Flanked by two stone walls, a guard house, and heavy iron gates, the entrance to Top ‘O Hill Terrace looks like something out of a 1920s mystery novel.
The expansive views of the surrounding area make it easy to understand the meaning behind the name, Top ‘O Hill Terrace. If these aged walls could talk, they would whisper all the secret passwords that armed guards would demand from the notorious gamblers, gangsters, and entertainers who poured through this entrance. Now a Baptist University, it’s no wonder the place is listed as one of the Top 4 Attractions in Arlington on Trip Advisor, in the same breath as more well-known attractions like AT&T Stadium, Globe Life Field, and Six Flags Over Texas.
Curator and historian Vickie Bryant has spent the last 20 years collecting memorabilia, photographs, and stories to pull Top ‘O Hill visitors back in time to the days of moonshine and poker, or as she likes to say, from “Poker to Preachers.” The rich history began with a simple tearoom and evolved into illegal gambling, moonshine, brothels, and murder.
The elite found themselves here rubbing shoulders with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, and John Wayne. Rumor has it that Bonnie & Clyde hid here on their crime spree and photos prove that Sally Rand performed here to the guests in the tea garden. In this age of prohibition, Top O’ Hill offered liquor brought in by bootleggers, and a basement was built to house a high stakes casino. As guests high rolled and reveled their way through the days, the occasional police raid had them fleeing their roulette and poker tables through underground, hidden tunnels that led to the tea garden—where they could pretend they had been enjoying their tea and sandwiches among the “real” guests the whole time. Rumor has it that the tunnels were also used to discretely carry out the bodies of those who were shot during brawling gambling escapades.
Arlington native and Top ‘O Hill’s owner, Fred Browning, was not only the mastermind behind the casino, but he also brought his passions for racehorses and boxing to the property. Just beyond the legitimate tea garden, Royal Ford Stable housed award-winning thoroughbred racehorses. Only the best expert jockeys, trainers, and grooms attended to Browning’s horses, which led to the foal of his prized horse, Royal Ford, defeating the infamous Seabiscuit in 1940. Horses weren’t the only thing being trained on the property. Browning trained professional boxers in his own mini gym, sparing ring, and 50-foot swimming pool (a rarity for this time).
For years, Top ‘O Hill thrived, with both legal and illegal activity, until a massive raid by the Texas Rangers in the late 1940s began the slow decline and ultimate foreclosure of Top ’O Hill. A local pastor, known for his outspoken opposition to the events that occurred at Top ‘O Hill, saw the foreclosure as an opportunity to purchase the property and turn it into what is now known as Arlington Baptist University.
The stories of Top ‘O Hill live on today through recovered paraphernalia and the restoration of tunnels that lead to yet-to-be-uncovered secret rooms. Step back into time and explore the underground tunnels, the still standing stables, the once grand swimming pool, and the tea garden where countless illicit activities occurred, with fascinating artifacts and stories along the way.