The Downtown Walking Tour
Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Sweetwater Commercial Historic District contains more than 90 structures, more than 50 of which are listed in the National Register as historic and contributing to the character of the District. These structures represent the growth and evolution of the city from a small whistle stop on the Texas & Pacific Railroad into an important transportation, agricultural and regional trade center serving a large part of West Texas. The buildings demonstrate the historical and architectural development of Sweetwater, particularly during the prosperous period from 1900 to 1930. This cohesive unit consists of the major remaining section of the town’s earliest commercial, governmental and transportation center. The District provides an architectural diversity no longer found in most contemporary West Texas communities.
The Downtown Walking Tour can begin anywhere in the downtown district, but the tour map is configured for a start near the former site of the Texas & Pacific Railroad depot. Park on Oak Street near its intersection with First Street or in the off-street lot at the corner of Oak and First.
- TEXAS & PACIFIC RAILROAD DEPOT SITE. The foundation is all that remains of the Texas & Pacific Railroad depot, but this site has played a pivotal role in the development of Sweetwater. The present town site was established in 1881 when the T&P tracks reached this point. The first train for any kind of service arrived in Sweetwater on April 20, 1881, five weeks after the rails reached Sweetwater. As the T&P line became a major transcontinental route, increasing numbers of rail travelers first saw Sweetwater from this spot. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1989).
- “RAT ROW” was the name given to the block of Oak Street between First Street and Broadway Avenue. This area’s proximity to the Texas & Pacific depot fostered a notorious reputation. Local historian Judge R.C. Crane once estimated that more than 90 percent of Sweetwater crime in the 1880s and 1890s was committed in this block of Oak Street. Five saloons had been established within this block by 1883.
- COMMERCIAL HOTEL (now a private residence), 111 OAK STREET. The Commercial Hotel was built in 1911 on the site of Sweetwater’s first hotel. As with all of Sweetwater’s early hotels, the Commercial catered to the railroad traveler. The Commercial Hotel had 26 guest rooms, each with an outside view and a cozy 9’x12’ interior. The hotel portion upstairs was converted in a private residence in 1978. The two storefronts at ground level housed a café, saloon and dry goods operations during the early days. These storefronts were rehabilitated into new businesses in 1984 as lead projects in Sweetwater’s Main Street Project. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- PRIM BUILDING, 122-124 OAK STREET. This building was built just prior to 1920, and served as the first home of the current First National Bank in the late 1940s. The lot on which the building stands was the third town lot sold in Sweetwater. R. West Starr purchased the lot June 1, 1881. On this lot, Starr built the first lumber-constructed house in Sweetwater, which he used for a saloon. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- LEVY BUILDING, OAK STREET AT BROADWAY AVENUE, SOUTHEAST CORNER. This building sits on the first town lot sold in Sweetwater. J.S. Johnson, an early sheriff in Nolan County, paid $100 to the Texas & Pacific Railroad on May 30, 1881, some six weeks after a vacant area of land called Sweetwater was declared the county seat. Local historian Judge R.C. Crane notes that Johnson herded sheep in the county while the T&P was building through the sparsely populated area. While tending his flock near the site of the present town of Roscoe, Johnson found himself out of chewing tobacco. It is said that he simply flagged down a passing freight train to get a chew from the train’s engineer.
- BROADWAY OF AMERICA. The present Broadway Avenue was originally known in the late 1920s as North Second Street. The name was changed to commemorate the designation along North Second Street of a major east-west transcontinental highway (now Interstate 20 Business Route) which would serve as a precursor to Interstate 20. The development of a major transcontinental highway through downtown Sweetwater signaled a new era for the community, assuring Sweetwater of continued status as a transportation center, but foreshadowing the end of the railroad age. Evidence of the Broadway of America period in the late 1920s and early 1930s can be seen three blocks west where the 1935 Bankhead Highway bridge exhibits the modern architecture of this lively period.
