Knights' Tale

The crumbling white building sits at the end of Elm Street, bracketed by a patch of dirt and a construction site. Its only tenants are a pair of wasps living in a light fixture dangling from a rotting overhang—round and round they go, like guards on watch. Some nights others live there: the homeless for whom padlocks and plywood are no match or who sneak in through a rooftop hatch. For years, graffiti artists have used its interior walls as canvases.

The building has been there since 1916, a thousand lifetimes when measured in Dallas years, but the few who remember it as something other than bricks piled in a parking lot recall it only as the Union Bankers building. Last time anyone heard from the insurance company was in the 1980s: Their big bosses in Kentucky were stomping mad, trying to keep Dallas' preservationists from designating the building as One Thou Shalt Not Tear Down With a Wrecking Ball. They huffed and puffed right out of town after a fight for preservation that lasted five years. And after changing hands a few more times, the building still sits at the corner of Elm Street and Good-Latimer Expressway—neglected, unloved even by its current owners.

Look closely and you will see a few red bricks peeking out from beneath the peeling white paint. Beneath those layers lies the real building—the one you can't quite see, the one whose story defines much of Deep Ellum's yesterdays and tomorrows.

The building is there by the design and demand of one of the most famous, anonymous men in this city's history. Its architect was William Sidney Pittman—Booker T. Washington's son-in-law, though Pittman would scowl at you for saying so, because as much as he owed the man, he did not like living in Washington's estimable shadow. Pittman, whose career was described as "illustrious" in 2004's African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary 1865-1945, was a brilliant, angry and, in time, forgotten man. Two years in federal prison helped to erase him from this city's memory; he died broke, spending his final years bouncing from one hotel to another.

But he left behind the Knights of Pythias Temple, the grandest achievement amongst his many storied accomplishments. It was, in the early 1900s, the hub of Dallas' then-thriving middle-class black community—a social see-and-be-seen and a business center, among its many purposes. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, George Washington Carver and Marcus Garvey were featured guests as well.

"This building was the black professional building," says author and historian Alan Govenar. "It was a meeting ground of the best minds of the day."

Adds Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, "It's a signal of an era where African-Americans in this city understood that they could in fact produce something within the confines of whatever constraints were out there."

But it would not stay that way forever—20 years, give or take. Then it would begin its tumultuous journey toward this moment, when it sits on a street corner surrounded by other rotting corpses. Until a few weeks ago, no one even seemed to notice. Or mind. Only in recent days, in fact, has the city begun pressuring the building's owner to take care of the building, as befitting its status as a Dallas historical landmark.

It began with a tossed-off comment made on a KERA-90.1 FM talk show over the summer, a rumor offered as fact. Someone's bought the Knights of Pythias! They're going to redevelop it! At last! It turned out not to be true, but it did spark renewed interest in the Knights of Pythias Temple amongst those who live and work in Deep Ellum. Suddenly, people cared again. And just in time.

"What has happened to the building is obviously very disheartening," says Katherine Seale, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Dallas. "It's such a great structure. There have been so many efforts to revitalize Deep Ellum over the years, and throughout them all, the Knights of Pythias building is such a focus, because it's such a historic landmark—not just architecturally, but as a social institution for Dallas' African-American community and also as the center of Dallas' blues scene. Everybody recognizes there is great potential for Deep Ellum, so when you see structures underutilized, like the Knights of Pythias, which is the crown jewel of the district, it's disheartening."

In recent years, there have been plans both extravagant and modest to rescue the temple. They all failed. But let us be clear about this up front: This is not another tale about the death of Deep Ellum, because there are only so many times you can bury the same corpse.

In some ways, this is the story of what-ifs and why-nots: What if a 1999 proposed development had indeed transformed the building from an empty shell into the epicenter of a glorious multi-use development designed by the W Hotel's architects and Todd Oldham? And why didn't it happen? It's also the story of great opportunity and potential—and the story of William Sidney Pittman, about whom so many mysteries remain 50 years after his death.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky