureau was constructed in 1909 to serve as the area center for the US Weather Bureau. It continued to do so until area weather services were relocated to the airport.
 

David S. Castle the “Architect of Abilene”
Born in Constantine, Michigan in 1884, David Sharon Castle created the firm that would dominate architectural design in the Abilene region throughout most of the first half of the 20th century.

Castle left home at age 15 and made his way to Chicago, Illinois.  There he held several odd jobs until he eventually worked his way through night school at the Lewis Institute for two and a half years and later graduated from the Armour Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology).  He moved to Texas in 1910 and in 1913 gained employment from Fort Worth architect M. L. Waller.  By 1914, Castle had moved to Abilene and started his own firm, David S. Castle & Company. Castle's company supervised the construction of many of the 1920s landmarks of downtown, such as the Wooten Hotel, the Windsor Hotel, the Mims Building, the Federal Building, and the Paramount Theatre among others.  His firm also planned two remodeling projects on the Hotel Grace, and designed buildings at all three Abilene Universities, as well in many other towns in the region.

Walking Map Tour

Walking Map Tour

Arial view of T&P Area Courtesy of Steve Butman

Arial view of T&P Area Courtesy of Steve Butman

The T&P Building  

The T&P Building  

T&P Passanger Depot  Abilene "Convention & Vistors Bureau" 

T&P Passanger Depot  Abilene "Convention & Vistors Bureau" 

Railroad Express Agency Building  "Candies by Vletas"

Railroad Express Agency Building  "Candies by Vletas"

The Elks

The Elks

The Grace

The Grace

Restored Historic Buildings

The APL is proud to highlight the original neighborhoods of Abilene with their restored historic homes. 


 

Original Town North 

The area directly north of historic downtown bordering to the east of Parramore Street, though Parramore cuts right through running east to west.

 
 

Original Town South

  The area directly south of historic downtown bordering to the east of Amarillo.

 
 

Original Town West

West of historic downtown past Grape Street and north of the railroad tracks.

 
 

Parramore Street

North of historic downtown roughly where Parramore and Beach Street intersect.  Just west of the Original Town North.

 
 

Amarillo Street

An area that not only encompasses the street for which it is known for, but also surrounding streets mostly to the east between South 6th and South 14th .

 
 

Sayles & Highland

Bordering Amarillo to the west

 
 

Old Elmwood

Elmwood between South 7th and South 14th.

 

Oldest Buildings in Abilene

There are three buildings built before 1890 that are listed in the Abilene Register of Historic Places: Fulwiler-Smith House at 318 Elm St (1884), Watson-Hopkin House at 342 Poplar (1882), and Sayles-Dillard House at 642 Sayles Blvd (1889).


Sayles Landmark is a successful Bed and Breakfast

Sayles Landmark is a successful Bed and Breakfast

The oldest house in Abilene need some TLC

The oldest house in Abilene need some TLC

A turn of the century home is in need of repair.

A turn of the century home is in need of repair.

 

Historic Neighborhoods

In 2012, the Texas Historic Commission created a survey of the city’s historic neighborhoods and buildings to provide information on Abilene’s historic resources. The results are on the website of the Historic Architecture Survey Database.


Top 10 Endangered Buildings in Abilene

These properties made it onto the endangered list because they are in dire need of help since they are vacant, neglected, shrinking in resources, or other threats. The APL makes the list to increase awareness of preservation potentials which our not always apparent. 


Abilene Courts 

Abilene Courts 

Lincoln Middle School 

Lincoln Middle School 

Burlington Railway Station 

Burlington Railway Station 

Plum Street Elevator

Plum Street Elevator

Welfare Building 317 Pecan Street 

Welfare Building 317 Pecan Street 

1942 Hickory Street Church 

1942 Hickory Street Church 

West Texas Utilities Plant 

West Texas Utilities Plant 

Old Trolly Car Barn 

Old Trolly Car Barn 

Slim Willet Recording Studios & Ice Cream Parlor 

Slim Willet Recording Studios & Ice Cream Parlor 

Cotton Warehouse 

Cotton Warehouse