Bud Kennedy

Arlington’s casino landmark Top O’ Hill in danger of falling

The secret escape tunnel at Top O’ Hill Terrace, recently featured on a History Channel series.
The secret escape tunnel at Top O’ Hill Terrace, recently featured on a History Channel series. Star-Telegram archives

Once a landmark Binion family casino and showroom, now a Bible college teaching the word of God, Top O’ Hill Terrace is in need of both money and prayer.

The 95-year-old den of sin-turned-evangelical seminary is literally crumbling down the Texas 180 hillside that drew gamblers, oil millionaires, big bands and Hollywood stars in the 1930s and ’40s, before police raids and a crusading evangelist ended Arlington’s run as “Vegas before Vegas.”

Arlington Baptist College officials have launched an online fundraising campaign asking for $30,000 to shore up a buckling garden retaining wall. The college also is applying for a Texas Historical Commission matching grant.

Part of the west wall collapsed two years ago after heavy rains and “with every rain, [the gap] is getting larger and larger,” said Vickie Henry Bryant, wife of a former college president and now a one-woman archivist, curator and guide for the Top O’ Hill Terrace Museum.

Bryant’s $10 daily tour of the casino’s remnants and escape tunnels is the No. 2 most popular attraction in Arlington on TripAdvisor.com, behind pro football but ahead of baseball or Six Flags Over Texas.

Modern-day poker players and gamers come for the history, including a peek at an original Top O’ Hill roulette wheel. Others come for the inspiration.

“We tell how God has taken this property from a Vegas-style casino to a Bible college,” Bryant said.

But along the way, there are tales of wealthy Texas gamblers, nudie dancing girls, Tommy Dorsey Band shows and visits by everyone from Bonnie and Clyde to Frank Sinatra.

After a spectacular 1947 raid by Texas Rangers deputies, the casino eventually fell into the hands of Fort Worth radio network evangelist and showman J. Frank Norris, by then gone from the Southern Baptist Convention in favor of his own independent World Baptist Fellowship.

The museum began tours about 15 years ago, but has added multimedia and artifacts, including poker chips and the roulette wheel.

“A lot of people came here in the heyday, and we’re grateful for their support,” Bryant said.

One recent guest tap-danced in the now-crumbling tea garden in a show with Fort Worth movie star Ginger Rogers.

The casino’s tunnels were recently featured on a History Channel episode of Lone Star Restoration. Crews used radar to locate more escape routes.

But right now, the college just asks for enough money to shore up the wall and start preservation. Donors have given $5,000 via GoFundMe.com.

“I’ve been turned down so many times,” Bryant said.

Texas shouldn’t miss this bet.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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