As soon as the Montgomery Ward building opened in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1928, it dominated the city's retail scene and became an iconic feature of its skyline. For decades, shoppers browsed the eight-story building for fashions and furnishings, while the site's mail-order warehouse shipped purchases across the country.
Located west of downtown Fort Worth, across the Trinity River, the 46-acre site eventually included an automotive service facility and distribution center. The structure survived the vicissitudes of time, including a flood in 1948 and a direct hit from a tornado in 2000. What it could not survive, however, was the transformation of the national retail industry. The company went out of business in 2001, shuttering the facility.
Things looked grim for the building. Yet Fort Worth was evolving. Urban redevelopment was transforming downtown from a grim, dead-at-five business core to a vibrant entertainment and residential hub. Why not expand that energy a few miles west and take advantage of those 46 acres? Why not reinvent an icon? That's when people got excited.
THE TRANSFORMERS First on board were Dallas-based Weber & Co. and Los Angeles-based Kimco Developers, who partnered to purchase the property in 2003. The team's mixed-use plan for Montgomery Plaza called for converting the top floors into condos and adding retail to the bottom floor. In addition, the warehouse at the rear of the property would be replaced with a retail center anchored by a Super Target.
However, the project was nearly halted when historic preservationists objected to plans to cut a road through the center of the building, dividing it into two towers. The roadway was essential to the viability of the project, says Waldemar Maya, partner at The Marquis Group, the Dallas-based residential developer of Montgomery Plaza. Otherwise, the center of the building would have been difficult to lease. “People don't want to live without windows,” Maya says. “Opening up the ground floor to shopping and restaurants gives the interior units an active scene to look down on.”
The city's Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission and the Texas Historical Commission disagreed, claiming the roadway would damage the historic integrity of the building. Their objection meant the project was ineligible for certain loans and grants.
Ultimately, the City of Fort Worth stepped up. To ensure the project would go forward, the local government agreed to additional tax abatements and city support. After all, the project was a key step toward the revival of the West 7th Street corridor and provided much-needed retail near downtown. The road was built, and the Super Target opened in the fall of 2005. It was quickly followed by other chain operators—Pier 1 Imports, Pei Wei Asian Diner, PetsMart, and Marshall's—appeasing all but diehard preservationists.
HOME SWEET HOME By 2006, the scene was set for residential units to be added to the mix.
Marquis Group set to work designing the condo units on the seven top floors. Design was made easy by the building's features, which included red tile accents, 12- and 16-foot-high ceilings, and a pale stucco, Mission-style structure. Architects Swaback & Partners and Studio V Interior Design, both of Scottsdale, Ariz., conceived 42 floor plans ranging from about 800 square feet to nearly 5,000 square feet. The lofts feature granite countertops, stainless-steel appliances, and frameless glass showers. A major attraction will be the pool area located above the attached parking garage, which will include fire pits, cabanas, and hot tubs.
Homes are priced from $200,000; sales have been brisk, and units with views of downtown Fort Worth have been particularly popular, Maya says.
A number of buyers have a personal connection to the building, Maya adds. “They had a family member who worked here, or they remembered shopping here,” he says. “They love seeing it come back to life.” So does the construction company—Fort Worth-based Thos. S. Byrne—which built the original building in the 1920s and is now working on the renovation.
Maya expects residences to be ready for move-in by the fall of 2008. “It's going to be something we can be proud of,” he says.
Elizabeth Lunday is a freelance writer in Fort Worth, Texas.
PROPERTY: The Residences at One Montgomery Plaza
DEVELOPER: The Marquis Group
ARCHITECT: Swaback & Partners
RENOVATION COST: $23 million-plus
LENGTH OF RENOVATION: 17 months
- Think creatively. It took vision to look at the rectangular façade of the old Montgomery Ward store and imagine adding a roadway. Yet it opened up the interior of the building and created a fun, distinct environment.
- Get the local government on board. Montgomery Plaza could have been stymied by historic preservation agencies. By becoming part of the city's long-term plans, the developers could count on government support.
- Look for solid structures. Montgomery Plaza's 12-inch-thick concrete walls are even sturdier than they were in 1928. With such a solid piece of architecture, renovation was straightforward.