Don’t expect a flight of stairs descending underneath D&W Underground at 1201 S. First Street–expect much more.
You won’t be disappointed, even if you thought you might be headed for an underground adventure. Instead, the “underground” name refers to the vibe the interior exudes, with its restored tile floors and walls and spaces filled with reminders of the past.
“Sort of a speakeasy,” said Robert Hoemke, who with his wife, Holly, own and restored the building that was built by S.B. Shelton in 1927 as a Buick dealership.
You won’t find a bathtub full of homemade gin in this “speakeasy,” but you can serve drinks from a stylish bar to guests attending gatherings at one of Abilene’s most unusual event venues.
“It’s not just another building–there’s lot of history here,” said Sarah Halbert, venue manager and director of marketing. “As far as we know, there’s nothing like it.”
The walls are a showcase for many of the lighted signs that Robert has collected over the years. He had to install 87 circuits to accommodate the voltage they require when all are lit. Many of the signs will be familiar names–West Texas Utilities, Coca-Cola, Windsor Hotel, Reddy Kilowatt, Rexall Drugs, 7-Up, and many more. Also, a restored 1938 Ford, vintage motorcycles, and other antiques add to the ambience. And, D&W Underground is located next to a building that once served as a transport hub for soldiers going to and from Camp Barkeley, a massive World War II Army base southwest of Abilene.
One sign that carries a distinction probably won’t ring a bell with local residents. The B.O. Bentley Clothing sign, with “Clothing” spelled in lighted bulbs like a marquee, came from Wyoming in 1889.
“That’s the earliest sign in here,” Robert said.
The signs that light up D&W Underground represent just part of Robert’s collection. He has more at home that he is restoring, and some of them may eventually find their way to D&W. Robert and Holly both share a love of antiques, but they come at it from a different point of view. Holly owns Gypsy Rose Antiques, located across the street at 107 Elm St.
“He’s the collector,” she said. “I like to sell it.”
The mix of interests works well. They will celebrate their 40th anniversary in December. She’s a product of Cooper High School and he attended Abilene High. Both are passionate about D&W Underground as a unique event venue. They bought the building in April 2020–the year of COVID, and Robert spent the next three years doing demolition and restoration. A grand opening event was held in the spring.
Even the name–D&W– resonates with Abilene history. The building has housed numerous and varied businesses over the years, including D&W Tire Company, D&W Furniture, and D&W Appliances. Jesse “T-Bone” Winters is the “W” in the name. The “D” is for his son, Dan. Jesse Winters was mayor of Abilene from 1957 to 1959 and Winters Freeway is named in his honor. Jesse and Dan are both deceased.
The Hoemkes are owners of Airtite Windows in Abilene, so they naturally took notice of the windows in the historic building. Some have been added, while others were restored. The first project was removing a drop ceiling, exposing the beautifully restored original that now is a stunning feature of the building. Next came restoration of the tiles, which had been covered with carpet. And, from there, the restoration took on a life of its own.
“I just started it,” Robert said, “and it just talked to me.”
The building does come alive when all the signs are lit. The entire building covers 17,000 square feet, with the front 13,000 serving as the main event venue. The back part is a staging area for weddings. The venue can accommodate up to 300 people, with 300 chairs and around 40 tables.
A YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9TKqZA4AxM, provides an excellent tour of the venue and offers more history. One informational piece sums up the one-of-a-kind trip down memory lane:
“Today, the building has been beautifully restored with an elegant and industrial-style architecture, ensuring an unforgettable experience for special events.”
By Loretta Fulton