When we talk about historic preservation around here, that includes some wild and woolly history.
Arlington was once home to a Binion family gambling casino and a horse racetrack, and both will be celebrated Saturday along with the highway connecting them on a day devoted to the city’s less savory but more colorful past.
Before pastors trained at Arlington Baptist College, it was the nationally famous Top O’ Hill Terrace gambling casino, 1930s and ’40s haven for oil millionaires, Hollywood celebrities and the occasional Texas Rangers law enforcement raid.
Founder and racehorse owner Fred Browning later took in gambler “Benny” Binion as a partner, leading to the casino’s claim as “Vegas Before Vegas.”
“When Browning founded it, his timing was just perfect,” said Dallas historian Jim Gatewood, 87, one of several historians speaking Saturday at a $25 afternoon fundraising event and tour.
With Texas oil booming, Top O’Hill would take in $50,000 to $100,000 any night from dice, roulette and blackjack players.
Millionaire Howard Hughes brought movie stars from California, and the “restaurant” featured big-name swing bands, all in a basement room behind five doors.
On one of the Rangers’ raids, a captain and sergeant crept a mile to the back fence unnoticed by armed guards and then used wire cutters to get inside the sprawling estate of flower gardens and hidden tunnels.
(Law officers raided it several times, but the charges never seemed to stick.)
“The irony is that Fort Worth was known as the ‘City of Churches,’ ” said historian Richard Selcer, also a speaker Saturday.
“But there was gambling all over. Top O’Hill Terrace became the big-name place.”
Without retelling too much of the story — it’s the topic of a couple of books, one by the current caretaker — the property was eventually sold because of a bank lien and wound up as a small Baptist college.
So don’t expect liquor or gambling Saturday. For more on the event and the concurrent Bankhead Highway and Arlington Downs racetrack events Saturday, see topohillterrace.com.
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I owe Paul Sensibaugh an apology.
I quoted him here Wednesday talking about his days working at the Swift & Co. plant that was part of the City Council debate over historic preservation.
He told me about picking up meat patties off the line and packing them in cans, and I got that wrong.