Nice building, huh?”
I was so busy craning my neck at the new performance hall going up in downtown Fort Worth, I hadn’t noticed the guy on the bike until he’d sidled right up next to me. He was a nice fellow, and we chatted for a few minutes while I stared at the two 48-foot-high sculptures of angels rising on the building’s facade, partially obscured by scaffolding. Then he bid adieu, offering some friendly advice as he pedaled away.
“You might want to get on the sidewalk across the street if you want to look some more. You’re standing in the roadway here.”
The young man on the bike was my introduction to the Basstapo, the teasing nickname for the 115-man security force that patrols the City Center office towers and the adjacent Sundance Square retail and entertainment district on bicycles, horseback, and skates. The force, headed by a former Secret Service agent, augments other security provided by the city police and Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. (DFWI), the nonprofit corporation dedicated to improving the central business district.
The angels and the Basstapo are evidence of a peculiar phenomenon: Downtown Fort Worth has become Texas’ liveliest urban environment. The redbrick streets are lined with restaurants, nightclubs, and shops, most of them new. There are twenty movie screens, four live-theater venues, and four exhibit spaces. There’s a corner deli. The streets are jammed on weekends, and they bustle with activity from Monday through Friday. “Last week, I took my wife to the movies, and it took us forty-five minutes to find a place to park,” a cabdriver told me, beaming with pride. “It’s just like New York City.”
But the best is yet to come: the Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass Performance Hall, as the building with the angels is formally known. Already being billed as the last great concert hall of the twentieth century and designed to endure well into the twenty-second, the hall—set to open in May—is the crowning achievement of the renaissance of a city center that had been left for dead 25 years ago. Fort Worth, the place you used to pass through on the way to somewhere else—Where the West Begins—is now a destination unto itself.
WATCHING YOUR DOWNTOWN DRY UP AND BLOW AWAY HAS BEEN A FACT OF LIFE for anyone growing up in Texas during the past fifty years. Larry McMurtry wrote about it famously in The Last Picture Show. Whether it’s the old frontier mentality of using up the land until it’s useless and then moving on or it’s the passing of an era, downtowns long ago lost their place as the heart of a town or city.
So it was with Fort Worth, my hometown. By the time I graduated from high school in 1969, the Palace, the Worth, and the Hollywood—the three grand movie houses on Seventh Street, Fort Worth’s version of the Great White Way—were on their last legs. Leonard Brothers Department Store, the populist epicenter of the city, would soon be bought out by Dillard’s. The other department and retail stores were fleeing to the suburbs. Half the downtown buildings that could be called historic had been demolished in favor of parking lots, which were more profitable. The other half were empty.
It’s no big surprise that the name behind the Fort Worth renaissance is the same one on the new performance hall. Nancy Lee and Perry Bass and their boys, Sid, Ed, Bob, and Lee, are a family of considerable wealth—Texas’ richest, to be precise. And with their wealth have come a vision and a will to make their hometown’s downtown a better place. Sid Bass, the eldest sibling, started the ball rolling in the late seventies when he made a deal with the late Charles Tandy to build the Hotel Americana (later the Worthington Hotel). The four Bass brothers were in partnership at the time, doing business as Bass Brothers Enterprises. “I told Charles we were acquiring some property downtown with the idea of doing some projects and restoring some of the older buildings,” Sid recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got some projects. You’ve got some projects. Why don’t we do a joint venture? I’ll throw in a block; you throw in a block.’ We talked and finally said, ‘Fine.’”
Sid’s goals were simple ones. “Everyone was ashamed of our downtown,” he says. “We were just another part of the Metroplex. The idea was to have a center again. A vibrant downtown is a psychological center, and the psychology of a city goes up and down with that. To restore the center enhances the entire city.” After the Worthington the Bass brothers constructed the two City Center skyscrapers (completed in 1982 and 1984) and then began redeveloping two blocks of older two- and three-story structures along Main Street, calling it Sundance Square in honor of the Sundance Kid, the notorious outlaw who frequented the area around 1900.
Meanwhile, Bob Bass was doing behind-the-scenes studies for a new performing arts hall. He was convinced that the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, perhaps the finest such event in the world, deserved a better venue than the Tarrant County Convention Center. Will Rogers Auditorium, the heart of what has evolved into the much-ballyhooed Cultural District, was initially targeted for an upgrade, but voters ultimately rejected a bond issue in 1989 that would have helped finance it.
By then Ed Bass had become the most public Bass. He spearheaded the construction of the twelve-story Sundance West (a retro redbrick condominium that sold every unit before a spade had been turned) and the AMC Sundance 11 Theatres, the first major multiplex theater built in a Texas downtown. Having studied architecture at Yale, Ed believed in the concept of a healthy inner city too, although his approach was a bit more unconventional than his brothers’. In the early eighties he had backed the building of the Caravan of Dreams, an avant-garde performing arts facility with a geodesic dome in downtown Fort Worth,