- NEWMAN BUILDING, 207-209 OAK STREET. Constructed by pioneer J.F. Newman in 1902, this two-story rusticated stone building has served many purposes. For many years the local Elks Lodge had meeting space on the second floor. A variety of retail outlets and professional offices have operated on the ground floor. The windows feature arched openings and semi-circular metal inserts with an embossed fan design. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- SWEETWATER REPORTER BUILDING, 112 W. THIRD STREET. Built in 1913, the brick structure is designed in the Neo-Classical Revival style and features two Roman Doric columns at the building’s entrance and is crowned with cornice ornamentation. The building was first home to the Great Western Loan & Trust Co. until 1917 when Texas Bank & Trust Co. purchased the property. Upon completion of a new building in 1924 for Texas Bank & Trust Co. at 301 Oak Street, the former bank building was received in partial payment by the new building’s contractor. The newspaper, which had been located one block south on West Second Street, moved to the current location in the late 1920s. Founded in 1881 as the Sweetwater Advance, Nolan County’s first newspaper began its existence as a weekly publication. In 1882, the newspaper was sold and the name changed to the Nolan County Record. The newspaper sold again in 1906, and in 1907 the name was changed to the Sweetwater Reporter. By the early 1920s, the newspaper was publishing daily. The Sweetwater Reporter and its predecessors predate the Texas Press Association, the statewide organization of which the Reporter is a member. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1981).
- TEXAS BANK & TRUST CO. BUILDING, 301 OAK STREET. This neo-classical red-brick building was built in 1924 by Sweetwater’s oldest operating bank. The Texas Bank moved here from its 1917 location (now housing the Sweetwater Reporter) at 112 West Third Street. The Ionic ornamentation of the building features cast stone and granite. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- LUELLA BUILDING, 319 OAK STREET. Built in 1910, the structure is named for Luella Ragland, wife of R.A. Ragland. The Luella Building has served many varied uses, including a stint as home of the famous S.D. Myers Saddle Company. District Court was held upstairs during the building’s early years while the 1917 Nolan County Courthouse was under construction. Other uses have included a J.C. Penney store, grocery store and furniture store. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1989). National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- TEXAS ELECTRIC SERVICE CO., 325 OAK STREET. Constructed in the 1920s, this two-story brick building was built by the Texas Electric Service Company for use as an ice house, store and offices. Parapet wall above features variegated brown brick with cast-stone ornamentation. The open porch at the northwest corner of the building allowed access to the ice vault from West Fourth Street. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- MASONIC LODGE BUILDING, 324 OAK STREET. The lodge hall was built in 1922 when the Texas Bank & Trust Co. acquired the original lodge hall at 301 Oak Street for demolition in preparation for the new bank building there. The present lodge building also housed the RSR Palace Theater. Although the first floor exterior has been radically altered with new brick and frosted glass, the original store cornice and pilaster strips remain. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- MONTGOMERY WARD BUILDING, 401 OAK STREET. Built in the late 1920s, this two-story brick structure was constructed according to a plan used by the Montgomery Ward department store chain throughout the state. Montgomery Ward opened here just prior to the Great Depression, but hard times left the building vacant for many years during the 1930s. The most striking architectural feature of the building is the terra cotta façade, featuring urn statuary along the curvilinear parapet, foliage swags and a variety of medallions. Green terra cotta panels in the upper façade are repeated in wide band of green tile between the first- and second-story window level. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- PRIVATE RESIDENCE, 400 OAK STREET. This is the only structure in the Sweetwater Commercial Historic District originally built as a private residence. It is unusual in that it was built in the 1930s, after most of the surrounding commercial buildings were in place. Its unique location is explained by the fact that it replaced a much older frame residence that had been owned by pioneer Lang Aycock, builder of the existing home. The one-story Tudor Revival residence is a buff brick with simple steep gable and brick.
