Boomtown Construction Makes A Comeback In Amarillo
On May 2, 1921, a drill had pushed into the deep earth on a ranch not too far from Amarillo, Texas, spewing a tall, black stream of oil out of the ground. This promising discovery signified that the “Gusher Age” of Texas had finally reached the panhandle town of 15,000.
The flurry of oilmen, prospectors, and pioneering young men scrambling to the oil fields drastically changed the landscape of Texas’ towns. In Amarillo, the new business center of the Texas panhandle, the townspeople adjusted by quickly building utilitarian housing for the oil workers.
One of those buildings was McMillen Apartments, a three-story, square, brick building with a flat roof and little exterior embellishment. Now called Parkview Apartments, it stands just off Amarillo’s main street and Interstate 40 and is a steady reminder of the town’s deep ties with the oil boom of the 1920s.
Parkview Apartments is one of the many housing developments that sprang up to house the influx of workers. The oil field near Borger, where many from Amarillo worked, saw more than 50,000 people settle within a matter of weeks after oil was discovered there. Within 20 years, Amarillo’s population increased from 9,957 in 1910 to 43,132 in 1930. Several ancillary industries, such as gas and helium, contributed as well. This tremendous jump in density underscores the city's significant need for quickly-built apartment structures.
1926, the year Parkview was constructed, could be called the Golden Year for Amarillo, which started out with a population of just 480 in 1887. In 1926, the first “skyscapers” were built on Polk Street, the main thoroughfare in Amarillo. The first four months of the year saw an astonishing 400 building permits issued by the city. It was also the year that the streetcar system closed, which placed an increased emphasis on automobiles that led to the creation of suburbs and new construction further from downtown. While city directories show people moved frequently as they followed the demands of the oil industry, Parkview offered clean and efficient one-bedroom apartments for those who wanted comfortable living arrangements for however long they stayed.
Just a few years ago, however, the future of the apartment complex was threatened by demolition. While the building prospered during the oil boom and continued to serve as housing through the mid 20th century, urbanization and changing economies left the apartments largely vacant by 1997. It sat for ten years, a blight on an otherwise pleasant part of town, where small Craftsmans, a church, and a park sit nearby.
A local developer, Tom Pauken, understood that the square, austere, red brick building had more to offer beyond its leaking walls and drab facade. In 2007, he purchased Parkview Apartments, removing it from the demolition list. The rehabilitation started quickly, and in 2008, the apartment was ready to welcome its newest inhabitants.
Beth Duke, Executive Director for Center City of Amarillo, the city’s Main Street program, explains how the Parkview Apartments project fits with Amarillo’s wider vision: “It’s everything we’re trying to do in the Main Street Program—get more people living downtown, saving historic structures, providing places for people to live, and having the vision to use an old building in a new way, instead of tearing it down.”
Federal and state tax credits, in addition with other grants, significantly contributed to the project’s success. As Duke explains, “We administer the Facade Grant Program, which is a matching grant up to $20,000 of a project. The intent is to encourage the community to improve the appearance of downtown buildings."
One of the buildings that qualified for the Facade Grant Program was Parkview Apartments. Though the building’s windows were replaced after rot had damaged them beyond repair, the exterior brick is original, and thus it had a good percentage of its original facade remaining. In addition, federal historic tax credits allowed for a complete rehabilitation of the structure, including the interior, whose original hardwood floors and wood trim were salvaged. The project, which created 11 jobs in Amarillo, dramatically changed Parkview Apartments from a neglected relic of Amarillo's past to a symbol of its downtown revitalization.
Parkview Apartments isn't the only structure to be rehabilitated and preserved. “Last year we reached a huge milestone,” Duke acknowledges. “We reached our $1 million mark for grants in Amarillo. That’s a lot of impact.” She estimates that the matching grant easily doubles the reinvestment of properties that qualify for the grants. “We’ve had a $3 million impact in our town.”
A walk down Polk Street will give visitors an illustration on the town’s history. From the Art Deco commercial stores to the Craftsman bungalows built by the town’s wealthier inhabitants, the street reads as a visual illustration of the town’s twentieth-century history. While Parkview Apartments may appear quite plain in contrast to Amarillo’s other historic structures, its architecture expresses Amarillo’s relationship with the oil boom with a clarity easily appreciated by townspeople and those like Duke.
While Parkview’s inhabitants are no longer young workers flocking to the oil fields north of Amarillo, it has now been revived to its original purpose of offering affordable housing for those settling in Amarillo, though this time on a more permanent basis.
Duke summarizes the importance of saving Parkview Apartments: “It’s everything good. It saved a historic building, it utilized historic tax credits, and it increased our goal to have more places to live in downtown.”