Presented by Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum

Whenever things get good in Amarillo, people get a sudden urge to build something before things get bad again. But several notable building projects throughout our history somehow missed their window of opportunity and wound up partially completed—or not built at all.

Memories of these unfulfilled dreams have been lost to time, but visual clues are fairly obvious in and around Amarillo if you know what you’re looking for.

If you’ve eaten at OHMS Cafe & Bar on the north side of Atrium Plaza, downtown along Tyler Street, you might’ve taken note of the peculiar layout of the plaza outside its front door. The offices below ground level that are accessed from the plaza appear to be a funky 1970s addition. They’re not, actually. These are an architectural smoothing-over of an aborted building project from the 1920s.

Not long after the 14-story, 600-room Herring Hotel opened in 1926, plans for an even taller downtown hotel were announced. The Davidson Hotel (sometimes referred to as the Baker Hotel) was designed to rise 17 stories above the intersection of Southwest Seventh Avenue and Tyler Street. When completed, it would join the ranks of fine hotels managed by the Baker Hotel chain, which also built Baker hotels in Dallas and Mineral Wells.

Noted Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick unveiled a stunning classical design with short Spanish Renaissance towers on the top corners, similar in style to the Texas Tech University Administration Building in Lubbock, another of his projects. By the end of 1927, a double basement had been finished. Steel was erected to the second or third levels. And then, mysteriously, work stopped and never resumed.

It’s still unclear what brought the hotel to a screeching halt. It’s possible Amarillo wasn’t quite ready for hundreds of new hotel rooms and the Davidson’s financial backers panicked. But the hotel’s failure to launch was left in place for everyone to see until the late 1940s when the newly founded Amarillo Club was built on the east side of the Davidson building site, taking in part of the double basement and extending to the northern edge of the property where OHMS is now located.

In 1952, the American National Bank erected a new building over the remaining Seventh Avenue frontage of the Davidson site, but didn’t extend the building across the entire hotel footprint. That left a large part of the northern end of the basements with nothing above them but a concrete lid. A row of planters in front of OHMS roughly demarcates what would’ve been the back of the Davidson Hotel, giving us a good idea of the project’s scope.

At Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the El Coronado Lodge visitors center is another visual oddity and vestigial reminder of a project that didn’t quite make it. At various times in the 1930s, the National Park Service considered siting a national ecological park at the new Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Amarillo architect Guy Carlander produced designs for a massive expansion of El Coronado Lodge, which had been constructed in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Carlander also designed cabins and other park features, including a “wind organ” that was to be carved into a cliff face and fitted with an amplifier and speakers to make music from the wind.

Surviving sketches of Carlander’s Palo Duro Canyon plans reveal structures that subtly blend with their rocky environs, reminiscent of the communal houses built by the Panhandle’s ancient Antelope Creek people. Additionally, Carlander produced renderings for an amphitheater on the canyon floor down the hill from the lodge.

The National Park Service eventually abandoned its plans because of the high costs of acquiring additional land around the canyon. The earlier, smaller version of El Coronado Lodge remained to serve the state park and still waits on its lonely perch for someone to follow through. And though it took another 30 years, the Dust Bowl-era dreams of Carlander and others to attract thousands of tourists to the canyon were realized in part by construction of the Pioneer Amphitheater, home to the Texas Musical Drama.

Possibly the most grandiose local building project that never materialized was a massive multipurpose development called Estateland Center. Planned near the confluence of Western Street and the Canyon Expressway south of 45th Avenue, this development was the dream of John McCarty, a former newspaper editor and author who struck gold with his Estate Life Insurance Company in the 1950s.

McCarty was convinced that Amarillo’s population would grow to 370,000 people by 1970, and he planned to cash in. His architect, Edmund Jura, sketched out a large shopping center in the most modern of styles. It would feature a new Blackburn Brothers department store, a hotel and apartment buildings. The planned centerpiece was a striking office tower rising 20 to 30 stories high. Nearby, McCarty planned entertainment attractions, such as a bowling alley and a swimming pool.

McCarty got as far as building a new one-story office for his insurance company. He also completed the bowling alley—today’s Western Bowl—and a swimming pool that’s now gone. But the acquisition of another struggling life insurance company dragged Estate Life down with it. The money dried up and plans for Estateland Center were scrapped.

These unbuilt projects are just three examples of grand visions that were clouded by economic realities. It’s easy to look back now and label them as gross miscalculations until we remember that, in our own time, we’ve conjured several civic centers, natatoriums and arenas that were never built. But hey, it does look like we’re finally getting that Buc-ees out on I-40, so let’s keep dreaming big. 

Author

  • Wes Reeves

    Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.