Putting Up

Lynda Nichols saved a significant piece of Wharton's square. And it's costing her dearly.

A few hundred miles and a generation in time separated Lynda Nichols from Harry Burger, but they both had an acquired appreciation for the traditional small town squares of Texas.

Nichols grew up in Granbury, the small city south of Fort Worth that forgot to follow the trend of razing its central square. So Granbury later parlayed that rich architectural past into a revitalized town square that now attracts torrents of visitors and their spending dollars.

Burger based his respect on the business aspects of a thriving downtown. For most of the last century, he owned the east side of the square in Wharton, about an hour's drive from Houston. In the tradition of Texas, his holding became known as the Burger Block.

Nichols thought her war with Wharton authorities ended when she bought the Burger Block: It didn't.
Deron Neblett
Nichols thought her war with Wharton authorities ended when she bought the Burger Block: It didn't.

Wharton had its own kind of rich history. It was founded in 1823 as part of Stephen F. Austin's original colony and flourished as a cotton, cattle and oil center. In 1889 that prosperity produced a graceful, towering new courthouse of limestone and red brick, crowned by a rooftop cupola. It was designed by Eugene T. Heiner, who drew the plans for 19 county courthouses in Texas. Only five of them are still standing.

With Wharton's magnificent centerpiece of a courthouse in place, construction began on permanent structures to replace the Wild West-like wooden buildings. The Burger Block ran along Victorian-style storefronts with five buildings erected between 1909 and 1919.

David Bucek, a Houston architect and Wharton historian, marvels at the rich heritage of that area. There were saloon brawls and shootings on a weekly basis. One victim was targeted for the apparent offense of announcing his candidacy for sheriff. The old jail nearby hosted hangings. "The last one was in 1916, and there are people alive who still remember it," Bucek says.

Wharton County was the home of Abel Head "Shanghai" Pierce, the colorful and egocentric cattleman who introduced Brahmans to Texas. Playwright Horton Foote's father ran a dry goods store there.

And the Burger Block, on south Fulton Street, figured in many of the events. Lynda Nichols speaks with affection about the block illustrating the class consciousness of the early times. It became known as the blue-collar side of the square, offering basic services and merchandise to the working men and women. They fed themselves from the grocery store and bought feed for their animals down the street. It was here that they purchased clothing, picked up their mail and paid craftsmen to make their furniture. A 1932 photo shows a drugstore, hardware store, the grocery, an insurance office and the local headquarters of Houston Lighting and Power along the block.

By the 1960s Wharton and most other small towns were in trouble. Like elsewhere, businesses began moving to the highways or into major population centers. Downtown Wharton fell into serious disrepair. The grand courthouse went through budget modifications -- it lost its cupola and unique exterior as the structure become cramped and outmoded. The county came up with a plan in the late 1980s that in retrospect seemed to be doubly devastating to the city's heritage. County commissioners wanted to tear down the courthouse and build another across the street, razing the Burger Block to make way for "progress."

Toward that goal, county commissioners in 1992 paid Harry Burger $236,000 for his property; $70,000 of it was for the block, and the rest was for the adjoining land where his house was located. They evicted his two commercial tenants, but the new courthouse plan stalled. That proposal, and others following it, served as a call to arms for the small group of historical-minded people in Wharton at the time. Harry Burger may have left, but Lynda Nichols was just beginning to mount her battle.

Nichols never really thought herself a militant preservationist. After all, she deals with perishable staples, as a crop insurance agent for farmers.

However, she remembered her fondness for the old buildings of Granbury, and has a streak of self-admitted stubbornness that became invaluable in trying to save Wharton's special history. Residents were first told that the new courthouse would incorporate the special design features of the destroyed structures. However, Nichols and others grew increasingly wary of those assurances, as well as budget estimates that appeared to be far from the actual costs of construction.

She says friends warned her to remove a large sign in her window that challenged the county's proposed costs as artificially low. Nichols, they told her, was infuriating influential officials with her opposition. She refused to back down.

Voters soundly rejected the new courthouse issue and other proposals later floated by the county. Nichols says the leftover ire of officials showed itself in a later plan to bulldoze the Burger Block, even if it was only for a parking lot. She appealed to commissioners to abandon the plan and save the structures. And preservationists had the buildings designated by the Texas Historical Commission as state archeological landmarks.

Officials finally made a conclusion in 1997: If those buildings mean so much to citizens, then one of them would surely step up and pay the money to save them.

"It was put-up or shut-up time," Nichols says bluntly. "I put my money where my mouth was." As the sole bidder at $65,500, she bought in on Harry Burger's legacy.

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