- FIRST PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 114 E. FOURTH STREET. This structure was originally built in 1924 to house the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church. The one-story brick building has a raised basement and corbelled cornice. The basic shape of the structure remains essentially original, although four Greek Doric columns that once support the front (Locust Street) entrance have been removed. An outside entrance has been added on the East Fourth Street side, and wooden exterior doors have been replaced with aluminum. Original stained-glass windows are now at the present site of the First Presbyterian Church in northeast Sweetwater. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- SWEETWATER MUNICIPAL AUDITORIUM, 400 LOCUST STREET. This Spanish Colonial Revival landmark was built in 1926-27, and it has hosted such internationally known entertainers as John Philip Sousa, Fred Astaire, Eddie Arnold, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Ziegfield Follies and the Royal Russian Chorus. In 1955, the auditorium stage twice provided a platform for a young singer named Elvis Presley. Following a period of vacancy, the building became the focus of community attention once again as several groups banded together in 1982 to save the auditorium. The rehabilitation project was designated as Sweetwater’s official contribution to the Texas Sesquicentennial celebration in 1986. The enthusiasm and interest generated by this ongoing project led to the initiation of the Sweetwater Main Street Project which spread building rehabilitation to all corners of the historic district. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1982). National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- SOUTHWESTERN BELL TELEPHONE, 211 E. FOURTH STREET. Since the 1920s, Southwestern Bell Telephone was a major employer in the Sweetwater area. The original (southeastern) section of this building was built in 1933, with additions after World War II. The two-story, buff-brick office and operations building features terra cotta detailing such as window and door surrounds, molding, quoins and cornice ornamentation. The building has original metal windows and doors. Prior to the 2003 realignment of area codes in West Texas, Sweetwater was the operations center for Bell’s 915 area code, and more than 250 workers were employed in this building at one time. Automated equipment is now housed in this historic structure. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- CENTRAL FIRE STATION, LOCUST AT FOURTH STREET. The Central Fire Station was built along with the nearby Municipal Building in 1926. Designed by Page Brothers Architects of Austin, the fire station exhibits many elements of Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. The original appearance of the fire station was altered shortly after World War II to allow for larger firefighting equipment. The interior of the station still contains original pressed metal ceilings. A 1926 LaFrance fire engine used in the building at its opening is now on display at the Pioneer Museum, 610 East Third Street. A unique element of the Central Fire Station lot is the former goldfish pond at the northeast corner of the grounds. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- UNITED STATE POST OFFICE, 201 E. THIRD STREET. Built in 1931, this large brick post office is a Neo-Classical building with eight large Ionic columns across the recessed entryway, a raised basement level and long, narrow windows. The building has a hipped roof which is clearly visible, though surrounded by a raised parapet. The almost-original interior of the building includes a high-ceilinged lobby and service area with dentil moldings and original interior doors. This building has served as Sweetwater’s official post office since it replaced the original wood frame structure which served the purpose from the 1880s well into the 20th century. It was the original post office which was known as “Sweet Water,” until in 1918 the U.S. Postal Service mandated that it conform to local usage of “Sweetwater.” National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- STEVENS FURNITURE BUILDING, 119 E. THIRD STREET. The expanding Stevens Furniture firm moved to Sweetwater from Coleman in 1926. The present building was built in 1929 and was hailed at the time as a “new,” thoroughly modern three-story brick building. The exterior of the building is relatively unchanged from the original, with marble remaining beneath the plate-glass windows in the recessed entryway. Fixed-glass transoms and a retractable awning complete the storefront. Second-story wooden windows and a simple concrete ornamentation for the parapet are also intact. The interior mezzanine, reached by a wide central, wooden stairway, has a wooden balustrade. The building underwent extensive rehabilitation in 1986. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
- R.A. RAGLAND BUILDING, 115-117 E. THIRD STREET. This two-story stone and brick building with a six-bay front façade and two storefronts was built by Sweetwater pioneer R.A. Ragland, original tenant of the building. Ragland had law offices in the building along with local historian Judge Royston C. Crane. The first floor was built in 1901, with the second floor added in 1906. The building was under condemnation in the late 1970s, and extensive restoration was undertaken in 1977-79. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1979), National Register of Historic Places (1979).
- J.S. DOUTHIT BUILDING, 111 E. THIRD STREET. Built in 1900 by Sweetwater pioneer J.S. Douthit, this building features a six-bay façade, fixed-glass transoms and ornamental cast-iron columns. These original elements were covered in ceramic tile for more than 50 years of the building’s existence prior to an extensive rehabilitation project in 1985.
- GERMAND-SEATON BUILDING, 105 E. THIRD STREET. This is the oldest existing building in Sweetwater. Construction on this brick commercial structure began in January 1886. The building features original cast-iron columns with webbing and an elaborate brick cornice. Old-style glass paneled wooden doors with brass kickplates remain, as does the shadow-box transom window construction. Original features on this building were encased in plaster until a major rehabilitation project in 1986.
- FIRST NATIONAL BANK BUILDING, 101 E. THIRD STREET. The present Neo-Classical building with limestone and stucco façade, developed in the 1920s, surrounds a much older stone building erected in 1886. The present façade – erected in 1922 – includes five limestone columns in Roman Doric style, a projecting cornice and a parapet carved from a single block of limestone crowned by an eagle. Much of the 1920s interior remains, including the pressed-metal ceiling, original vaults and some counters and teller furnishings. The stone building, built by merchants N.I. and J.D. Dulaney, was reportedly the first stone building in Sweetwater. The First National Bank (not affiliated with the present First National Ban) occupied this building from 1901 until it failed in 1931 during the Great Depression. National Register of Historic Places (1983).
