Will Rogers Tower shining bright again over Cowtown

Will Rogers

Will Rogers Memorial Center

3301 W. Lancaster Ave.

Fort Worth 76107

The Will Rogers Memorial Center was built in 1936 using a mixture of classical revival and moderne styles via architect Wyatt C. Hedrick, according to the Fort Worth Architecture website.

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When first completed, Pioneer Tower was designed with columns of glass-blocks on each side that were illuminated at night. However, the glass block features were covered with metal plates in the late 1970s, and the tower was dark after that.

The tower is built of concrete framing, clad with limestone and brick. The corners are accentuated with stepped pilasters, lighted lanterns and crowned with an aluminum cap. At the base of the tower there is a large room with a high domed ceiling and a bronze bust of Will Rogers.

If you’re noticing a new light in Fort Worth these days, you’re not alone. But the light source isn’t actually new.

Fort Worth once again has its shining beacon overlooking the landscape emanating from the Will Rogers Memorial Center.

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The iconic tower is again lit every night, something the city hasn’t experienced for decades – so long, in fact, that most any person you ask can’t tell you the last time they saw it lighted.

“I can’t believe how beautiful that tower is when it’s lit,” said District 7 Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Dennis Shingleton, who has lived in Fort Worth for about a quarter of a century and had never previously seen it with lights. “It’s a magnificent addition to our city to have that shining again.”

Elements of Architecture President Debbie Fulwiler, who co-owns the company with her husband Jerry, said rehabilitated is the proper word when referencing the work on the tower, not refurbished. The difference in words has a specific meaning to its historical preservation.

“According to the Texas Historical Commission, ‘Rehabilitation is one of four approaches to the treatment of historical properties and is defined as altering or adding to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while at the same time retaining the historical character of the property,’ ” Fulwiler said.

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Elements of Architecture oversaw the work on the tower.

And, as one might expect, after sitting so long, there were some interesting challenges.

“While all renovation projects provide their own challenges of unforeseen conditions, I will say that this project presented a number of unique challenges,” Fulwiler said. “I know that Muckleroy and Falls’ crew probably had many as the construction progressed.”

As for design and engineering, the following are a few of those unique things Fulwiler said her team encountered:

• The Tower as designed would not meet current codes, specifically given the changes in environmental requirements over the past 80 years.

“We found that the Tower had twisted and moved some over the years, and we knew we needed to stabilize the structure to ensure its longevity,” she said.

The addition of structural bracing was designed and installed at the sixth and seventh landings, as well as carbon fiber wrap to increase the structural capacity of the concrete.

“If you look carefully you can see the cross bracing at the lights at each landing as well as the concrete floor slab where the lights had to be individually adjusted as the new LED lights were now placed closer to the glass block giving off a different illumination,” she said.

• Two hawks had called the Tower home and had nested in the broken lanterns on top of the Tower.

“We studied their nesting patterns to alter their habitat, which required boarding up the lanterns in the April/May time frame as we would be unable to disrupt them once they nested. This would have definitely caused a delay in completing the project. The hawks have returned to the Tower once the scaffolding came down and you can often see them perched at the top,” she said.

• The glass blocks were an early focal point in the project as it was necessary to find a replacement that was as physically similar as possible to the original blocks.

“Through our research we found that the only manufacturer in the world that could do this project was located in New Zealand,” Fulwiler said. “This specialty order meant a long lead time and a precise estimate as to how many blocks we would need as there would not be time for a second run. Over 6,000 blocks were manufactured, shipped and finally delivered to Fort Worth.”

• Another interesting task for the team involved working with the city on programming the lights.

“Once the different shows or events were identified, the programs were played out in our heads and then implemented with the entire team to achieve the look we wanted with the restrictions of the lighting. You might have seen the shows on various nights as we ran through the programs once nightfall hit,” Fulwiler said.

The primary work to the Tower is essentially complete, with minor loose ends to tie up for final completion.

Fulwiler said the entire project that includes the addition of funds to clean and repair adjacent structures will definitely be finished in time for the annual Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo in January, but more likely closer to the end of 2019.

The lighting ceremony coincided with the opening of the new Dickies Arena just down the street.

“Our team has successfully stabilized this structure and brought it back to its original condition to be enjoyed by many more generations, allowing them to embrace the history of Will Rogers and the City of Fort Worth,” Fulwiler said. “Without having performed this work, the future of this iconic piece of architecture was in jeopardy. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime project to preserve our city’s history, and we are honored to have been a part of it.”

Fulwiler said the work has not gone unnoticed by those who see the tower now.

”Most of our feedback has been from those who are long-term residents of Fort Worth who have even seen the Tower when it was still lit,” she said. “They tell us how glad they are to see the Tower come back to life. We owe a lot of kudos to the city for willing to preserve this historic icon, which embodies the independent spirit of our city and its citizens.

“The Will Rogers Center is a special place within our city and speaks to all that is Fort Worth,” Fulwiler said.