The Fight Over the Old Hard Rock Cafe Building Just Got a Little More...Interesting

Reverend J. Frank Norris raised the funds to build the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church, which would, decades later, become the Hard Rock Cafe. Norris was also a good friend of the Ku Klux Klan's.

On Monday, the city's Landmark Commission is once more meeting to decide the fate of the former church sitting at 2601 McKinney Ave. -- otherwise known as the Hard Rock Cafe, till its closing earlier this month. As readers of Unfair Park no doubt know by now, some residents of the neighborhood are trying to get the building designated as a city landmark, which would make it impossible to significantly alter or tear down the property without the city council's OK. But the Hard Rock Cafe and developer Brett Landes, who is trying to purchase the property, are fighting the designation, lest Landes get tangled in downtown red tape every time he wants to make the slightest alteration to a property that barely resembles the original structure built in 1910.

In recent weeks, we've had a few folks -- including council member Angela Hunt -- offer their reasons why the former McKinney Avenue Baptist Church needs the protection that comes with designation, chief among them the building's history. It was, after all, designed by Charles Bulger, who, with his son Clarence, is responsible for some of Dallas' landmark buildings, among them the Gaston Avenue Baptist Church (which became the Criswell College) and the 1907-constructed Praetorian Building at 1607 Main Street, considered the first skyscraper in the Southwest.

But yesterday, attorney and former State District Judge Eric Moye, who represents the Hard Rock whenever it has legal issues in Texas, told Unfair Park it's nothing more than a building -- and one with a sordid past that, as far as he's concerned, isn't worth protecting whatsoever. As it turns out, the man who raised the money for the church's construction had a very close relationship with the Ku Klux Klan and famously preached against Catholicism.

And if that isn't enough to get the city to keep its hands off the former church, Moye also said that should the city designated the building, well, it just might affect Hard Rock's interest in building a hotel in Victory Park. [jump]

In the so-called "Statement of Historical Significance" filed with the Landmark Designation Committee, one of the reasons supporters of designation give for the building's importance is the fact that its first minister -- indeed, the one who oversaw the construction of the church beginning in 1906 -- was the Reverend J. Frank Norris, who, says the document, "held revival on the lot next to the future site of the church at the corner of McKinney Avenue and Routh Street." Also, says the filing, during Norris' tenure, "the church grew to over 400 members and a substantial portion of the funds (over $25,000) need for the new building was raised."

But Moye isn't impressed with the Norris connection. Indeed, he's appalled by it -- because Norris was a good friend of the Ku Klux Klan's and a man accused of having burned down his Fort Worth Baptist church and parsonage in 1912 and of murder a few years later.

He was acquitted of arson after a lengthy trial, but there is no doubt that Norris killed an innocent man: In 1927, Time magazine reported that a man named Dexter E. Chipps went to Norris' study in the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth "to remonstrate against the evangelist's utterances upon Chipps' close friend, Mayor H. C. Meacham of Fort Worth." The magazine reported that Norris "believed that angry Mr. Chipps had come to kill him," so he shot first -- only to discover Chipps was unarmed. Norris was found not guilty by a jury in Austin.

Moye also produced two letters that, he says, prove Norris' Klan ties. On March 27, 1928, Norris received a letter from Mrs. W. A. Ash, the "Excellent Commander" of the Fort Worth division of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, in which she praised a "wonderful sermon" Norris had recently delivered.

"While you did not say that it was a Klan Sermon but those of us who were fortunete [sic] enough to have heard it, both over the Radio and in the Church feel like it was," Ash wrote. "We are behind you and if at any time we can serve you let us know. Wishing you success in your great work, we are sincerely yours in the Sacred Unfailing Bond."

Two days later, Norris sent Ash a brief response.

"This is to acknowledge yours of the 27th inst. Kindly bear my appreciation to all the members of your esteemed order. Good woman and true men who stand in these days of peril are a great encouragement to those of us who are fighting the battles. Yours very truly JFN."

Those letters come directly from the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.

When the Landmark Commission's designation committee turned in its report to the commission, it cited five reasons the building merits designation -- among them, "History, heritage and culture"; "Architect or master builder"; "Unique visual feature"; and "Historic education." But the fifth is the one with which Moye has a problem -- the one marked "Significant persons." The city's standard designation form defines that as the building's "identification with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the culture and development of the city, state, or country." Why, Moye asks, would the city want to designate -- which is to say, celebrate and commemorate -- a building constructed with the hefty assistance of a preacher with known ties to the Ku Klux Klan?

"Implicit in that statement is the person had to have made a positive contribution," Moye tells Unfair Park. "Say what you will: He raised a lot of money. Big deal. He was only pastor there for two years. When the building was completed, he moved to Fort Worth, where he founded a theological seminary -- and in one of his first graduating classes was John Birch...

"The city code says, 'With a person or persons who significantly contributed to the culture and development of the city, state, or country.' Well, if you want to interpret that as, 'Hitler slept here, and it's a landmark,' that's fine, but it's not a public service. In fact, that's quite to the contrary. If Angela Hunt or some other council member says, 'I want to designate the good as well as the bad,' then go ahead and do it. I just don't think that's apporpriate."