- NOLAN COUNTY COURTHOUSE SQUARE. The Texas & Pacific Railroad donated land for the Nolan County Courthouse when the railway reached the Sweetwater townsite in 1881. Gypsum has long been a staple of the Sweetwater economy, and the mineral played a pivotal role in the rise and fall of Nolan County’s first courthouse. The failure of the Franco-Texas Land Company to live up to a pledge of $10,000 toward construction of the courthouse forced the County to use gypsum products rather than cement in the building process. The first courthouse was finally finished in 1883, and the north wall collapsed in 1885. The second courthouse was not built until 1891. Nolan County’s third courthouse occupied this site from 1917 to 1976, and was designated a Texas Historical Landmark in 1975. The present courthouse was completed in 1977. The atrium of the present courthouse displays a complete collection of Winchester arms. Also in the atrium is a bronze statue of Fifinella, saluting the brave women who trained at Sweetwater’s Avenger Field as part of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in World War II. A more extensive history of the WASP episode is given on a marble marker erected on the southwest corner of the courthouse square in 1972. More information about the WASP is available at the Pioneer Museum and at Avenger Field.
- TEXAS THEATER, 114 E. BROADWAY AVENUE. The Texas Theater opened for business on December 4, 1935, and has been in daily operation at this site ever since. Noted at its opening as “one of the very few show houses in West Texas built exclusively for talking pictures,” the Texas represents the Modern style of architecture popular during the art deco period of the 1930s. Alterations to the lower front façade, including the addition on the marquee, occurred during the 1950s. National Register of Historic Places (1984 – District).
Points Not On Map:
PIONEER CITY-COUNTY MUSEUM (R.A. RAGLAND HOUSE), 610 E. THIRD STREET. The museum is housed in the 1906 Ragland Mansion, which was a gift of the late R.A. Ragland, grandson of the original owners. The Classical Revival-style structure features six Ionic columns symmetrically placed in pairs across the two-story front, as well as four Greek Doric columns flanking the east terrace which support a wrap-around balcony. The brick building is an example of classic Southwestern colonial architecture. The museum provides an extensive chronicle of area development, featuring a blacksmith shop, saddle shop, pioneer home settings, Indian artifacts, antique automobiles, historic photographs, art, WASP memorabilia and much more. The museum is open 1-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1979).
SWEETWATER CHAMBER OF COMMERCE (SIMMONS HOUSE), 810 E. BROADWAY. The Chamber of Commerce is located in the historic Robert M. Simmons House, which as built in 1919. The original Simmons home was a one-story structure. In 1934, a second story was added and the New Mexican Indian motif was preserved. The interior of the house features woodwork which was hand carved by gouging with a chisel. Also original to the home are leaded-glass windows and hammered ironwork for the light fixtures and stair railings. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1987).
AVENGER FIELD, FIVE MILES WEST ON BROADWAY (BUSINESS I-20). During World War II, Avenger Field served as a training base for British Air Force cadets from June 22 through August 1, 1942, and were replaced by U.S. Army Air Force cadets who remained through April 9, 1943. Beginning in February 1943, training began for the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), making Avenger Field the only military coeducational flying field in U.S. history. Avenger Field would subsequently become the only all-female training base in the world. As pioneers of aviation, the courageous and gallant WASP were honored with a memorial dedicated May 22, 1993, which is located at Avenger Field, the site today of the Texas State Technical College West Texas campus. The memorial includes a Walk of Honor which lists the names of each WASP trainee, along with a life-size bronze statue depicting a trainee. The National WASP WWII Museum opened on May 28, 2005, and is housed in one of the original 1929 Avenger Field hangars used by the trainees. The museum is open 1-5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. A bronze replica of the WASP mascot Fifinella stands in the lobby of the Nolan County Courthouse in downtown Sweetwater. Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (1972).
HISTORIC RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOODS. The residential architecture of Sweetwater during the first 30 years of the 1900s serves as the showcase for well-preserved neighborhoods which dot the city. These homes recall an era when craftsmanship and architectural integrity were a priority. The highest concentration of historic homes can be seen in a nine-block district in the city’s northeast quadrant. Some homes have been recorded as Texas Historic Landmark.
Since it was first settled in 1881, Sweetwater has experienced several building booms. The most prominent of those growth eras came from 1990-1930 as Sweetwater became a transportation, agricultural and regional trade center.
While the Downtown Commercial Historic District is often the focus for those wanting to retrace the architectural evolution of the city, Sweetwater is fortunate to have retained several homes which recount the early years of residential development. Five homes have been designated Texas Historical Landmarks, although only two-Davis House and Newman House-continue as residences.