Once the home of secret meetings and burning crosses, the 1924 Ku Klux Klan hall north of downtown may be six months from the wrecking ball.
A city commission is scheduled to decide July 8 whether the owners can demolish it in 180 days, but supporters of a local arts and service organization want time to propose a cultural center devoted to artistic expression and racial healing.
The brick auditorium at 1012 N. Main St., built in 1924 and rebuilt after an early firebombing, is on a prime location that will overlook downtown from the water’s edge when the future Trinity River flood control and development project is completed.
Nobody wants the Klan hall to somehow fall into the wrong hands. But Fort Worth needs the tax money. We’re better off if that land is kept on the tax rolls and redeveloped.
Look, I’m all for a cultural center in north Fort Worth, where those 1920s Klansmen (and yes, Klanswomen) tormented not only African Americans but also Roman Catholics, American Jews and immigrants from Mexico and eastern Europe pouring into the Stockyards for meat packinghouse jobs.
But this building doesn’t seem essential to tell that story. And it may be beyond saving.
The hall’s current owner, Sugarplum Holdings of Fort Worth, is tired of getting code enforcement warnings to secure the property’s broken windows and damaged roof, according to a city staff report written for the July 8 meeting of the Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission.
Sugarplum Holdings bought the building — a Klan hall for seven years, then the public North Main Street Auditorium and for a half-century a pecan-shelling company — in 2004. The partnership announced plans to raise money and restore the hall as a home for Texas Ballet Theater, but that proved too expensive.
The late RadioShack president, Bernie Appel, said in a 2010 interview that partners “wanted to make something good out of it” but “nothing ever happened.”
Now, an engineering group hired by Sugarplum wrote in the city application that the auditorium needs $8-$10 million worth of work just for starters.
If the current owners couldn’t raise $8-$10 million, it is doubtful a new nonprofit venture could.
DNAWORKS, a New York-founded local arts incubator that has promoted cultural expression through dance at Texas Christian University, has posted a Facebook page titled, “Transform Former KKK Hall into Center for Healing.”
TCU assistant professor of dance Adam W. McKinney, co-director of DNAWORKS, declined an interview until after the July 8 meeting.
It doesn’t help Sugarplum’s argument that the partners’ application for demolition is notably flimsy.
For example, the engineer’s report says there is “no particular reason” the building was built on North Main Street.
I can tell you why: The Klan’s primary focus was on persecuting the non-whites, non-Protestants and immigrants who settled the north side.
Only three years earlier, African American packinghouse butcher Fred Rouse was beaten, stomped and stabbed, then lynched from what is now John Peter Smith Hospital, shot and hanged on Samuels Avenue.
In the 1920s, Klansmen and Klanswomen met there weekly as the Invisible Empire took political control of Tarrant County and much of Texas, then retreated to secrecy after a series of violent attacks.
There’s another problem with the Sugarplum application.
Fort Worth engineer John Millett, hired to defend the demolition and evaluate the building historically, spells the group throughout the report as the “Klu” Klux Klan.
If you can’t spell the Klan’s name, you probably shouldn’t be writing a history report.
Fort Worth history professor and author Richard Selcer has been worried about the Klan hall. He has written calling for a closer review of the application.
He believes the building may be the most historically notable Klan hall remaining in the country, maybe even the only one.
(The city staff report says the building is “believed to be the only purpose-built Ku Klux Klan structure in the nation, thus inherently conveying a high degree of rarity and national significance.”)
“Fort Worth was far enough from the Deep South, and the Klan hall was remembered publicly as the Ellis Pecan building, that no one noticed it,” he wrote in an email last week.
But not everyone forgot.
When he died in 1950, Fort Worth millionaire William “Gooseneck” McDonald, an African American and former state chairman of the Republican Party, was buried in Trinity Cemetery on a nearby hillside.
His grave is marked by a $20,000, four-story-tall granite monument.
It looks directly down onto the Klan hall.