In that "Statement of Historical Significance," there is a paragraph devoted to Norris' ties to the Klan -- but they're also, more or less, dismissed. Cited is the 2005 book God's Rascal: J. Frank Norris and the Beginning of Southern Fundamentalism by Barry Hankins, which, the memo says, "suggests that Norris was not a member of the KKK but at times made references to the Klan during the 1920s." But there is no disputing the fact that Norris was against pretty much everything else -- including Darwinism, Roman Catholicism and organized labor. Indeed, in the mid-1920s Southern Baptist statesman L.R. Scarborough warned about the cult of "Norrisism," which "uses the pulpit, the press and the radio to create suspicion, to foment class prejudices and to vent its hatred against innocent personalities and institutions."

Nonetheless, Moye says Norris' connection to the building is not the only reason he's opposed to its designation -- far from it.

"I raise this issue because Victoria Clowe, who is the chair of the Landmark Commission's recommendation committee, spent most of her time at the meeting earlier this month advocating [the building's designation because of the] unique character of this guy Norris. I think that's probably, of the five criteria they're using, the best one they've got. After all, there is no real historic context in area. There's nothing left from the 'old' McKinney Avenue area that's historic. You have new restaurants, high-rise offices, luxury condos, a Starbucks. It's not a historic district.

"And the building had a unique visual feature when it was the church: a beautiful gold dome. But that was removed in the 1940s. The picture the advocates use has a gold dome on it, but it was moved over to Gaston Avenue Baptist Church, which burned down. So the dome is no longer a dome anywhere. And then they say the building as such it represents an era of social and economic history, but if you look at it now, it doesn't have any such thing. It's just an old building... There has been so much renovation over the last 40 years, there's nothing unique about it or worthy of historical status."

The way Moye figures it, residents in the neighborhood -- many of whom live in the La Tour condos -- want the former Hard Rock stamped as a landmark for one simple reason: They don't want someone to come in one day and tear down the building so they can erect a high-rise that will block their view of downtown. That may be true in some instances, but several Friends of Unfair Park -- some of whom were involved in the drafting of the initial designation paperwork -- insist otherwise. They say they just want to keep at least some bit of McKinney Avenue's history intact, lest the entire stretch turn into a stretch of bar-code buildings and eateries.

And Angela Hunt takes issue with Moye's claims that the landmark designation will hamper Landes' ability to rent the building to someone who would need to further alter its interior or exterior.

"We can make this a bonus for the developer, because if they want to do a jazz club or need extra parking or whatever else, we can work with them in a way we wouldn't work be able to work with them otherwise," she says. "He's trying to color the whole landmarking process like it were some horrible process where you can never paint the outside of your building and you have to go through miles of red tape with the city, but it can be a very positive process. We have a number of buildings in downtown that are useful, that have benefited from designation. So I just don't buy we're going to kill a deal or make this building unsellable. Also, it would be much more productive to come to the table and say, 'This isn't what we want to protect and this is what we want to do to the building.' But to throw out the KKK or that we're going to destroy a deal in another part of the city, that's not productive at all."

Which brings us, at last, to the Hard Rock's proposed hotel in Victory Park, which was mentioned for the first time anywhere at the early March Landmark Commission meeting. Moye says the Hard Rock is "dabbling with the idea of doing a hotel in Victory," but that his client became upset when they discovered, 10 days before they were to close the deal with Landes, that some folks in the neighborhood had filed for landmark designation.

"So I went to one of the neighborhood meetings, and the fear was someone would tear it down and put up a 20-story office tower," he says. "It freaked out folks living in La Tour, who said, 'I can't believe they will destroy this and build an edifice that will block our view of downtown.' And someone else said, 'Well, if we get it designated, they can't tear it down.' This is nothing but, at its core, a disguised zoning issue. By the way, I am aware of no plans to build any such thing, and the buyer has said he has no plans to do any such thing, so how the story of how we're going to tear down paradise and put up a big ol' building got started, I have no idea."

On Monday, this should all be resolved: Either the Landmark Commission will buy Moye's arguments that the building is hollow bit of ancient history, or it will grant the designation, and Landes will back out the deal, as he's threatened. And should that happen, just maybe Hard Rock's plans for a hotel in Victory Park -- if they actually exist -- will vanish along with Landes' check for a piece of property that currently sits empty.

"What I said a few weeks ago was Hard Rock is considering doing a development in Victory, and one of the components is the sale of this property," Moye says. "There's certain. If you decide you're going to buy a new home, most of us need to sell our present home before we can move into a new home. Is the Victory project absolutely contingent on the sale of this? I can't speak to that. I don't know. But it only makes common sense that the two are related."

Moye does say Hard Rock will not take the city to court should the designation occur. They'll just accept the loss and move on. But Hard Rock does worry that the designation will affect its viability as a project for future developers.

"If they grant the designation, that building will sit vacant," he says. "It's not as if after the designation is done, they they gotta go back and remake it into a Hard Rock Cafe or the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church again. Those things don't happen. The city has a lot of power, but they can't make people go back in time. So it stays empty for a long time, and if I live in that neighborhood, that's the last thing I'd want." --Robert Wilonsky

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky