Knights' Tale

Keep Dallas Observer Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.

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.


Knights of Pythias Temple

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.

The building's fate will arrive soon enough: In two years, DART will open its Green Line rail extension in Deep Ellum, and a new station will open footsteps away from the temple. Trains will unleash the hustlers and bustlers into a Deep Ellum that will welcome them with open arms. But what will those visitors find in 2009? Restored remnants of Dallas' vanishing history or the brand-new shiny future that has erased the footsteps of giants?

The sole remaining copy of the Business and Professional Directory of Colored Persons in Dallas, published in 1911, resides with the Dallas Historical Society. In its preface, its publisher celebrates the "substantial progress among material lines" made by "the American Negro" in the past quarter-century. He cites Booker T. Washington as an inspiration—his autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published only 10 years earlier.

Writes the publisher: "The Dallas Negro, catching the spirit of the times, has gone forth into the marts of trade and sought, with more or less success, to win a place and to make himself and his race a potent factor in the commercial life of his city." That business directory also reveals just how widely scattered black-owned businesses were throughout the city in the days before Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan's rise to political power in Dallas by the mid-1920s. Says Govenar, who co-authored the essential Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged with Jay Brakefield, Dallas back then "had a rapidly growing African-American middle-class."

It was to that Dallas William Sidney Pittman brought his family in 1913. He knew well the teaching of Booker T. Washington: Pittman was his son-in-law, having married his daughter Portia—a classically trained pianist who'd studied in Europe—on October 31, 1907, at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which Washington founded in 1881. An account of their wedding, found amongst Washington's papers at the University of Illinois, describes the ceremony as "the chief social event of the year...simple and impressive in its dignity."

Up till now it's been written that Pittman was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 21, 1875, to former slaves. In truth, he was the illegitimate son of a white lawyer. According to recently discovered prison records from the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas—where Pittman was confined from February 1937 to February 1939—the man he knew as his father, a butcher named Henry Pittman who died when William was 4, was actually his stepfather. Years later, his son, Booker T. Pittman, a jazz musician who settled in Brazil, confirmed it to a biographer: "His father was white," Booker said in a 1984 book published in Portuguese. And his mother, Sarah Baskins, "[was] mulatto," said Booker. "He took after his father in color."

Little is known about Pittman till he attended Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated in 1897. At Tuskegee, Washington took a liking to Pittman and arranged for him to attend Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, where, according to a November 11, 1897, letter Pittman wrote to Washington, he studied "Architecture, Mechanical Drawing, Freehand drawing, water coloring, charcoal work...descript and plane Algebra, History, Gymnastics." Washington even helped pay for his schooling and living expenses, and Pittman left Drexel in 1900 with a degree in architectural drawing. He returned to Tuskegee to teach and pay back his mentor. He would also provide the blueprints for two buildings erected on the Tuskegee campus in 1907.

Drexel's archives record that Pittman left Tuskegee in 1905 after a salary dispute. He moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for a black architect named John Lankford. Months later Pittman had his own firm, and late in 1906, Drexel's Pittman Web page reads, "he entered and won the competition to design the Negro Building at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition." (It has since been demolished, as have many of Pittman's 38 known commissions.) A year later, he married Portia and began his brief, glorious career as an architect, designing the Garfield Elementary Public School and the 12th Street Y.M.C.A. in the District of Columbia. According to African American Architects, President Theodore Roosevelt placed the cornerstone in the Y.M.C.A. building in 1908. Pittman, only three years into his career, was already a giant.

He, Portia and their growing family moved to Dallas in 1913; Pittman received several commissions in Texas, chief among them the temple for the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization formally established in the 1860s. Pittman was hired by the Knights' "colored" fraternity, which began around 1875. According to state records, in June 1911 the Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias of Grand Jurisdiction of Texas bought from Tom Angus a plot of land on Elm Street. The Knights paid Angus $10,666. In 1913, the Pythians announced the land was to be the home of its "State Pythian Temple."

In 1915, the lodge filed with the city Building Permit No. 376, for a "4 story brick lodge building" to be constructed on Elm Street. Walton Construction Co. was the contractor, using Pittman's plans. City records show the cost of the building, the Pythians' Texas headquarters, as $736, which, say several local historians, can't be right.

