Wowtown!

Fort Worth’s city center was dead until the Basses started rebuilding it. Twenty years later, thanks to their vision—and money—Cowtown has the hottest downtown in Texas.

April 1998By Comments

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, and he had financed Biosphere 2, the $100-million-plus sealed-environment experimental project outside of Tucson, Arizona.

After Sid proposed a downtown location for a performance hall, Ed stepped in and assumed leadership of the project. He offered one of the Sundance Square properties as a suitable site for the hall, to be built with private funds. He formed Performing Arts Fort Worth, a nonprofit organization to oversee funding, construction, and operation of such a hall, and he solicited more than four thousand donations from $10 to eight figures, ultimately exceeding the targeted $60 million tab by more than $10 million. Ed huddled with David Schwarz of the Washington, D.C.—based David M. Schwarz/Architectural Services (the designer of Sundance West and the Ballpark in Arlington), and Schwarz drew up the blueprints for the concert hall. Construction began in 1995.

THE NANCY LEE AND PERRY R. BASS PERFORMANCE Hall is everything the spacious, futuristic I. M. Pei—designed Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas (completed in 1989) is not, helping to revive the state’s most contentious urban rivalry. Ed Bass puts it in a New York context: “The Meyerson takes Lincoln Center as its model, with the plaza in front lending a wide open approach. The Bass Performance Hall takes Carnegie Hall as its model.” He is quick to point out the crucial differences between the two: “The Bass is a multipurpose hall. The Meyerson is strictly a concert hall. We have sixteen to seventeen square feet of lobby space for each seat. The Meyerson has somewhere around forty-five square feet. By reference, Carnegie Hall has about eight or nine.” Both facilities seat about two thousand people.

“This building meets the street exactly like Carnegie Hall,” explains Ed Bass as he guides me through the almost-completed building. His impeccable gray business suit makes a somewhat goofy clash with his hard hat; my hat identifies me as Van Cliburn. “The Bass hall meets the sidewalk on all sides,” Ed says. “It is the shortest possible distance to places where you go eat and drink, before and after. All of the people that come and go are part of the scene. You’re not isolated and set aside.”

As the hands-on owner-representative of the hall, Ed is very much a detail man, knowledgeably discoursing on the hall’s center dome as an acoustical device (“It may be the first domed acoustic ceiling since the Carnegie era”), the dynamics of sound isolation, the angle of the seating bowl, and little matters, such as the mesquite wood’s tendency to darken when it is exposed to light. The music notes decorating the walls in the women’s restroom are from the score of composer Antonín Dvorák’s New World Symphony.

The compact, vaultlike structure with a native limestone facade would have fit right in, in turn-of-the-century Stuttgart or Paris. “People look at this building as very traditional and very neoclassical, which it is,” Ed says. “But it’s a very specific neoclassical. It’s secessionist architecture of 1900, 1910 Vienna, a movement led by Josef Hoffmann and Otto Wagner. They took neoclassical architecture and said, ‘We’re going to take classical ornamentation that has come through baroque and rococo and beaux arts, and we’re not going to eliminate it. We’re going to leave the essence there, but we’re going to strip that essence down to the bare bone.’ They got rid of all the floral and ornate references and stripped it down.”

The two angels, carved out of Texas limestone by Hungarian sculptor Marton Varo and weighing 250,000 pounds each, may be the hall’s signature, but three domes inside define its interior elegance. The center dome above the seating area is three quarters the size of the state capitol dome in Austin, and two smaller domes distinguish the east and west entrances to the hall. All three, elaborately painted by Fort Worth artists Stuart and Scott Gentling, depict the Texas sky, the center dome ringed by a circle of feathers in keeping with the celestial theme of angels.

Ed Bass relates how the feathers are analogous to the laurel wreath that the ancient Greeks crowned their champions and heroes with. “There’s a long history of symbolism in which feathers connect earthly things and the gods.” David Schwarz has a more practical explanation for the angels: “They hide the circulation ducts.” He says the Ballpark in Arlington provided as much inspiration as the Greeks. “Performance halls and ballparks have a great deal in common—they both have seats, they have players, a stage, a staff, an audience, and guests. Both have very complicated circulation problems and complicated acoustics.”

