AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Earlier this month, Preservation Texas announced its annual list of Texas’s Most Endangered Places of 2023.
According to Preservation Texas, the list stretches across the state and includes a diverse array of sites in both urban and rural communities and one of those sites includes the Santa Fe Depot here in Amarillo.
The list of the most endangered places started in 2004 and the private nonprofit organization supports sites on its list by providing advocacy support, publicity, and connections to professional resources and assistance in fostering and building community partnerships.
“It’s really a positive thing to make that list… So what it does, it focuses attention on a historic resource in the state of Texas that really needs attention, so it necessarily doesn’t point fingers, it just says this is something worth saving and let’s try rallying around this structure,” said Chairman of the Potter County Historical Commission Wes Reeves.
Beth Duke, Executive Director of Center City Amarillo concurs.
“I see it as a positive because it is going to draw statewide attention to one of our most historic buildings. One of our great Texas historians, Micheal Cox said ‘Amarillo is the largest city in Texas that owes it exists only to the railroad’, because we didn’t have lakes, streams, or rivers, but we were the major railroad stop,” said Duke.
Reeves said the depot is one of oldest buildings in downtown Amarillo from about 1910.
Reeves added it’s important for the community to have a conversation about what to do with the depot so Amarillo doesn’t lose a piece of its history.
“I think the greatest thing, I think this is what really the endangered list does, it brings people together. I think it’s going to require a conversation with a lot of different groups and there is a conversation happening right now, looking at plans for this area, but I think too often in the past the plans have been one-off type plans, and may be made in a vacuum, the decision made in a vacuum. So, the community this time really needs to rally around this property, it belongs to all of us, not only to us as taxpayers, but it really belongs to us as part of our heritage,” said Reeves.
Preservation Texas stated that the city of Amarillo, who acquired the property in 2013, has plans to develop the site which does not take the historical significance of the Santa Fe Depot into account and threatens the integrity of the historic built environment. In 2022, a large metal pavilion was built adjacent to the depot, which the nonprofit said had already damaged the character of the property.
But Jerry Danforth, City of Amarillo Facilities Manager said that the pavilion makes the depot a lot more visible than it has been in the past.
“I think the city has done some great things to really enhance the traffic in that area, with the construction of the new pavilion over there. We are looking at large shows over there… Unfortunately, it’s in a warehouse district, there is not a lot of traffic to it. No traffic coming off the highway direct to it, but when we start having shows and other events there, bringing people into the area coming to the pavilion for those big events… We feel like we created a lot of energy in that area and the hospitality range which really the depot, itself would be a hospitality faculty, whether it be a bed and breakfast, whether it be a museum, or whether it be different options that have come up to us when it comes to restaurants and stuff and things like that,” said Danforth.
Reeves added the pavilion can hurt the historic value.
“It’s important that whatever happens in this area is part of a plan and everyone kind of agrees on what we want this area to look like. So one building that has been built standing alone may not, on the surface seems like it fits but we don’t know the whole plan at this point. It’s worth looking at and having a conversation about what we want this area to look like,” said Reeves.
Executive Director of the Santa Fe Historical Railway Museum Scott Metelko said in his opinion the pavilion was not placed in the right place.
“It’s too close to the property, it blocks the view of the property. It is a huge metal structure that is in a warehouse district that is filled with brick and concrete buildings. It is just out of character with the neighborhood and I think that is what the folks at Preservation Texas saw the most, is wait a minute, the city is not necessarily treating this like a historic structure, they are willing to build things right up to it and it will change the character of the neighborhood and it already has,” said Metelko.
According to Preservation Texas, the Santa Fe Historical Railway Museum has been working to develop a comprehensive plan for the depot.
“So, we’re in the planning phase. We are just about to go into the master planning process, we have applied for grants through the Texas Historical Commission and we are hopeful that we’re going to get a planning grant to do the master plan for the whole property and that will happen throughout, it will start in the fall of this year and will complete sometime in the middle of sometime next year of 2024 and once we have that plan in place, we are off to the races. It is time to raise money and start building,” said Metelko.
Metelko previously told MyHighPlains.com in the timeline to fully develop the vision for the depot is five to ten years.
Metelko said the idea for the museum is decades old.
“So the idea for the museum started back in the 80s with a gentleman named Walter Wolfram, he really spearheaded putting this thing together and he passed a few years ago and we are continuing on with his work. The organization itself was incorporated in 2006 and I have been involved in the program off and on since 2018,” said Metelko.
