Tallest building in Texas is in Denison, in 1891

As we wait for the building that has housed the Katy Antique Station for a number of years to be dismantled, and anticipate having two vacant lots in Downtown Denison, an item in the “Look through the past” column on Friday reminded me of another vacant lot left when a historic building was torn down.

But thank goodness another building was placed there and it has been “business as usual” for many years. Hopefully before long the entire 700 block West Main that was home to Denison High School, then McDaniel Junior High from 1914 until 1965 and the building lot down by the station that is waiting for to be razed will also a new lease on life. We could use any number of things in both locations – maybe a nice restaurant down by the station something really special at the west end of Main.

Once upon a time, as many good stories begin, the tallest building in Texas was in downtown Denison. You’ll have to remember that this wasn’t in recent days, but in 1891. The building was so tall that the top floor was declared unsafe and was removed a few years after it was built.

First known as the Leeper Building, then later as the Security Building, it had a towering five stories at 331 West Main, present location of Independent Bank in the “new” building that sprang up after the demolition of the 1891 building.

The “look through the past” column compiled by JoAnn Ecker Friday listed in Dec. 7, 1952, the 60 years ago section, included an item about the Denison City Council ordering the condemnation and razing of the 63 year old Security Building that was called the “first skyscraper in Texas.”

The building was owned at that time by K Wolens Inc., of Corsicana that had a department store about half a block to the east. The building had been designed by a French architect named LeLardo and was built by John B. Leeper and J.T. Baldrick.

When they began excavating for the foundation, they ran into stubborn rock that financially wrecked the original group of backers. The hole that had been dug filled with water when it rained, giving Main Street a real swimming pool for a while.

As the building finally began to go up, those who watched the construction worried about the height of the five story building. True to their warnings, the fifth floor, with its high pitched roof and giant replica of a coffee pot on top, was found to be a safety hazard and was removed a few years after it was built.

In the beginning a wholesale hardware enterprise occupied the building. It housed a bank and for many years offices of medical doctors, dentists and lawyers along with insurance offices and a small elevator that took patients and customers to the designated floors. Overlooking the ornately carved entrance was an even more ornately carved head that became known as “Old Stoneface.” It was said that the unusual ornament was chiseled in place by a French sculptor who would hammer a while, then visit one of the nearby saloons for his “coffee break.”

In the front part of the building was the Bluebonnet Café that was replaced by the Ration Board that opened to issue ration stamps during World War II.

In 1940 a young Carrie Cole was hired to operate the elevator. Most weeks she worked seven days from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. and loved her job meeting just about everyone in town at one time or another. She remembers every one of them and which floor most of them officed.

The day the Wolens Realty Co., owner of K Wolens Department Store, bought the building her pay as raised to $1 an hour and she was given a week’s vacation and her work days were cut to six a week. One doctor got upset because he said he had patients coming down on Sunday. The Wolens people told him he could operate the elevator himself on those days.

There are some questions about what went on in the basement of the Security Building. As a young Camp Fire Girl, I remember having the Dad and Daughter box supper and some other activities down there. That would have been in the mid 1940s.

Carrie has different remembrances. She said whiskey was sold illegally by bootleggers out of the basement. Next door was a pool hall and Carrie said she never knew what transpired over there, but one day Policeman Griffin came by and questioned her about the basement and the pool hall. She told him that she didn’t know anything about it. Whether he was serious or not, he threatened to put her in jail if she didn’t tell him what she knew.

Carrie told him “I don’t run this elevator sideways, I go up and down,” and that broke Officer Griffin up.

It was in December 1952 when the building was condemned and in September 1953 it was scheduled to be torn down. Wreckers arrived and went to work on Feb. 1, 1954. There was no uprising of residents who wanted to keep the eyesore. History wasn’t as important to them then as it is now. However, The Denison Herald had reported the decision to demolish the building as “Death of a Denison Landmark.”

‘Old Stoneface’ toppled to its face on May 31 and got the last word when it crushed the sidewalk beneath and crashed partway into the basement.

Three years after the building came down, Lilley-Linn Department Store opened a three floor modern building designed by Donald Mayes. It operated until 1967 when Lilley’s moved to the new Madden building that had been constructed after a tremendous fire destroyed the original Madden’s Department Store. In 1968 Lilley’s expanded its Men and Boys Store and moved it into the 331 West Main building. Later it was remodeled for the Independent Bank that still operates there.

Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at d.hunt_903@yahoo.com.