(Orange, Texas)

October 14, 2012

What is left to save in Orange?

Mike Louviere
The Orange Leader

ORANGE — First there was a fire that claimed nearly an entire city block, then, there was progress. Buildings in the downtown area that once made up the business district of Orange are gone. Some of those buildings were built before the turn of the 20th Century. The businesses that once lined Fifth Street from Green Avenue to Front Street and the businesses that thrived along Front Street are all gone. The Orange National Bank has been replaced by another, newer building. First National Bank moved from downtown to another location. The FNB building became the office for the Stark Foundation. Both banks have been sold and resold many times. The current names are Capital One and Wells Fargo.

Capital One Bank, Farmers Mercantile and The Orange Stationer, along with the Barking Dog Café are about the only retail businesses left in downtown Orange. Much has been made of the replacement of historic buildings with parking lots. That is what happens when things progress.

The world class Lutcher Theater had to have parking for the patrons. The Stark Art Museum had to have parking for its patrons. Lamar State College needed parking for the influx of students it has had since the offered programs has expanded, bringing more students to its downtown campus.

What is left in Orange worth saving?

The two top candidates are the old, long closed Southern Pacific Depot building and the 2.56 acre church plant of First Baptist Church, notably the main sanctuary. Both buildings are the subject of many highly charged, emotional, sentimental debates. Overlooked in the building saving movement is the campus of Emma H. Wallace High School.

Wallace High School is the most damaged, neglected, ignored building of the three and has a historic value second to none. It was the center of Black education in Orange for decades and was named for the lady who was the driving force in Black education in Orange. It is however, not located in a highly visible area and does not seem to have any support from the mainstream building-savers.

Standing on John Street and looking up through the front windows, sky is visible. In all probability most of the roof is gone and the resultant damage to the floors could be bad enough that the building may not be able to be saved. The majority of windows are gone in the original building and the newer building to its right. If public support and funding were available, this building would be a candidate for a very nice community center.

The main building of the First Baptist Church plant is the Greek Revival sanctuary building, complete with historical marker in front.

This building has been the subject of burning debate. According to rumors there was a group that wanted to save the building and stay in the downtown location. Another group wants to sell the property and move to the Church’s property north of Orange.

It appears that some of the group who wanted to stay in downtown Orange left First Baptist Church and formed a new church in another location.

That dispute leaves the survival of the very historical building in doubt. The current owners of the building, the congregation of First Baptist Church of Orange have the right to do as they wish with their property. They may or not be bound by whatever regulations go along with a historical marker. The church members not wanting the building are trying to sell the building. The new owner would then be able to do whatever they would wish to do with their building. What could be done with it?

The new owner could keep it as a church, but it would have to be a church with a large enough membership to afford the expenses related to the entire church plant. If a civic group banded together and purchased the building for something such as a performing arts center, or community center, or local history museum. One suggestion was that the building could be converted into an apartment complex as an old church in Beaumont has been. Could they be assured of enough participation to keep the building in operation?

Downtown Orange is not a top tourist designation. A sign on the interstate that said “Local History Museum of Orange” would doubtfully draw many speeding past Orange at 70 miles per hour. The established Stark Art Museum as fantastic and world class as it is draws visitors, but not large numbers at a time. Shangri-La has not seen the projected influx of tourists that they hoped for. A performing arts center would only appeal to people with a strong interest in performing arts, not to the general public in enough numbers to generate meaningful income. How would non-church use provide enough income to keep up the property?

The old depot is a cute little building that in its time saw people off to wars and vacations. It is probably the worst candidate for meaningful use. It is located on a narrow strip of land next to a still in service railroad track. The building is on a lot elevated six or more feet above street level. There is very limited parking available on the same level as the building. For a number of years the building has been closed, boarded up, broken into, lived in by vagrants, boarded up again. There have been a couple of fires. There has been hurricane damage. The roof is in bad repair and the state of the plumbing and electrical systems are questionable. For any public use it would have to be made handicap accessible, no small cost.

There have been attempts to buy the building over the years. Price has been an issue at times and the last attempt by a prospective buyer with a seemingly workable proposal was shot out to the water by the school superintendent.

Probably the best use for the depot would be some sort of niche restaurant, small, intimate, a good place for a quiet meal, and a few drinks. Drinks? Well, have to rethink that one. That was the problem last time. One potential buyer wanted to operate a restaurant and serve alcohol. The superintendent of schools for WOCCISD protested selling alcohol in a location so close to the school. His involvement led to a non issue of a permit to sell alcohol and the buyer withdrew his offer.

As fine a location as the depot is for an office, there is the issue of the working track five feet from the back door. Freight trains are long and noisy. There was an old depot freight building in Beaumont converted to an office and it has worked well, but the tracks were moved years before.

Orange was a sleepy little town before lumber and World War II shipyards. It became small town America again after the influx of wartime industry and population. Economics cost Orange the shipyard and steel fabrication business. Shipyard work is making a comeback of sorts.

The bottom line about saving buildings is: who cares? Do enough of the citizens of Orange and the surrounding area really care about preserving the few historic buildings that are left in Orange? Would funding be available to purchase any of the buildings? If you save them, what will they be used for? Where will the income to keep them up come from? Who will visit and use them? Most importantly, what will be the criteria for picking and choosing what will be saved?

There has been a lot of discussion about saving old, historical, buildings in Orange on the social networking page, Facebook.  In spite of all the discussion there has been no action.

The generation of Orangeites and former Orangites who grew up in Orange in the 50s and 60s remember when Fifth Street was a vibrant business district. Fifth Street between Green Avenue and Front Street would be considered an outdoor shopping mall now. There was everything sold from clothing to sewing machines and jewelry on both sides of that two block area. There was a movie theater and for a time a city bus stop. There are a lot of memories and emotions relative to that period of time.

This issue has to go beyond emotion and be practical. About the only historical buildings left to save in Orange are a school, a church, and a depot. Has time passed them by?