One clear advantage the privately funded hall has over similar facilities in Texas is not having to deal with governmental bodies regarding maintenance or booking policy. Sid Bass cites the experience of many cities to explain why no effort was made to secure public moneys for the hall’s construction. “The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth,” he says, “would bring in an exhibition with frontal nudity or a Mapplethorpe, and a handful of people would go down to the city council and complain, and one or two councilmen would threaten to withhold funding for upkeep or maintenance. It just wasn’t worth it. Because the hall was built with private funds, we can bring in Hair if we want.”

THE BASS PERFORMANCE HALL—WHICH HAS ALREADY booked an average of 23 dates per month for the next year and a half—has clearly accelerated the downtown’s momentum. “When we started building this building, we didn’t anticipate how busy and, at times, congested downtown would be,” Ed says. “Since we started this, activity downtown has increased by another fifty percent. This is going to drive additional things in other directions because the core is fully occupied, which is great. That’s what we had in mind.” The block directly across from the front of the hall is another Bass venture that includes the vaguely deco AMC Palace 9 Theatres movie complex, the retro-futuro Barnes and Noble superstore, the adjacent USA Cafe with Bob Wade’s Mount Rushmore—inspired sculpture at the entrance, and the understated Euro-elegant Angeluna restaurant, with its front-porch vantage point of the angels. The conglomeration of styles suggests the block might have evolved over the course of half a century or so, instead of rising from the asphalt of a parking lot three years ago.

Beyond the bounds of “Bassville” (the Basses now control about forty downtown blocks), the Blackstone Hotel is finally being gutted for a Courtyard by Marriott. Residential construction is going full tilt, with hundreds of new apartment units being built, many in historic downtown buildings. A station is under construction near the convention center for the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter-rail project that will link up with downtown Dallas in 2001. 

The Basses have other plans too. “We want to do a condominium tower and a three- and four-story medium-density residential project on the fringe of downtown,” Ed says. “We want to do a lot more retail, but since all the existing spaces are full, we need to create more spaces.”

Other Texas cities have been avidly watching Fort Worth’s transformation. Ed   says, “We happen to have a very fortunate area in terms of size and scale. Downtown Dallas is so big that, to get a critical mass and turn the corner, you have to do so much. Downtown Fort Worth is fairly defined and compact, with a river on two sides and the railroad on two sides. It’s big enough that you can make a real downtown, but we’re small enough that it’s manageable. The investment of the early eighties with all the oil money, and the building of four major office towers and doing a small amount of renovation in Sundance Square, gave it a big boost. It was enough energy and overdevelopment to get things started. Yet each time we added a small element such as a restaurant, it made a difference.”

Ironically, Fort Worth got some of its new look from . . . Dallas. In 1986 the Basses recruited Bill Boecker, another west Fort Worth homeboy, to run Sundance Square. Boecker had worked for the Rouse Company, which developed North Star Mall in San Antonio and Highland Mall in Austin. The company also developed the “festival marketplace” concept for Boston’s Faneuil Hall and New York’s Fulton Fish Market. He and Ed found inspiration in Dallas’ West End District, a collection of moribund warehouse buildings on the edge of downtown that had been transformed into an entertainment destination and a tourist attraction. “People in Dallas have a hard time believing that we started on the successful path from copying Dallas,” Ed says. There was one major difference. Ed subscribed to the mantra articulated by urban theorists Jane Jacobs and William H. White. “They said, ‘You can’t have just a business district; you can’t have just an entertainment district; you can’t have just a residential district.’ To make a true downtown urban experience, you have to have them all.”

And planners didn’t forget the little things that make a big difference in a downtown. Bass-owned parking lots and garages are free after six o’clock and on weekends. The street-level lots are bordered by wooden fences and decorated with flowers and trees. Twinkly lights are everywhere. So are patrolmen.

