Bud Kennedy

Why'd Jack Ruby call? Stories, mysteries gone with Fort Worth tower

Fifty years after its heyday as the luxury high-rise “Home of the Stars,” the Westchester apartment tower will meet an inglorious end Sunday.

Long gone are the dress boutique, the shoe shop and the posh 1960s private club with cabana, heated pool and a steady stream of showbiz stars. Depending on when you read this, all that remains is either a 12-story shell or a 17-ton pile of rubble.

Nearly 67, the Westchester was too old.

In 1951, it was built for $3.3 million by an East Coast investor and a Fort Worth appeals court judge. Early ads promised air conditioning and three elevators where “passengers will merely press buttons.”

“It was a wonderful, grand, elegant place, one of the first of its kind,” said Jerre Tracy of Historic Fort Worth.

When the 1960s swept away 1950s innocence, swinging singles and theater stars from Casa Mañana musicals swung though the Westchester's adjacent Casa del Sol nightclub and dreamed of life in a Manhattan high-rise.

On Nov. 15, 1963, a week before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Casa del Sol also took a two-minute phone call from Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby, according to the Warren Commission report.

As far as I can tell, the call has never been explained or even mentioned in the Star-Telegram.

That was when the Westchester was advertised as the “Home of the Stars” of Casa Mañana, then staging musical theater-in-the-round under its Cultural District dome.

Every resident's move in or out of the Westchester was covered in the Star-Telegram society column, because entertainment editor Ida Belle Hicks and later columnist Tony Slaughter lived there.

Built on “Quality Hill” in place of two early cattle baron mansions, the Westchester wasn't the city's first high-rise apartment tower but became its most prominent.

The tower was “big enough to make an impression on a kid and make him fantasize about living in a place like that,” said Texas writer Joe Nick Patoski, a Fort Worth native now living in Wimberley.

“It was like living in New York City.”

In 1951, Fort Worth was in the middle of a postwar boom when developer Dr. Daniel Gevinson, a Washington dentist, partnered up with Chief Justice Earl Hall of the 2nd Court of Appeals to plan a 280,000-square-foot tower.

Gevinson later moved here and developed Dallas' 21 Turtle Creek Square, along with high-rise apartments in Florida.

The Westchester, designed by Seattle architect John H. Graham, replaced two Queen Anne cattle baron mansions similar to “Thistle Hill,” which still stands across Pennsylvania Avenue..

One mansion on what is now South Summit Avenue at Pennsylvania had been built in 1898 by West Texas cattleman John Slaughter, and owned later by ranchers W. T. Waggoner and Cass Edwards.

The mansion just north on Summit, built in 1902 by cattleman William T. Scott, was best known as the home of rancher C.A. “Gus” O'Keefe, founder of what is now the Courtyard by Marriott Blackstone Hotel downtown. (Part of an original stone wall remains along West Peter Smith Street.)

As the Westchester went up, the Star-Telegram covered the construction of the apartments and 13 retail stores along Pennsylvania, anchored by a Jack Collier Rexall Drugs and later a Colonial Cafeteria.

The original rents ranged from $77.50 per month for the small “Westerner” apartment to $125 for the “Cattlebaron T-Bar,” the equivalent of a $750-$1200 range today.

In the month before the May 1951 opening, the Westchester had 4,452 inquiries for the 334 apartments, the Star-Telegram reported.

“This was after the 1949 flood [which destroyed several working-class neighborhoods] and there wasn't a lot of housing in Fort Worth, particularly apartments,” said recycling executive Arnie Gachman. A grandmother, Edith, lived at the Westchester.

“This was a real prime project. I would characterize it as institutional” — the ceiIings were low and the halls narrow — “but it was really nice back then for Fort Worth.”

In 1961, when serving liquor by the drink was still illegal in public bars, the Casa del Sol cocktail lounge opened as a private membership club affiliated with Casa Mañana's supporters, the Casa Amigos.

In 1967, one of the early performers there was Miss Fort Worth and TCU cheerleader Betty Buckley, who went on to Broadway stardom.

“When I was at TCU, Neal Hospers, who ran the Cross Keys restaurant and the Casa Del Sol club, invited me to work there a couple of times as a singer with their wonderful jazz trio,” Buckley wrote by email.

She named the band: pianist Charlie Baxter, bass player John Hawkins and drummer Sumter Bruton.

“Those gentlemen really taught me a lot about singing in a nightclub,” she wrote.

“Wish Fort Worth still had a room like that. Loved those times.”

When liquor bars became legal in 1971, Casa del Sol and other private clubs waned. It closed in 1978.

By then, the Westchester was changing again to an older apartment community.

Bryan Richhart, son of 47-year Star-Telegram reporter C.L. Richhart, lived there in later years.

“It was a great old building for its time,” he said last week.

“It had fallen, like any old-timer, and was really showing its age. But it survived enough for it to serve its purpose.”

Bud Kennedy, 817-390-7538; @BudKennedy