Metropolis: Wednesday, April 11, 2002
Artful codger

Southside groups want to buy and renovate an old temple as a cultural center.


The group of people gathered in the cavernous sanctuary on Fort Worth’s Near South Side on a recent spring morning was as diverse as the long-ago founders of the old temple had been homogeneous. They stood in awe as a rainbow of colors streamed through massive stained-glass windows.

“This is a jewel that must be saved,” Pat Wooley said, her quiet voice breaking the silence.

A musician, religious playwright, and advocate for the arts, Wooley was speaking of the long-empty but still well-preserved Temple Beth El, a dark red brick structure on Broadway Street, only a few blocks south of the Lancaster Boulevard corridor currently targeted for redevelopment. She was leading a tour, for representatives of various community nonprofit groups that serve the poor and the arts communities, of the still-sound building constructed almost 80 years ago as the religious home for Fort Worth’s small Jewish community. In 1997, the congregation moved to larger quarters and sold the old temple to the Fort Worth school district. School officials could never decide on a proper use for it and put it on the block late last year.

Now the 3,600-square-foot building is being eyed as a cultural and performing arts center that would reflect the diversity of the community that has grown up around it, especially its underprivileged kids. “Art and its many expressions can give young people hope,” Wooley said. “We also want to bring beauty into their lives.”

Michael Washington seconds her vision, having seen its results firsthand as a founding staff member of the Booker T. Sparks School for the Performing Arts. The 4-year-old nonprofit organization was started by Brendalyn Jackson as an arts enrichment program and “an alternative to violence” for inner-city kids. The school, which teaches dance, drama, drawing, and creative writing, would quickly move to the temple if the space became available, Washington said.

“Art is a liberating force in the lives of disadvantaged kids,” said the Texas Christian University graduate, who spent 25 years with Xerox before joining the Sparks School. Housed at the small Southeast YMCA, the school also provides after-school programs at seven FWISD locations, teaching creative arts to over 1,200 students of all races every week. Many are latchkey kids from single-parent homes who’ve never been exposed to art in any way, Washington said. “We work with kids who can spell art, but that’s about it.

“There’s such a need,” he said. “We have requests for three times as many [students] but we don’t have the space or the funding to provide for them. With the temple centrally located, we could serve the community better and share costs in a collaborative effort with other arts groups.” Currently, the school’s $600,000 operating budget, provided in equal shares by FWISD and the City of Fort Worth, is about maxed out, he said.

Others touring the temple that day included David Motheral, owner of Motheral Printing on Main Street. He’s chairman of development for Fort Worth South, Inc., a nonprofit formed in 1996 to promote and oversee development of the Near South Side, an area bounded roughly by Vickery Street, Allen Avenue, 1-35, and Eighth Avenue. He envisions the temple as an anchor for a “Southside cultural district complex” that would be a gateway to the redeveloping Lancaster corridor where shops and hotels would bring in tourists and jobs. The route of the proposed fixed-rail trolley, he pointed out, runs just a block away from the temple, and the proposed light-rail lines are only a few blocks away. “The scope of this neighborhood will change,” he said, “and the temple can be its focal point.”

Phil Waigand, an Arlington ISD counselor and activist on behalf of physically and mentally challenged kids, organized the tour. He hopes it will become a combined cultural center and arts-related job-training hub for the neighborhood’s throwaway kids and the underemployed. “Let’s do something different and marry business and art,” he said. He would like to see a computer training center there to teach skills such as graphic arts and computer design to students “who don’t always learn the same as others and wind up falling through the cracks” in public schools. Opal Lee, head of Citizens Concerned with Human Dignity/Community Redevelopment Center, Inc., who is pushing for a museum in the area dedicated to black culture, supports Waigand’s idea of an art center combined with job training that will lift more minorities out of poverty.

Most of those on the tour, however, have signed on to the simpler idea of the temple as a cultural arts center to serve the community and its at-risk children. Don Scott, president of Fort Worth South, believes its best use would be as a performing arts center under the banner of Wooley’s recently formed nonprofit called Arts on Broadway. Scott, retired from Burlington Northern Railroad, said the temple has been in his sights “since it first came up for sale.” His group is overseeing the ongoing revitalization of the Hospital District and Southside neighborhoods.

He hopes to see it become a permanent home for new and existing nonprofit performance groups. Rent from those groups would help support the center, and the doors would be open to the young people of varying races and incomes in the surrounding neighborhoods.

If he were still around, Rabbi George Fox, an early 1900s Fort Worth leader and reformer, might think it fitting that the long-empty temple he founded is now being promoted as a new home for others with a passion for social rebirth, albeit of a different kind. Fox is best remembered for leading police raids in 1913 on the brothels of the city’s seedy red-light district known as Hell’s Half Acre and physically removing Jewish prostitutes, most of them immigrants who had turned to the world’s oldest profession for survival. While Fox used the moral force of religion to promote social reform, those who want to renovate his Broadway haven believe in the power of art to change poor kids’ lives.

Uplifting ideas don’t mean it’s a done deal, however. Interested groups still have to come up with the $900,000 purchase price.

Wooley, a former director with the Baptist Radio and Television Commission, piano teacher, and longtime volunteer worker with Broadway Baptist Church, has been involved in the effort to save Temple Beth El for the last five years, she said. She and Scott both noted a recent report done by a consultant for the Fort Worth and Tarrant County Arts Council following a year-long study of Fort Worth’s art needs. Triggered by the upcoming move of the Modern Art Museum to new quarters, the report chastised the city for having so few nonprofit art groups involved with cultural diversity. And the city planning department’s own long-range objectives, Wooley said, call for a cultural center on the South Side.

The temple, with its three performance areas, large downstairs area, basement kitchen, and multiple classrooms, fits the objectives set out by both the city and the Arts Council consultant. Scott said.

“In five to ten years, this area is going to be something very special,” he said, with a cultural arts center and livable neighborhoods where jobs, shops, and restaurants are within walking distance of homes and apartments, or a short trolley ride away.

That, indeed, describes the neighborhood in the early part of the century. The temple and Broadway Baptist Church next door were part of a thriving community. Then came a steady decline as freeways and the ever-expanding hospital district swallowed up middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhoods; businesses shut down or moved. After the Temple Beth El congregation moved to the West Side, Broadway Baptist flirted briefly with the idea of buying its old neighbor, an idea pushed by Wooley, who had been dreaming about the temple as an inner-faith center “to explore the spiritual dimensions of art and minister to young people through the arts,” she said. But the deal fell through.

Now Wooley’s nonprofit group, operating under the tax-exempt wings of Fort Worth South, is seeking funds and donors to buy the building. About $400,000 in renovation is needed to bring it in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as installing an elevator. Otherwise, most of the building is ready to use.

Wooley now sees the church’s decision as a sound one. A secular cultural center will be better for the diverse community it serves, she said.

If some folks with deep pockets can be convinced of the need, she said, “It can become an avenue to bring in a multicultural mix of artists ... dedicated to using art as a redemptive force in the community.”

Rabbi Fox, who suffered the slings and arrows of this city’s Christian clergy for saving only Jewish prostitutes back in those raunchy days of Fort Worth’s youth, would probably relish the irony of a bunch of gentiles off on a quest to save his temple.

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