If These Walls Could Talk – Storied Buildings In Wichita Falls
I love Wichita Falls.
The longer I live here, the more history, character and mystery I find. For instance, we’ve got some really interesting buildings in town, each with their own story or two. Did you know that the Kemp Center For The Arts used to be the Public Library? And it was a gift to the wife of one of our city’s founders?
Did you know that Elvis played Wichita Falls in the ’50s and the venue he performed in is still standing? (Here’s a clue, it was not the Wichita Theatre!)
Did you know that one of our downtown buildings has been mentioned in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not?
Those things are all true and well documented, but aside from the obvious, there is still a lot of mystery surrounding some of these “Storied” buildings!
Kell house museum
Most Wichitans know that the families of Joseph Kemp and Frank Kell played a big role in the establishment and growth of our fair city, so it’s no wonder to find the old Kell House now serving as a museum.
At the corner of 9th and Bluff, the Kell House Museum is filled with furniture, artifacts and stories from the family of Frank Kell. The house is maintained by the Wichita County Heritage Society and is open for tours on a regular basis. The Kell family purchased the land in 1909 and the home became a showcase of Wichita Falls history in 1982.
Hangar m-d – a.k.a. the m-b corral
There’s no shortage of music history in Wichita Falls. I first learned of the M-B Corral when reading the book Playing By Heart, Carroll Wilson’s biography of Leon Gibbs. If you’re a musician, you’ve heard of Sam Gibbs Music here in town, but you may not know of the Gibbs Brothers’ reputation in the music world of the ’40s and ’50s. It seems that twins Sam and Nathaniel, along with their brother Leon were primary figures in the Miller Brothers band. They were based in Wichita Falls but played their brand of western swing far and wide. By calling the band the Miller Brothers, Sam could recommend his own band when functioning as booking agent without sounding pretentious.
What is now the Hangar M-D, VFW Post 2147, opened as the M-B Corral in 1950 and has played host to any number of performers over the years including Elvis when he was just getting started.
Kemp center for the arts
It’s hard to believe when you walk into the Kemp Center For The Arts, but it had its beginning as the first Public Library in Wichita Falls.
Back in the 1890s, Wichita Falls didn’t have a library, so Flora Kemp and several of her friends would trade books among themselves. In 1916, when Frank Kemp asked his wife what she wanted for Christmas, she saw her chance and asked for a library. The building and about 4,000 books were presented to the city of Wichita Falls in 1918. The building continued to function as a library until the Ray Climber Exibit Hall was opened as part of the MPEC and the old Activities Building became the new Public Library. The beautiful, but in need of repair, old building stood empty for a while until David White issued a challenge to the Wichita Falls Arts Council to revive the old library building into a hub for the arts in 1998. The doors to the Kemp Center For The Arts were opened to the public in 2002. The building and grounds play host to any number of artistic displays with several galleries inside and a sculpture garden outside. The Great Room on the second floor also serves as a popular location for wedding parties, anniversary celebrations and musical performances on a regular basis.
I’m also told that the ghost of Flora Kemp still plays tricks on the staff from time to time.
The wichita theatre
The Wichita Theatre is one of the crown jewels of downtown Wichita Falls. Now in its 103rd year, this grand old theatre has seen the transition from live vaudeville performances to silent movies to talkies back to live theatre productions.
A designated Texas Historic Landmark, the Wichita Theatre regularly stages plays and musicals (Click here for my earlier posts on Hairspray, running through July 23rd) with local talent, and frequently showcases traveling musical acts. The next musical showcase is Rock N Roll Heaven, a tribute show to performers Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley, and is scheduled for Friday, July 29th.
As part of their ongoing efforts to bring kids into the performing arts, the Wichita Theatre recently opened the Performing Arts Center. Occupying the footprint of the old Noble Hardware building the Performing Arts Center functions as the box office and snack bar for the theatre, provides studio space for voice, instrument and acting lessons as well as seating and presentation space for parties and meetings.
The littlest skyscraper
And now to one of my favorite buildings in Wichita Falls. The Littlest Skyscraper.
You’ll find it downtown at the corner of 7th and LaSalle. In fact, the front door to the original skyscraper faced what was then called Lee’s Alley. The city later renamed that narrow stretch of street, LaSalle.
As the story goes, the McMahon building was completed in 1919 in the midst of the oil boom. A con man had been making the rounds of North Texas towns trying to sell them on the idea of a skyscraper to make their town more modern. Most towns turned him down. Wichita Falls signed up.
The con came in the form of scale. Where most blueprints are drawn on a scale of feet, this con man had converted some of his measurements to inches without telling the investors. When finished, the building stood 40 feet high, 18 feet deep and 10 feet wide. When they realized what was going on the investors tried to file a lawsuit against the builder but were told that the contract was binding since the drawings were signed. Some of the investor’s money was recovered because the company contracted to install an elevator (It is a skyscraper, after all!) realized they would not be able to complete the contract and returned their fee.
The building is currently the home of Artifact Emporium, an eclectic collection of antique and vintage items. You can still climb all the way to the top of the skyscraper any time the Emporium is open, Monday through Saturday.
The building was featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as “The World’s Littlest Skyscraper” in the 1920s. The building was boarded up and forgotten in 1929, then caught fire and all of the interior structure was destroyed in 1931. The interior floors and stairs were rebuilt after the Great Depression and the building has housed various tenants from barber shops to restaurants over the years.
It is also haunted. While I was taking photos for this post I was told that the Artifact Emporium staff make certain that all of the windows in the skyscraper are closed before they leave in the evening. The doors are locked, the alarm system armed, the lights turned off. The next morning three or more of the windows in the upper floors of the skyscraper are locked in the open position. This has apparently happened repeatedly and there’s no explanation in sight.
Hmmmm. That sounds like a good topic for future post …
If only those walls could talk! What stories they could tell!