Knights' Tale

Another historic emblem of black Dallas stands on the brink

Pittman's death certificate lists his final address as 3115 State St., then the location of the Powell Hotel & Court, the first black-owned hotel in Dallas, where, in the 1930s, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Joe Louis stayed. The hotel, like Pittman, is no longer: It burned to the ground in 1975.

The truth is Pittman never had much to do with the Pythian Temple after it was built. It was just a job, nothing more. It just so happens that its fortunes were about the same as its creator's: Around the time Pittman was getting out of prison, a woman sued the fraternal lodge's insurance company, claiming it hadn't paid benefits after her husband died. Legal and financial wrangling ensued, and the building went into receivership. The Pythians tried to stop its sale, but on November 15, 1944, the temple wound up in the hands of a man named Ben Ackerman. He paid $6,500.

For years it changed hands, finally landing in the hands of the Union Bankers Insurance Co. in 1959. The outside was painted white; the inside was turned into a standard office building. The dance floor was covered up, and walls were built, reducing the ballroom into nothing more than a workspace with a view.

Courtesy Dallas Public Library
The interior of the Knights of Pythias is covered in spray paint, water damage and pigeon feces.
Mark Roberts
The interior of the Knights of Pythias is covered in spray paint, water damage and pigeon feces.

And nobody thought much of the building for years—kind of like Deep Ellum in the years after North Central Expressway cut it off from downtown. It wasn't till 1984 that folks around town began hearing once more about William Pittman and the Knights of Pythias. Al Lipscomb, then fresh on the city council, began pushing for the building's designation as a historic landmark, which would have meant Union Bankers and its Louisville, Kentucky, parent company, I.C.H. Corp., couldn't alter the building without the Landmark Commission's and city council's approval. I.C.H. was furious, and despite the outcry from the black community, the council refused designation in '84. Lipscomb would later say he pushed too hard.

In 1989, local preservationists and the Dallas Times Herald editorial board again called for the building's designation, and again, I.C.H. steadfastly opposed the measure. "We believe that a major Dallas employer deserves better treatment," wrote its corporate spokesman to the head of the city's Department of Planning and Development. I.C.H. said designation would reduce the building's value by $1 million.

In the fall of 1989, the Landmark Commission voted unanimously to designate the Knights of Pythias Temple. It was the first time the commission had done so over the objections of the building's owner.

Last week, for the first time in six years, Dallas officials in charge of preservation and development stepped foot in the Knights of Pythias Temple and were displeased with what they saw. They discovered, to their horror but not surprise, two holes in the roof and evidence of considerable water damage on the floors. Wood was rotting, and interior bricks were damp from the lack of ventilation. The adjoining two-story building, once part of the Union Bankers complex, allowed easy rooftop access into the historic building, meaning that anyone who could get to the top of the smaller structure could get inside the old temple.

Only, according to both Mark Doty, the city's historic district planner, and Preservation Dallas' Katherine Seale, the building's owners insist they had no idea it's a landmark. According to both, during separate interviews, the woman who let them into the temple told them, "We weren't sure it was a historic landmark." Which is difficult to believe: The "we" is Westdale Asset Management, which purchased the building for between $4 million and $5 million in April 1998 with the intention of turning it into a "mixed-use development," as The Dallas Morning News reported back then. Westdale had earlier converted the Adam Hat Factory on Canton Street into apartments. Of course they know it's historic.

That hasn't stopped Westdale from letting the building rot, so much so that Doty and Seale were touring the property to see if it had become a victim of "demolition by neglect." According to an earlier "demolition by neglect" study, the city determined in July 2001 that "the building is not watertight and is exposed to the weather elements" but apparently did little to pressure Westdale into fixing the problems. Doty insists the city won't let that happen again.

"We will look over their shoulder and put them on notice," he says, adding that he wants Westdale to have fixed the problems no later than February, lest he refer the building to the City Attorney's Office. In a letter he sent to Westdale last week, Doty said that "if the issues mentioned above and in particular, the holes in the roof are not corrected immediately, the building will continue to deteriorate."

Westdale's vice president (and former SMU quarterback) Chuck Hixson sent Doty a brief response that said, "We will set a course of action to address your concerns and meet your suggestions. Thank you for taking time to review the property and for providing helpful suggestions." This is the same Hixson who's prone to hanging up on reporters who ask questions about historic landmarks such as the Pythian Temple.

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