It opened in 1916 and housed Dallas' first black dentist and first black surgeon, among many other professionals for whom the temple was a godsend. Lawyers and accountants (including former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb's grandfather) worked out of the building, as did the few insurance companies that would sell policies to blacks. There was a barbershop, and black high schools and colleges held their graduation ceremonies and dances in the grand fourth-floor ballroom, its arched windows providing a spectacular view of the burgeoning downtown.

Eighty-one-year-old Louis Bedford, among the first black judges from Dallas appointed to the federal bench, recalls going to dances at the Pythian Temple after he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1942 and during his time at Prairie View A&M University. Long before that, his grandfather had been the Pythians' grand secretary, with an office in the building.

"Very few people who are acquainted with the building are in existence," Bedford says. "Most are passed on. People who are in their 40s, 50s , 60s have no recollection of that building. They just saw it as a building the insurance company used. It's a shame."

But all you really need to know is this: "The building at 2551 Elm remains the only commercial structure in Dallas built for blacks, by blacks, with black money," the Dallas Times Herald noted in 1986. Today, says Whit Meyers, former owner of the Gypsy Tea Room, which sat directly across from the Pythian Temple: "That building, more than any other in Deep Ellum, is a flagship, an icon, a symbol."

William Sidney Pittman would design other buildings around town—most notably, the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, which still stands as an office building on Good-Latimer Expressway—but he didn't get much work after the temple's completion. Ruth Stewart, a professor at New York University and the biographer of Portia Pittman in 1977, always believed that was because whites weren't comfortable using a black architect, and blacks with money hired white architects.

But it was more than that: Pittman could be mean to strangers and to his own family.

"From his mother he inherited that primitive discipline, giving severe punishments," Booker Pittman recounted in the 1984 book. "Beatings and whippings which lasted until he was exhausted and we children [were] left semi-conscious. Later on, as we grew older, my brother Sidney, the oldest, and my sister, the youngest, and myself decided to give father the characteristic title of 'Big Pitt.' Physically he wasn't a big man, but he had the headstrong, disciplined personality."

That personality forced Portia Pittman, a beloved music instructor at the high school named for her father, to leave her husband in 1928.

A year later, Pittman embarked upon his second career: publisher and writer of the newspaper Brotherhood Eyes, known as "a newspaper that doesn't cross the color line." It read like Hunter Thompson filtered through an alto sax. It was ahead of its time by decades in its content and use of language ("A gang of cake starters hung around her house day and night, piano playing half the night and all the day long and such bumping and thumping").

It contained "serious and frivolous news items of Negro life in Dallas," and often featured stories about shootings, hidden "love nests" and other scandals reported back to him by his Eye-spies across the state and throughout the South. At the cost of a nickel, the paper was a must-read in the black community: "I can remember people saying, 'I'm gonna buy me a copy of the Brotherhood Eyes,'" says Judge Bedford. But it would also serve as Pittman's undoing.

On January 11, 1937, a federal grand jury in Dallas indicted Pittman on charges of using the U.S. mail to distribute material it considered "obscene, lewd, lascivious and of an indecent character." A month later, when Pittman was 61, he was tried in Dallas' federal court. In an affidavit provided to the court, now residing at the Dallas Public Library, postal inspector C.W.B. Long described Pittman as "the brainiest and shrewdest negro who I have met" during his 30 years in Texas. But "the publication of 'Brotherhood Eyes' was doubly insidious in that its resourceful owner and publisher under the guise of uplifting his race was further cleverly demoralizing it."

In February 1937 he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison; he served two. Upon entry to Leavenworth, he was considered by officials there as "emotionally adequate," according to prison records. But Portia would later tell prison officials that "he had become so bitter against his own people [and] seemed to resent the fact many negroes, who built homes at Tuskegee, did not employ him in the construction of their homes. Apparently, it was for this reason that he began his publication in an effort to injure his people as much as possible." His wife said William had become "unbalanced." By July 1938, Pittman was working in the prison library, and his cellmates were demanding he be moved to another cell because he was "very filthy."

