Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

We can learn from this building’s ugly history. It should be saved from demolition

The 1925 Ku Klux Klan hall north of downtown Fort Worth is proposed for demolition. The land will be on the riverbank of the West Fork of the Trinity River when a flood control project is completed.
The 1925 Ku Klux Klan hall north of downtown Fort Worth is proposed for demolition. The land will be on the riverbank of the West Fork of the Trinity River when a flood control project is completed. bud@star-telegram.com

Fort Worth possesses a unique historic artifact in the old Klan hall on North Main. It is the only Ku Klux Klan headquarters/meeting hall still standing in America today.

It deserves to be saved from demolition for the same reason we have saved the last slave cabins – not to celebrate what they stood for but to preserve a piece of history that has much to teach us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more is a historic building worth?

The building in question on North Main was built in 1925 and has gone through multiple owners and uses before becoming an empty shell threatened by the wrecking ball. It was the second of two Klan klaverns built on this site, the first in 1920 so that the revived Klan could quit holding meetings in the basement of the courthouse.

Someone suggested raising money to build a memorial to the “historic Klan.” Instead, they decided to use the money to build a four-story meeting hall at 1006 North Main with a stage and auditorium that would seat 4,000. They formed a corporation and issued stock to raise the $90,000 necessary to purchase the property and put up the building. The building included an electric “fiery cross” on a telephone pole at the southwest corner of the building.

They were only able to enjoy their new digs for short time. In the early morning hours of Nov. 6, 1924, a Thursday, the building burned to the ground under mysterious circumstances. Arson was never proven but there were suspicions.

The Klan’s awkward connection to First Baptist Church came out later that day when pastor J. Frank Norris telegrammed from Houston, “Let the klan have the auditorium over all engagements,” specifically their scheduled minstrel show on Friday night. The Euterpean Club, which had already contracted for the space that same night, filed suit in district court, causing Norris to back down the next day.

The building had been only partially covered by insurance, but that did not prevent the Klan from pledging to rebuild. The present three-story building at 1012 N. Main opened in early 1925. Like its predecessor, it was more than just Klan central; it was a multi-purpose community center rented out for religious revivals, celebrity appearances, and music concerts, besides the usual Klan gatherings.

In 1925, Harry Houdini played Fort Worth for the second time in his career, filling every seat in Klan hall. It was also the venue for black-face minstrel shows put on by both the Klan and the Fort Worth Police Benevolent Association as popular fund-raising events. Performing in the Klan shows were two of the most popular local baseball players of the day, Clarence Kraft and Ziggy Sears.

Still, the place was losing money, and as the Klan’s power and influence declined, Klavern No. 101 decided to sell it. In 1927 Marvin and Obie Leonard of Leonard’s Department Store bought it to use as a “retail and grocery” warehouse. Apparently, that was another losing proposition because in 1929, they sold it to a group that sponsored dance marathons, a growing craze nationally that offered prizes to couples that could stay on their feet for days.

The promoters cleared out most of the seats to create a dance floor and threw open the doors. They also changed the name from Klan hall to North Main Street Auditorium, reflecting the fading image of the KKK in Texas.

In 1934, as the building continued to decline, it was turned over to professional wrestling, with the cards made up mostly of local unknowns who packed the place with friends and relatives. The building’s rapid decline was slowed in 1937 when the Star-Telegram began sponsoring Golden Gloves matches there, showcasing the best of young, amateur boxing talent, much of it home grown.

In 1946, with its glory years far behind it and no longer attractive as an entertainment venue, the building was sold again, to Lonnie V. Ellis, owner of Ellis Pecan Co. The family business was passed down at that location for the next half-century, employing at its height nearly 50 people, until 1991 when it was sold to a Missouri firm. Still operating under the familiar name Ellis Pecan Co., it moved in 2000 to a more upscale neighborhood near Ridgmar Mall. The 1012 N. Main building has been empty and up for sale ever since.

It could become a historic anchor on the North Main corridor leading to and from the Stockyards. It has potential as a performance space and, coupled with an on-site museum, could be a must-stop, must-see address. It would be another historic building that Fort Worth saved, unlike the record of our sister city across the Trinity.

Amon Carter had it wrong: You can come to Fort Worth for history as well as entertainment.

Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram