Perhaps it was the perceived emptiness of the sky that drove the great men and women of Amarillo’s ascendant years to enliven it with tall buildings.
Or maybe they heard Lubbock was laying plans to build higher.
Whatever the motivation, Amarilloans started building tall in the 1920s, back when an eight-story building was considered a skyscraper. Tall buildings continued to spring from the sod as late as the 1980s, and then the growth mostly stopped.
But what we got was more than enough to stake our city to a sometimes hostile claim. As we wind our way through the river breaks on a drive back into town, we all look forward to catching that first glimpse of a city on the faraway steppe. Our familiar skyline has become an “icon of place” as the Houston-based architectural historian Anna Mod calls it. And it reminds us of where we’ve been and what we’re capable of doing.
Mod has grown familiar with Amarillo’s skyline as a consultant for several historic downtown properties, including the American National Bank/SPS Tower, recently renamed FirstBank Southwest Tower. She understands the visual impact of tall buildings and their role in advertising what we have to offer.
“Amarillo’s skyscrapers pierce the big sky of the high Texas Plain,” Mod says. “And given the vastness of the surrounding landscape, they have elbow room as they tell us about the city’s cattle, banking, and oil and gas industries.”
In the end, that tale is as much about people as it is bricks and mortar—the colorful characters who built their triumphs and failures into every component part.
Tower and Plaza One
(600 S. Tyler and 410 S. Taylor)
Amarillo was all swagger for much of its early life, but in the late 1960s, the city’s confidence hit the skids.
Amarillo Air Force Base, the city’s major employer, was marked for closure beginning in 1964. The population, which had been on a positive trajectory since the city’s founding, fell from a 1963 high of close to 167,000 to just 127,000 residents by 1970—a loss of almost a quarter of the population.
Richard Ware, chairman of Amarillo National Bank and ranking member of one of the chief families of skyline builders, remembers the effects of the great depopulation vividly.
“The whole Eastridge subdivision was vacant out there. If there were 400 homes, 350 of them were vacant,” he says.
Even so, Amarillo National Bank’s Fourth and Polk location was decidedly overpopulated by the time Ware and his brother, the late Bill Ware, joined the bank in the 1960s. Office space was at such a premium that Bill Ware had to share a desk with another bank employee.
Richard Ware’s father, B.T. “Tol” Ware II, believed a new skyscraper would solve the bank’s space crunch and give Amarillo a needed morale boost. His planned building, dubbed Plaza One, would also provide a new home for Southwestern Public Service Company, to boost the profitability of such a venture.
About this time, competitor American National Bank joined forces with Trans America Group, a Tulsa-based developer of tall buildings, with skyscraper plans of their own. According to Ware, Trans America also went after SPS by offering a square-foot price of $5, which was 50 cents cheaper than Plaza One space. The price was right for SPS, and the utility company instead sealed a deal with Trans America. The American National Bank/SPS Tower would rise to a height of 31 floors.
Undeterred, the Wares moved forward with their plan to build Plaza One without SPS, opting for a solid 16 floors and calling it good. By 1969, both skyscrapers were rising in downtown Amarillo.
Tol Ware sited Plaza One to face Taylor Street, which he saw as Amarillo’s new main street. Dallas architect Thomas E. Stanley delivered a strikingly modern structure in the International Style of Mies van der Rohe—a sleek and elegant bronze tower floating on an airy base. A few blocks west at Sixth and Tyler, Kelley Marshall & Associates of Tulsa with associate architect Arthur Vaughan employed the same aesthetic in dark blue on the American National Bank/SPS Tower but capped the top two floors with a row of white arches characteristic of the New Formalism movement of modern architecture.
Both buildings formally opened in 1972 as the Amarillo economy began a steady rebound, visual affirmations of the city’s will to shake it off. American National Bank eventually faded away in a series of mergers. SPS, now part of Xcel Energy, moved to a new building in 2017. But Amarillo’s tallest building thrives as the rechristened FirstBank Southwest Tower. And Amarillo National Bank, bolstered by a new generation of Wares, is still championing Amarillo’s success from its longtime home in Plaza One.
The Amarillo Building
(301 S. Polk)
In 1920, Amarillo was a city of fewer than 16,000 inhabitants and its skyline was primarily a vista of church spires and a few remaining windmills. But the seeds of an urbane cityscape had already been sown in late 1918 with the completion of Masterson No. 1, a gas well north of the city producing 5 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. It was the beginning of a boom in fossil fuel extraction that attracted new wealth to the city and transformed downtown into a modern business center.
Gen. Ernest O. Thompson, a veteran of World War I who would make his name known as a hotelier, mayor and a statewide leader in oil and gas regulation, was the first to build tall in 1925. He chose the Kansas City firm of Shepard & Wiser to design an eight-story office building in two phases at Third and Polk. The north tower came first, followed by a second adjoining tower identical to the first about a year later. Both units quickly filled with professionals engaged in the oil and gas business.
Upon completion of the second tower in December 1926, a front-page story in the Dec. 19 edition of the Amarillo Sunday News-Globe laid it on thick: “Towering paramount in a city of rapidly growing skyscrapers—the Amarillo Building—the first accomplishment in high buildings in this city, stands as a living memorial to faith, conception and achievement.”
The Amarillo Building has seen many iterations since, but at this late date is still keeping the faith as a premier office address, a testament to its solid design and general appeal.
Barfield Building/Barfield Hotel
(600 S. Polk)
As Amarillo’s oil boom gained steam in the mid 1920s, it wasn’t long until someone decided to build just a bit higher, and that someone was an Amarillo developer with a history of defying convention.
Melissa Dora Oliver-Eakle, a wealthy Mississippi widow, came to Amarillo in the 1890s to join her brothers and invest her considerable wealth in land. By the 1920s she was developing real estate for residential and commercial uses and announced plans in 1926 to build an office building at Sixth and Polk.
The first press reports of Oliver-Eakle’s building mentioned a height of only eight floors. But as the boom raged on, “the Duchess” as she was known, blew the lid off the brick ceiling in downtown Amarillo and went for 10.
Noted Fort Worth architect Wyatt C. Hedrick designed a stately office tower crowned with a classical entablature and Corinthian pilasters. The building officially opened in the spring of 1927, housing a variety of professional offices, and a little bit more.
“A leader in the temperance movement, she (Oliver-Eakle) was smart enough to have a speakeasy in her office building,” said Beth Duke, executive director of Center City of Amarillo referring to the Paramount Recreation Club in the basement.
Eventually the Duchess’s grandson, B.R. Barfield, took charge and renamed it the Barfield Building. By the late ’80s the building emptied out, and after sitting vacant and neglected for more than 30 years, it was resurrected as The Barfield, Autograph Collection hotel, in 2021.
Fisk Medical Arts and Professional
Building/Courtyard by Marriott Downtown
(724 S. Polk)
Architect Guy Carlander came to Amarillo in the service of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1919 and struck out on his own in 1920. There was no better time for an architect to leave their mark on the city.
When the tall buildings began to rise, they grew in the traditional business core of lower Polk. But by 1926, Charles A. Fisk, president of Amarillo Bank and Trust, was convinced downtown’s future was to the south and laid plans for an 11-story Polk Street edifice at Eighth Avenue to house his bank and prove his point.
Fisk added some sizzle by hiring Carlander, fresh off designing Northwest Texas Hospital. Carlander set the Fisk Building apart by using a dark red brick and employing some of the same Gothic design elements that made his hospital so alluring. The crowning glory was the offsetting terracotta trim and finials on the upper floors—adding just enough without saying too much.
Unlike some of the other 1920s skyscrapers, the Fisk never dissolved into ruin before it was adapted for new purposes. A 1970s makeover updated the interiors and it remained in service as an office building up to the point it was retrofitted to become The Courtyard by Marriott hotel in 2010.
(219 S. Polk)
W.S. Rule was employed by the LX Ranch and served as the manager of the Henry B. Sanborn Estate. But it’s safe to surmise his foray into commercial property had much to do with the real estate bonanza of oil boom Amarillo.
He hired Shepard & Wiser, the same Kansas City architects who designed the neighboring Amarillo Building, to craft a simple but attractive eight-story brick and terracotta structure at Third and Polk, with a three-story garage on its northern flank.
In 1947, Southwestern Public Service Company purchased the building for its new headquarters. SPS added modern touches in the early ’50s, hiring the young artist Stefan Kramar to paint a 20-foot ground floor mural of Reddy Kilowatt commanding horsepower incarnate with his lightning bolts above scenes of progress. SPS reclad the ground floor exterior in polished granite panels and retrofitted the upper garage floors in a highly modern Mad Men aesthetic.
By the 1960s SPS had outgrown its home and finally vacated the Rule Building in 1971 for its lofty new headquarters in the American National Bank/SPS Tower on Tyler Street. Though later attempts were made to breathe life into the Rule, it has remained entirely empty for the past 30-plus years.
Santa Fe General Office Building
(900 S. Polk)
With its enormous neon-trimmed red letters spelling out “Santa Fe” on all four sides of its crown, the Santa Fe Building has long served as a beacon for travelers coming into the city. For more than 40 years, it reigned supreme as Amarillo’s tallest building.
The 1908 arrival of the Santa Fe railroad was a watershed moment for the city, firmly establishing Amarillo as a national transportation hub. The Santa Fe continued to expand, and by the late 1920s it was estimated the railroad accounted for one-sixth of all business activity in the city. In 1928, the railroad broke ground at Ninth and Polk on an elegant but highly functional skyscraper home for its 585 office workers.
Prolific and talented Santa Fe company architect E.A Harrison, who also conceived the Santa Fe Depot on Grant Street, had the privilege of designing the new $1.5 million skyscraper that opened in 1930.
The 14-floor, gothic-inspired Santa Fe Building expresses a modern, almost art deco feel. Clad entirely in pale terracotta, it is radiant in the daylight and casts an alpenglow of muted oranges and reds as the sun rises and falls.
Corporate restructuring and downsizing in the 1980s took a toll on the Santa Fe’s white collar employment in Amarillo, and by decade’s end the railroad turned out the lights and mothballed its downtown showplace. Potter County purchased it for office space in the 1990s, and after a restoration funded largely by federal transportation grants, the building reopened to the public in 2000. The red neon letters were relit atop the building, bringing back some of the magic downtown had lost over the years.
Amarillo National Bank Plaza Two
(500 S. Taylor)
As Amarillo’s recovery from the economic sucker punch of the 1960s picked up speed, Richard and Bill Ware, sons of Plaza One’s driving force B.T. “Tol” Ware II, focused their energies on rebuilding Amarillo’s economy and expanding the influence of the bank their family had controlled since the 1890s.
ANB’s rivalry with the mighty First National Bank of Amarillo was also a great motivator, as Richard Ware remembers, and played a role in beefing up Amarillo’s skyline in the ’70s and ’80s.
“First National dominated things. They had that big strong board and they were doing most of the stuff. Bill and I really started going after them though,” says Ware.
In the mid-70s, First National developed a five-story headquarters at Seventh and Fillmore along with multiple outlying office buildings connected by underground tunnels. Amarillo National, seeking additional space, answered the challenge in 1984 with a 12-story building that opened as Pioneer Plaza/Plaza Two, designed to house bank functions and the new headquarters for Amarillo-based Pioneer Corporation.
Plaza Two, located across Fifth Avenue from Plaza One along Taylor Street, was distinctly different from anything that had come before. The Dallas architectural firm of Harwood K. Smith and Partners designed a modified rhombus floor plan that provided a greater share of corner offices. Covered head to toe in mirrored glass, it has a chameleon-like ability to blaze an Amarillo sunrise or take on the puffy clouds of a summer day. Upon completion, Plaza Two was the face of a new, post-bust Amarillo that hadn’t forgotten how to dream big.
Then things got a little weird in Amarillo, again. A global energy bust hit Texas hard in the late 1980s. Pioneer, threatened by hostile takeover, was compelled to sell
its struggling nonregulated business to downtown neighbor T. Boone Pickens at Mesa Petroleum, leaving the top four floors of Plaza Two mostly vacant. Pickens grudgingly honored a 10-year lease, but the dissolution of Pioneer was an unexpected setback for Amarillo’s newest tall building.
Since those days, Amarillo’s economy has diversified considerably. It didn’t take long after Pioneer’s departure to fill the empty space at Plaza Two, and the building is still considered a top-tier downtown office address. Bill Ware saw this location as the heart of Amarillo, and after his passing in 2012, the bank placed a large red heart at the entrance of Plaza Two. It doesn’t just memorialize his vision, but beats for the city that still dreams of touching the sky.