Upon his release in 1939, Pittman came back to Dallas, his family long gone and his friends wanting nothing to do with him. He bounced around town for years but was seldom heard from or seen. According to his death certificate, he died on March 14, 1958, of an apparent stroke. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Glen Oaks Cemetery on Hatcher Street; his funeral cost $460, for which others would have to pay, as Pittman was penniless. He would not get a proper grave marker till 1985, thanks to the Dallas Historical Society and John Wiley Price's efforts.

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.

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.

Of course, there have been promises made concerning this property before. In 1996 Dallas developers Cliff Booth and Randy Moses of Southwest Properties Group promised a $15 million development on the site, which was to house retail, restaurants and offices. There was even a news conference announcing the project, and Govenar was brought in to help research the building's history so it could be restored to its former glory. Then...nothing.

Three years later there once again came the whisper of great things: Brady and Brandt Wood—owners of Trees, the Green Room, Jeroboam and the Gypsy Tea Room—were going to convert the entire block into a gargantuan hotel-residential-retail-office complex called, naturally, Epic. Sources close to the project say they wound up spending close to $200,000 on the plans, which would have used the temple as a hotel complete with café, pool and a rehabbed ballroom.

The plans, which Brandt Wood has kept close at hand all these years later, are extravagant—evidence of the involvement of New York-based Rockwell Group, the architectural firm responsible for everything from the W Hotel in Manhattan to Cirque du Soleil in Orlando; Dallas-born designer Todd Oldham, who was hired to make the interiors sparkle; and Dallas-based Corgan Associates, which has rehabbed, among others, the Kirby, Wilson and Davis buildings downtown. In short, imagine Victory Park transplanted onto a single block of Elm Street.

But a downturn in the local economy in 2000 put the project on hold. September 11, 2001, put the project in a box. And then came the new hotels—downtown, Uptown, all over town. Brandt Wood says the W almost chose the temple as its local location in 2002, but instead settled on Victory Park.

"We wanted to preserve the historic features of the hotel," but ultimately, Wood says, the plans were simply "too glamorous" for Deep Ellum. "We dreamt bigger than Deep Ellum could support," Wood says.

Karl Stundins, in the city's Office of Economic Development, says that a small, unnamed company was considering making the temple its headquarters earlier this year, but "it wasn't able to work out a deal with Westdale." It's a common story: Folks get interested in the Knights of Pythias Temple, only to walk away at the end of the day.

Sources say Westdale has actually tried to keep the building empty: "They have plans for that space," says one local developer, "because they've made comments to me like, 'You won't believe what's going to happen to that block,' meaning there will be redevelopment with the rail station." But the Deep Ellum Enrichment Project, consisting of folks who live and work in the neighborhood, worries that Westdale would like nothing more than to raze the building because its landmark status makes developing the entire block a complicated and expensive procedure.

Earlier this summer, it was pointed out on the Dallas Observer's blog that Westdale actually has the building listed on the county tax records as 2505 Elm, not 2551 Elm, the historic address. Fact is, if Westdale went to the city and asked to get 2505 Elm demolished to make room for a parking lot, no one would ever notice. In the meantime, 2551 Elm would get adiosed. The city noticed the blog item and flagged the entire block, lest Westdale try just that.

"We get calls saying, 'Do you know who owns it?' and we refer them to Westdale," Stundins says. "But just because you have a building that looks great and is visible from the highway and is historic doesn't mean it's necessarily easily adapted to a current use." He figures it's too small for a hotel or apartment all by itself; maybe an office. He says what everyone else says: Wait till the DART station opens. Just wait.

In the end, the worst you can say is Westdale has done little to seek out or encourage development, going so far as to reject advances from House of Blues and folks who want to put a Texas music museum in or near Deep Ellum, sources say. And Westdale's done a poor job of taking care of history. But the damage isn't irreparable—not yet, anyway. As several people have said about the building: While it still stands, there is always hope.

"In so many ways, the neglect of this building epitomizes the inability of Dallas to fully come to grips with its own past, which, in effect, means we can't move meaningfully into the future," Govenar says. "It is the anchor of Deep Ellum. It's the most important building in Deep Ellum, and it lies vacant and neglected. But it is still beautiful. It still has integrity, even with the layers of paint and bird poop covering it. It still has this stately quality. And it will never lose it."

Not while it still stands.

Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.