The Austin Chronicle

Day Trips

By Gerald E. McLeod, July 7, 2000, Columns

The old Montgomery Wards building in Brownwood is about as unlikely a center of controversy as any building could be. Not particularly attractive or historically significant, it symbolizes the consequences of unchecked urban renewal that is changing the look and feel of small towns around the state.

At issue is the U.S. Postal Service's consideration of expanding their offices across the street into the block that includes the building and several other remnants of a once-thriving business district. "Nobody ever drove a hundred miles to see a new post office," says Steve Harris, a local restaurateur and champion for the 50-plus-year-old building.

Unfortunately, it has been a number of years since anyone drove very far to visit downtown Brownwood. Encompassing an area about five blocks wide and 10 blocks long, what was once the central business district is now filled with empty buildings that greatly outnumber the ones that attract clientele. Most of the businesses have moved to the strip malls along Highway 67.

It wasn't always so.

Brownwood has seen its share of booms since it was founded in 1858 as the county seat. The town became the largest cotton-buying center west of Fort Worth in 1920. During the oil boom of the 1920s it was an industrial center. The population swelled to more than 50,000 during World War II. By 1950, the population had dropped to 20,000. Current estimates put the number of citizens around 17,000 and declining.

With a collection of architecture that spans more than 140 years, the city could capitalize on this wealth instead of letting it be destroyed. Towering above the eclectic collection of buildings is the once-grand Brownwood Hotel, an early-20th-century luxury hotel that now stands vacant.

The owner of the old hotel, Virginia businessman and former Brownwood resident Mitchell Phelps, was recently fined more than $13,000 after the 11-story building was cited for numerous safety violations. Phelps is also the owner of 60% of the block that includes the Montgomery Wards building.

A war of words began to heat up when the State Historical Commission's executive director, Larry Oaks, came to town and took the position that the building should be saved. This angered the mayor, half the citizens, and even Gordon Wood, Brownwood's legendary high school football coach who wrote an angry letter to the Brownwood Bulletin newspaper about outsiders sticking their noses in the town's business.

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Oaks called the building "one of the finer buildings in Brownwood." The three-story structure has a faux block exterior capped by an ornate roof line with decorative urns filled with cement flowers and fruit. Still structurally sound, inside the floors are thick pine with pressed tin ceilings. Probably the most impressive part of the building is a depiction of a goddess holding a torch and standing on top of a globe on the front façade. "The pattern was used around the country," Oaks told the Star-Telegram. "There are not a lot of them left."

Harris, whose restaurant is around the corner from the buildings on Center Street, worries that the destruction will continue. "We've already lost 20 buildings in the downtown area," he says, "Where will it stop?" For his troubles, Harris has received a death threat and a boycott of his business. He says he's lost a few customers and gained a few new ones because of the controversy.

Celinda Emison, who has covered the story for the Bulletin, says the town is split about 50-50 on saving the old store fronts. "The amazing thing is that it seems to be the young people and the newer residents who are in favor of saving the buildings," she says.

"We're not going to turn Brownwood into another Fredericksburg," the mayor, Burt Massey, was quoted as saying. This is the same man who, after more than 20 years on the council, concluded a letter to Harris saying, "For many years the council and I have wanted to look at the future of our city, but have been unable to find the time to do so."

In the meantime, the Postal Service has backed away from the Montgomery Wards building because of the controversy. Not surprisingly, they're not divulging what other sites they're considering.

"It's all small-town politics," Harris says with an exasperated sigh. While the decision on the location for the new post office should be made locally, the rest of us can let the town know what we consider to be acceptable behavior. Once historic neighborhoods are demolished, they're lost forever and all Texans are the poorer for the loss.

Steve's Market and Deli is at 110 E. Chandler off of Center Avenue in a red brick building that once housed a family grocery store. Texas Monthly recognized the cafe as one of the best small-town eateries in the state in the March 1999 issue. They serve a nice mix of salads and sandwiches Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-3pm. A special dinner is served Friday 7pm-9pm by reservation, 915/646-5576.

While it is not a Fredericksburg, Brownwood does have a few interesting sites. The Brown County Museum across the street from the county courthouse opens on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons in the old castlelike jail and has a neat collection of historical items.

The town is also home of Howard Payne University and the Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom at Austin Avenue and Coggin Street, with its unique collection of MacArthur personal souvenirs and historical items. To enjoy the outdoors, visit Lake Brownwood State Park northwest of town. For area information, stop by the chamber of commerce in the beautifully renovated railroad depot at 600 Depot St., 915/646-9535 or

Coming up this weekend ...

Patriotic Festival in Bastrop's Fisherman's Park along with the Pine Street Market Day features orchestra performance, food, and fireworks, July 8. 512/321-2419.

Coming up ...

May's Bluegrass and Fiddlers Show in Glen Rose's Oakdale Park provides a weekend of music and arts and crafts, July 14-15. 254/897-2321.

Great Texas Balloon Race in Longview has balloonists competing for cash prizes at Gregg County Airport, July 14-16. 903/757-2468.

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