Donna Albus admits she “certainly was not domestic at home.” However, in the late 1980s, you could find her making curtains and stripping and finishing floors in the Cypress Building on North First and Cypress because she says “I loved those building passionately.” The renovation and repurposing of downtown buildings was the result of profound determination by individuals like Albus and Frank Murray, president of the Abilene Preservation League (APL) during the 1980s. Their efforts started a long and purposeful transformation that would bring Abilene’s city center back to life.
Up through the 1950s, downtown Abilene was the bustling focal point of the city. Soon though, like many U.S. cities, business and social activity in this area began declining as passenger train travel decreased and new growth toward the south side of town increased. By the 1980s, many unoccupied buildings sat in disrepair and had become subject to vandalism and vermin.
Local architect Rick Weatherl reminisces about the interior demolition of the old Drake Hotel in 1989 (now The Grace Museum) and recalls the “overwhelming number of bats, bees and fleas” living inside the building. Abilene citizens quickly banded together to save these downtown buildings and enthusiastically jump started the revitalization of downtown Abilene north of the train tracks.
One essential group to revitalization was the Abilene Preservation League (APL), founded in 1977 with a mission to help preserve Abilene’s landmarks. Murray repeatedly went to Larry Gill and the Dodge Jones Foundation to ask for funding assistance with the Drake Hotel/Grace Museum project —which, of course, they gave. Albus, assistant to Murray during the building’s renovation, found herself sweeping floors of the abandoned Drake Hotel so that he could give tours to investors, donors, and volunteers.
The Dodge Jones Foundation and Judy Matthews were instrumental in several revitalization projects, such as the trees and landscaping that now surround the train tracks along North First. They also provided funding for the restoration of the three T&P buildings, Compton Building (Cypress Street Station), and the Cypress Building. In a 1995 City Council meeting, then Mayor Gary McCaleb called attention to the growing revitalization effort: “There is a sense of real momentum to bring the total downtown area to a place to be proud of as well as functional.”
The Grace Museum’s current history exhibition, Downtown Revitalization Beginnings: Part II, highlights nine buildings that were the first of many saved from becoming parking lots or new construction, including the Paramount Theatre, The Grace Museum, Compton Building/Cypress Street Station Restaurant, the T&P Depot, the T&P Freight Warehouse, Candies by Vletas/REA Building, the Cypress Building, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, and the Elks Arts Center.
Today, Albus sums it up nicely: “Not all old buildings need to be saved, but our downtown structures, for the most part, contribute to the Abilene story. We are a railroad town, not a pretty little Victorian town. Our buildings reflect our population – strong, sturdy and built to last. Individually, our citizens are pretty remarkable, but banded together, we are creative, imaginable and almost unbeatable.”
This project is supported by a grant from the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council and the City of Abilene.