The city’s first skyscraper had a short-lived title

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When it opened in 1909, the Praetorian Building towered over downtown Dallas. Built at Main Street and Stone Place, it was Dallas’ first 15-story skyscraper. The structure was the tallest building in Texas – and the tallest building west of the Mississippi River. If anyone looked at Dallas, they saw the Praetorian building.

Still, his status as the highest part of the Dallas skyline lasted less than three years. Soon the Praetorian building was eclipsed by taller, more modern structures, and it never quite recovered its former glory.

The morning news from Dallas looks back on the rise and fall of the city’s first skyscraper.

Who are the Praetorians?

The steel frame of the Praetorian building under construction. Published March 17, 1907.(The morning news from Dallas)

On April 4, 1898, the Modern Order of Praetorians was founded by Charles Gardner, an Illinois book wholesaler. The commission was considered his original idea. The idea of ​​a fraternal society arose after a Gardner meeting; George Taylor, who worked in life insurance; and Louis Blaylock, the future Dallas Police Commissioner and later Dallas Mayor.

When the order began operating in 1899, it was the first chartered life insurance company in Dallas. Texans typically bought life insurance from companies out of state, and the early years were meager for Praetorians. The order didn’t have enough funds to pay for its first death request, and Blaylock had to pay it out of pocket.

Eventually the fraternal society was successful and had between 4,000 and 5,000 members in its first five years.

Dallas’ first skyscraper

The Praetorian Building (in this undated photo) opened in 1909. At the time, its 15 stories made it Dallas' tallest skyscraper - a title it only retained for a few years.  According to the Dallas Morning News of February 28, 1909, it offered
The Praetorian Building (in this undated photo) opened in 1909. At the time, its 15 stories made it Dallas’ tallest skyscraper – a title it only retained for a few years. According to the Dallas Morning News of February 28, 1909, it offered “a beautiful view of the whole city.”(The morning news from Dallas)

At the end of 1904, the Praetorians bought a vacant lot at Main Street and Stone Place. The plans originally called for a seven-story structure that would cost around $ 75,000.

Excavation began in the summer of 1905, but a pledged loan of $ 250,000 failed just in time for the rainy season. The excavated hole, formerly called “Gardner’s Folly”, became known as “Gardner’s Swimming Pool”. It lay dormant for at least a year before the steel framing of the building arrived. Eventually the financial situation was resolved and the cornerstone for the building was laid in 1907.

The Praetorian Building, which cost $ 800,000, opened to visitors in 1909. Some Dallas residents were initially skeptical about the safety of such a tall building. Others happily lined up and paid 25 cents each to take the elevator and see Dallas from the top floor. According to The news on February 28, 1909, it was “a beautiful view of the whole city”.

The fraternal monitor, a newspaper that reported on fraternal societies like the Praetorians, called the building a “true work of art.” The exterior was gray granite, with blue-gray terracotta columns and blue-gray porcelain bricks. The steel frame inside was built to withstand fires, and each office contained a fireproof vault. The interior was decorated with mahogany, tile and marble.

The building housed more than the Praetorians. When it opened in 1909, the ground floor contained a hairdressing salon and cafe. The offices of the Anti-Saloon League of Texas were located there, as was the recruiting headquarters of the Texas National Guard during WWI. In 1919, half of the 12th floor was leased to Empire Gas and Fuel Co., and in 1923 the Dallas Astronomical Society held rooftop meetings.

A modern overhaul

1958 was a red year for the Praetorians and their building. In January, the order became Praetorian Mutual Life Insurance Co., a statutory reserve life insurance company. October 2, 1958, The news reported that the Praetorian building, now “overlooked by newer and taller buildings”, was due to receive “a facelift” which would cost around $ 1.5 million. Construction began in August 1959.

Advertisement for the renovated Praetorian building.  Published November 15, 1966.
Advertisement for the renovated Praetorian building. Published November 15, 1966.(The morning news from Dallas)

The building looked radically different after its renovation. It has been almost completely rebuilt, floor by floor, with only the original steel frame. This renovation also added another story to the building. The first reactions were positive, and on April 23, 1961, shortly before its completion, The news called the new checkerboard exterior a “symphony of colors”. Its glass and metal design alternated between white and Praetorian yellow, a color created for the building.

Changes and decline

The 1970s and 1980s marked a period of decline defined by rapid changes in management and ownership. Praetorian Mutual Life sold the building in August 1970. Various management and real estate companies sold and resold it in 1981, 1983 and 1986. The building later went into foreclosure.

In May 1987, The news reported that Praetorian Mutual Life was moving its headquarters to an office building in Las Colinas. Later, the new owner would have been unable to pay the rent, and the Praetorian building closed its doors permanently in June 1993. In August of the same year, The news reported that it was the “oldest office tower in Dallas”. It has been open for 84 years.

The remains of the Praetorian building, photographed on Wednesday September 24, 2014.
The remains of the Praetorian building, photographed on Wednesday September 24, 2014.(Rex C. Curry / Special Contributor)

The Praetorian building remained empty for the rest of its life. Contemporary pieces in The news lambasted the 1960s remodel as “unattractive” and that it “destroyed” and “erased” the building’s design.

Although various owners during the 2000s sought to restore its original appearance, the renovation had destroyed all neoclassical architectural features, rendering them unrecoverable. Despite efforts – including by former mayor Tom Leppert – to preserve the building as a historic monument, it was demolished in 2012.

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