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Putting Up

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

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.

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.


Since that time, county government has finally come around to many of the goals that were being urged by its earlier critics. Back in the mid-1980s, the Main Street Program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation came to town. That helped fund a makeover of portions of the square. Money was found for installation of streetlamps, benches and a brick sidewalk around the square.

Ron Sanders, news editor of the Wharton Journal-Spectator, says the funds were limited, but it helped during the economic downturn of that period. "There was a lot of optimism, and the Main Street Program increased a lot of awareness of what can be done to the old historic buildings."

County commissioners are now listening to the public about preservation of the area's heritage, Sanders says. The latest plan is to restore the courthouse to its initial appearance. The state Historical Commission approved a grant for $250,000, and officials hope the next round of applications will attract the total needed, $4 million.

"The Wharton County Courthouse is on the endangered list," says County Judge Lawrence Naiser.

Nichols and her bold move to get the Burger Block helped fuel the current interest in the county's history, but the celebration was short-lived for her, it seems.

She found that while the buildings had been in bad condition for a long time, their deterioration was accelerated in the five years since the county chased out the two tenants and abandoned the structures. Nichols says they were often unlocked, easy prey for vandals. When the county built a courthouse annex at the end of the block, jail inmates were used as workers to pirate away some of the unique interior features for the annex. They hauled off a wood railing on the mezzanine of one Burger Block building for use in an annex courtroom, she says.

There are gaping holes in walls and mounds of rubble inside. Beams of sunlight cascade through huge rips in the ceiling. Ornamental tin ceiling tiles dangle from exposed rafters. Nichols explains that the county worried about standing water on the rooftop, so it had workers punch away massive sections to drain the water onto the floor below. The inhabitants of that building are now mainly the birds swooping in from above.

Nichols and her husband, Carl, a retired crop duster and former county commissioner, immediately spent $50,000 to restore the corner building, which was in danger of collapse. She says tree limbs had already pushed the weakened brick mortar aside and were entering the structure. That building, a former photo studio, was renovated and leased as a video rental shop, although the tenant has since left.

She tried to focus first on the fundamental needs of the block. "Just getting electrical poles set behind the buildings has been major," Nichols says. "It took a year." While the facades and intricate cast-iron detail are in solid condition, the county covered them with layers of paint, which are now flaking away.

Nichols figured she at least had time to either work out a deal for a buyer or improve the buildings as time and finances permitted. That notion came crashing down earlier this month. The local newspaper reported that the city building inspector would seek a warrant in municipal court to force an inspection of the premises for code violations.

The move mystified Nichols, who was never even contacted by the city. She would have willingly allowed inspectors in, she points out.

City inspector Ronnie Bollom concedes that nobody called Nichols. He says the city just prefers to get a court order requiring the inspection. "We are just trying to get them cleaned up and make sure that everything is not going to come tumbling down." Nichols knows most of the buildings violate the city's code in their current condition, but she's puzzled about the apparent urgency by the city for action.

Inspectors say the move stems from concerns about the health and safety of the citizens. But nobody lives in or near the Burger buildings. Nobody does business there, either. They are secure.

The inspection, to be conducted within a month, is expected to result in several orders for repairs to bring the structures into compliance with codes. If that isn't done, Nichols could be fined until the repairs are made. The city could even issue a demolition order. Bollom and several residents active in preservation groups say the historical registry of the building makes demolition an unlikely option.

 

"These buildings benefit the city to no end," says Carl Nichols. "Now, the city has turned against us."

Lynda Nichols suspects more sinister motives, stretching back to her early preservation war with the county. She believes lingering hostilities may be behind the sudden demand for code compliance, a belief strongly denied by city and county representatives.

Architect Bucek says he thinks the buildings can be brought up to meet some sections of the code relatively inexpensively. "Some of them have dirt floors inside," he says. "That makes them easy to retrofit with plumbing under the [new] floors."

Sanders says the Burger Block is a cornerstone of the restoration effort. And banker Jeffrey Blair, president of the local chamber of commerce, believes financing can be found to rehabilitate the buildings after funding for the courthouse project is secured.

But Lynda Nichols's three-year fight leaves her wary. Ceilings more than 20 feet high vastly escalate renovation costs. And she has already drained more than $100,000 in funds from her personal savings and insurance company. She has tried to find buyers for the block, even offering owner financing. "A young person needs to come in here and fix these buildings," Nichols says.

The irony does not escape her. The historic downtown district is reawakening. There are the prospects of new prosperity and interest, both from the push to have nearby U.S. 59 transformed into Interstate 69 and the flow of development from Houston through adjacent Fort Bend County. Meanwhile, Nichols is paying dearly for having stepped forward earlier to ensure that Wharton can still offer its unique character.

"When I bought those buildings, I thought I was helping to preserve history," she says. "Now I wonder if I really did the right thing."


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