What made downtown cool: A Letter to the City from a Former Resident

To Mayor Don Warren and Anyone Who Cares about Tyler,

The purpose of my comments is to provide input regarding the long overdue historic designation and the restoration efforts of downtown Tyler. In my opinion, the historic designation of downtown Tyler is really good! The designation comes after the city of Tyler allowed for the destruction of too many historic buildings, grounds and unique features that were the best of town and the state of Texas. 

Downtown at large

I was a young lad in 1960 and remember the beautiful park on the square like it was yesterday: Mature trees; large, well kept lawns with flower beds; long benches full of people. A lot of people gathered there. Many were elderly. 

It was really cool for the young and old. 

Then, the city leveled the park and the courthouse and erected a flattened cement monstrosity with a hideous dancing fountain. 

There was nothing of interest left. The new cement park, by design, was a visual disaster. People were upset and dropped extra large laundry soap tablets in the fountain to have it overflow with suds in protest. It was no longer a cool place to gather. 

Downtown courthouse

đź“· photos courtesy D. Jenkins

The city of Tyler destroyed one of the most iconic court houses in the state of Texas. The city replaced it with one of the ugliest courthouse buildings in the nation, an architectural nightmare. 

Prisoners could be clearly heard yelling obscenities from the top floor windows of the jail to citizens on the street below. 

Downtown theaters

 The Tyler, Arcadia and Liberty theaters were all busy and all marquis were cool. As you know, the theaters were left to crumble for decades. Nobody cared and nobody acted. What this said to visitors to Tyler is, “people here don’t care. This is the center of this town and look at it!”

Downtown neons

 The large pink tower neon that was animated atop a bank building was destroyed. It was one of the coolest neons in the U.S. Nobody even knows what happened to this neon. 

Nobody cared. It was the city’s most iconic artistic landmark. Even small, vintage neon signs are selling for astronomical sums these days. 

Downtown buildings

“Has anyone seen the tops of these buildings?” asks D. Jenkins, who hopes for a downtown Tyler punctuated by historically accurate architecture from the 1890s.

Many of the coolest, ornately crowned buildings were lopped off or destroyed to build embarrassing replacements.

Tyler’s historic pool

It was a true, Olympic-sized pool. It was the place to go when I was young. It was amazing. One entered the Art Deco building and got a basket for your clothes. A large numbered safety pin was supplied to get your basket of clothes when you left. A good concession stand fed the large crowd and people sat on the large tiered cement grand stands and spread beach towels to gather with friends and enjoy the day.  
Large competitive (collegiate) swim meets were held there. It was cool. There was a high and low diving board. 

I liked to dive off of the high diving board at night when I was a kid. It looked like I was on top of the world above that beautiful blue pool below. 

There was a large, shallow kid’s pool in a separate area. 

Fun Forest Pool’s Art Deco building “needs to be restored,” argues D. Jenkins.

Recently, the city of Tyler decided to fill in and cement over most of the pool and erected a splash park for kids. Another visual disaster. One does not need a historic Art Deco building entrance for a kid’s splash park. Really sad. I suppose people now want their kids to splash versus learn how to swim.

Demolition derby for decades

Arguably, Tyler has been on a wayward mission to destroy the very best of historical architecture in town. 

The city decided the new frontier was south Tyler. At the end of the day, these efforts made South Broadway Ave. a catch basin for every chain restaurant in the U.S., creating a sea of backlit signs, all famous for their critically-acclaimed culinary prowess and dining experience.

Tyler abandoned its town center. It was dead functionally, visually and emotionally — rife with abandoned hotels, theaters and forgettable stores. Bail bond signs were posted in windows. Many newly designated “historic districts” in the U.S. do not build back building fronts the way they once were, even with great historic photographs and blueprints at hand.

Define historic

Perhaps Tyler can do this by recreating building fronts that once stood downtown: Architecturally correct building fronts from the 1890s with “period glass” windows, paint colors, forged hardware and awnings.

I just viewed a new building in Tyler made to mimic the original with dark tinted windows sans panes and no awnings. New, but not historic. It does not look historic. Ever see dark tinted windows on a restored to period 1932 Ford Coupe? It doesn’t look right.

In addition, Tyler just approved a new downtown apartment complex that throws historical architecture to the wind. The historic district can be one of 1990 or 1890, I suppose. 

My hope

In my opinion, I would put back what was there at the turn of the century. It made downtown cool to look at. It is not cool to look at now. Normally, I would say form follows function. Downtown Tyler is an exception. I think form should lead the way in the restoration of downtown Tyler, because the way it looked is what made downtown cool. People schooled in this are special and are typically not found on a city council with no experience in historic restoration.

I hope downtown Tyler can be put back together again and wish you the very best in your efforts.

Best regards,

An old guy who once lived in Tyler, Texas

Love what you're seeing in our posts? Help power our local, nonprofit journalism platform — from in-depth reads, to freelance training, to COVID Stories videos, to intimate portraits of East Texans through storytelling.

Our readers have told us they want to better understand this place we all call home, from Tyler's north-south divide to our city's changing demographics. What systemic issues need attention? What are are greatest concerns and hopes? What matters most to Tylerites and East Texans?

Help us create more informed, more connected, more engaged Tyler. Help us continue providing no paywall, free access posts. Become a member today. Your $15/month contribution drives our work.

Support The Tyler Loop!