THE BASSES DIDN’T DO IT ALL ON THEIR OWN. Two city-sponsored master plans were drawn up in 1983 and 1993 to direct downtown growth. DFWI, which was established in 1981 and operates on membership dues from downtown-property owners, has built public spaces; it also stages the annual Main Street Arts Festival. In 1986 DFWI created the Public Improvement District, which levies a tax on property owners in the district to provide additional maintenance, security, transportation, parking, and marketing support for downtown. Capital Improvement Program bonds provided money to help renovate the downtown library and design and landscape entryways to the central business district. A Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district was formed in 1995 to make improvements in the downtown’s northern sector. Three hundred million public dollars have been invested in downtown Fort Worth over the past twenty years.

During the same period, $800 million in private money has been invested, with more to come. “As much development that’s here now, there’s twice as much on the boards,” says Boecker. “Obviously, it’s a tremendous advantage to have the owners we do. But the money has to come with a vision. Is there some kind of equation for making a downtown turn the corner? In my mind, there is. You’ve got to have the desire, and the desire has to be strong enough to have a vision, and the vision clear enough to have a plan. Then you’ve got an equation. Downtowns across the country have that opportunity.”

“Downtown matters,” Sid Bass says. “And I’m standing in my office between Main and Commerce as I say this. This is where I work, where I live. I’m amazed it took so long to catch on, and I’m amazed it caught on at all. If you’re going to be operating in a city, there are plenty of reasons to invest in it. You’re going to be bringing in people and trying to retain people. If you don’t have the right environment to work in, to live in, those people are not going to stay.”

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Actor Robert Redford publicly demanded that AMC remove the Sundance name from its cinema. Joe Peters, of Peters Brothers Hatters, which has been putting hats on celebrities and presidents for more than 85 years, grumbles that the tree planted in front of his store on Houston Street covers up his sign. The Supreme Court, Jr., facade that David Schwarz applied to the public library renovation is underwhelming at best, ugly at worst. Architect Jim Gahl faces a daunting challenge in reinventing and rehabbing the old Continental National Bank building, once Fort Worth’s tallest skyscraper, whose topside revolving clock has been idle for many years.

Then there’s the theme-park aura. The Bass-controlled part of downtown is clean and safe and wholesome, just like Walt Disney World and Disneyland—creations of the same company the Basses financially rescued in the mid-eighties. Some critics charge that Bassville is a bland, middle-of-the-road version of a real downtown; that the stylistic jumble of various periods reflected in architect Schwarz’s creations suggest the instant history of an amusement park; that there are too many out-of-town clones like the 8.0, Mi Cocina, Cabo, and Pizzeria Uno, and not enough scrappy hometown joints. Maybe it’s inevitable that the Caravan of Dreams, which once showcased cutting-edge performing arts—emphasizing hard jazz and experimental theater—now books mostly mainstream touring acts.

Given my druthers, I’ll take the Disney version of Cowtown, as long as it includes buskers—the street singers and performers working the sidewalk crowds in the tradition of the blind couple who used to sell pencils and sing gospel music outside Leonard’s. Shoot, if the Basses need more of an edge, they can always pull that crusty old beatnik Pat Kirkwood out of retirement to reopen The Cellar, his legendary nightclub.

I was gazing upon the Bass Performance Hall again the other evening, this time from a table inside Angeluna. For a building, the hall seems downright warm and friendly, fitting in snugly with the neighborhood without overwhelming the neighbors. As I dined, I watched rubberneckers stopping to stare and marvel at the angels, as I had done. You don’t have to like symphonies to love the building. The whole scene was such a convincing urban setting, I thought I smelled the stockyards in the north wind, though they closed almost thirty years ago. My downtown was alive again, more alive than it has ever been. You don’t have to like the Basses to love Fort Worth. But I tell you what: These days, it’s sure hard not to.

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  • Rene Girrard

    I don’t like the Basses. Their security force is way overbearing. Everytime I go downtown now, I wonder if I’m going to get harassed by Bass Security. And I’m still trying to find out if these guys are cops or security guards? Not long ago, one of their goons demanded to look into by shopping bag without a search warrant. These people are way too controlling, but no city official is going to stand up to Bass.