Metelko said the Santa Fe Historical Railway Museum is one part of a rail-themed development called Amarillo Depot, which will feature eight distinct elements, including The Rail Car Inn, a unique railroad-themed hotel stay, The Art and Design of Santa Fe, a new gallery space, the Roundhouse Theater, an intimate 200-seat outdoor performance space nestled in a natural courtyard between the Railway Express Agency building and the Depot, Destination Amarillo Excursions, where folks can experience passenger travel by rail, the Fred Harvey Eating House, this rebuilt lunch counter and dining room will provide guests and visitors with dining options as well as the Harvey Girl Experience, with this niche hotel providing a unique cultural experience and the Museum Education Program, which will provide interactive lessons for students and grant funding will ensure that every student in the Texas Panhandle has an opportunity to participate regardless of their ability to pay.
The final element would be returning the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway 5000 Madam Queen back in front of the Historic Santa Fe Depot. Railway Museum added its plans to move the locomotive into a glass enclosure where it can be enjoyed by residents and guests alike while remaining protected from the elements until restoration efforts begin.
According to the Santa Fe Historical Railway Museum, their recent economic impact analysis
found that the depot could generate over $24 million annually in direct, indirect, and induced economic impact, and The Amarillo Depot could create 137 new jobs in the downtown and
Barrio neighborhoods, with most positions being full-time and average annual salaries, being over $62,000.
When it comes to revitalizing downtown Amarillo, how does a building like the historic Santa Fe Depot fit into that?
“Well, this building gives us a sense of place. This looks like Amarillo, it doesn’t look like a suburb of Dallas or somewhere. We know first of all, this building belongs to us, this is our heritage, and this is a sense of place. It’s our identity, so that’s really important, and when people come into the downtown area, they are looking for something different, and historical buildings generally provide that something different and we have seen that with the hotel renovations along Polk Street restorations and the amount of activity it has brought downtown, so any investment you put into a historic building or district will bring back paid dividends far beyond what you invest in it,” said Reeves.
“As you see city hall will be a historic building or one of our historic buildings for Amarillo anyways, we took a look at the historic aspects, so the new city hall will reflect that. When we look at the depot, we are going to be looking at anybody that submits a plan, or a business plan for it to enhance that and keep that in place. I don’t see in the future the Santa Fe Depot being demolished or removed, or taken out of place as far as the City of Amarillo. There are no plans for that, no communication along that line. I know different people would like to have more land when you are in a downtown environment, everybody would like more land,” said Danforth.
Danforth said that currently there are no concrete plans for the Santa Fe Depot for remolding or rehabbing and he said they work at the will of the Amarillo City Council, and the depot has been on two separate bond elections, both times being voted down, so the funding is not there to do anything.
“The previous council and we haven’t received any direction from the current council that they want to take funding from another area to work on the depot, so we are letting it sit fallow until we get directions from council on what they want to do. With regard, to other groups wanting to utilize it, I know every council has listened to plans and projections, there has been some great ideas out there, but in all honesty, until they come in with funding to be able to do it, you are not going to see, most likely not going to see a council agree locking up the property unless you can show a business plan with an ROI that would work in that area,” said Danforth.
He added for the depot to become an occupiable space and be ADA compliant and meet standards, it would cost between $8 to $10 million.
Reeves added as we look at the future of downtown Amarillo, the Santa Fe Depot has to be a part of the conversation.
“Just a block away, we have a convention center, so as we look and imagine what this area is going to look like and what our future convention center is going to look like, this definitely has to play a role in that, because it will draw visitors, it will make the experience, it will enhance the experience for the people that come to the events downtown to have other things to do. Ideally, we would like people to park their cars somewhere and spend all day downtown, maybe spend the night and have enough attractions to stay and spend their money here,” said Reeves.
Last week, Pondaseta Brewing Co. announced that they would be expanding into the Santa Fe Depot located in Canyon and Duke said it shows what’s possible.
“It shows these wonderful buildings can have new life and I have been to depots in Albuquerque, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Railroad towns and they have found a new use for those buildings that bring people to those structures,” said Duke.
The Santa Fe Depot joins two other Amarillo sites on the list of the most endangered places, which include the Herring Hotel in 2006 and the Amarillo Helium Plant in 2017.