Bud Kennedy

60 years of holiday lights: How Fort Worth became the ‘Christmas City’

For decades, the downtown Fort Worth skyline shimmered in amber and white Christmas lights, like a sky-high stack of jewel boxes.

Lately, it looks more like a heap of giant glow sticks.

“What have they done?” the late Hubert Foster asked in 2011.

When he died at 91 in 2017, his obituary told how in 1959 it was his idea to outline downtown Fort Worth with lights.

In 2011, Foster said the new multicolored lighting is “too dim.”

“You can’t see it from airplanes anymore,” he said.

He even used the D-word.

“That green,” he said, laughing — “that looks like Dallas.”

For every young shopper delighted by Sundance Square’s red-and-green or downtown parks’ brightly colored trees, there is a parent or grandparent who remembers when the center of town was solid gold.

In the 1960s and 1970s, downtown Fort Worth was outlined in amber lights and the downtown Christmas tree was in Burnett Park. The text of this picture postcard describes a “Dazzling Annual Festival of Light,” “unsurpassed in the nation.” (The white light in the middle at top is from a revolving digital clock atop an old bank tower.) Strykers' Western Fotocolor, Fort Worth

For 60 years now, the skyline has been our calling card, pictured years ago on greeting cards and in travel books as the “Famous Holiday Festival of Lights” in the “Christmas City.”

In 1959, when Foster was a young insurance agent, he spoke up and said Fort Worth needed some new downtown holiday decorations.

The old silver garlands were so worn, they dangled in shreds from Main Street stoplights.

Higher up on the street lights, red plastic candy canes weren’t falling apart. But they had loomed over so many holiday seasons, they were fading to sort of a 1950s strawberry-shake pink.

“Everything was just threadbare,” Foster said.

He spoke up at a downtown business meeting.

In the 1960s, West Seventh Street (looking east from Lamar Street) was “show row” with the Hollywood and Worth movie theaters at left along with the Texas Electric Service Co. building (and Reddy Kilowatt) and the Star-Telegram Building outlined for Christmas. The Neil P. Anderson Building is at right. The text of the postcard describes a “Famous Holiday Festival of Light.” Strykers' Western Fotocolor, Fort Worth

“Why,” he said, “don’t we all put up yellow lights?”

First, Foster outlined his office building, the Petroleum Building, 210 W. Sixth St., and another now-gone office tower.

They chose the amber-gold look they knew from luminaria walks and downtown buildings in San Antonio.

The next year, in 1960, the Downtown Fort Worth Association led the holiday lighting of 24 buildings, each with 25-watt amber light bulbs spaced 4 feet apart.

In 1963, when Air Force One flew over Fort Worth, President John F. Kennedy saw 61 outlined buildings.

In the 1960s and 1970s, downtown Fort Worth was outlined in amber lights, seen here from what is now I.M. Terrell Way over Interstate 30 (then the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike). The text of this picture postcard describes a scene that has “spelled enchantment to many men, women and children.” (The white light in the middle of the skyline is from a revolving digital clock atop an old bank tower.) Strykers' Western Fotocolor

“Spectacular,” he said.

The lighting shifted shapes with the skyline until 1995, when one of the worst hailstorms in American history destroyed most of the old amber light bulbs.

Foster remembered walking downtown and the broken amber glass crunching beneath his feet.

“It was sort of a gap-toothed look after that,” he said.

The 2000 tornado took out even more old lights.

Then Sundance Square switched to a modern LED system with 14,000 color combinations.

For football games, the lights glow school colors. For TCU, they’re purple.

In recent years, 37 Sundance buildings were outlined in ever-changing colors. They switch back to white after Christmas.

In Fort Worth, all that glitters is no longer gold.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.