Feature: Wednesday, April 14, 2004
‘The misconception a lot of people had was Texas art is primarily cowboys and Indians.’
‘That’s what makes The Bull Ring special — it’s a collection that’s right here for all the world to see.’
Ace Exchange

Texas art and Fort Worth history converge — in this guy’s ice cream parlor.

By Jeff Prince

Three youngsters burst into the ice cream parlor, their chatter amplified by the 94-year-old building’s hardwood floor and 15-foot ceiling. Mom and Dad followed, urging them to be careful as they dragged chairs over to the counter and stood up in the seats to press their hands and faces against a pane of cold glass, the only thing separating their salivating mouths from the buckets of ice cream below.

Waffle cones filled, the family bunched around a table and talked about the longhorns they had just seen ambling down Exchange Avenue. Once finished, they wiped sticky fingers on napkins and walked outside to see what else the historic Stockyards district had to offer. Like a lot of people — tourists and locals alike — they hadn’t noticed that The Bull Ring, where they had just been sitting, offered plenty more than confections. They couldn’t have known that a chance meeting between a hardworking Jewish tailor and a Texas pilot in the 1960s would lead to a remarkable transformation of the building — and the pilot — many years later.

The once-plain building now stands in rustic allure after being refurbished. A newly built stairway leads from the sidewalk to a basement that once housed a saloon frequented by gangsters such as Leroy “Tincy” Eggleston and gamblers such as Doyle Brunson, who would go on to become world poker champion. Original hand-painted messages — “Please do not use profane language” and “If you can’t pay don’t play” — still mark the walls.

The rest of those walls are covered in early Texas art — simple, moving depictions of 19th- and early 20th-century Texans and their surroundings painted by artists who lived here but never fought in the Alamo or pushed a thousand head up the Chisholm Trail. The genre romanticized the Old West to some degree but more typically portrayed the real people of Texas, both city and rural. Early Texas art is multicultural — African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans who were painted with dignity and respect. It’s documentarian — battle scenes, the Great Depression, oil fields, bustling town life.

It’s rural — cactus, cows, bluebonnets, corn patches, and stucco missions. Anyone who thinks that sounds like flea-market schlock, however, would get a heart attack over the value of what’s on these ice cream parlor walls. Most of these artists trained under distinguished teachers, and their sophisticated work has graced top-flight galleries all over the world, although values have remained relatively low.

Among the most sought-after paintings, some worth upwards of $100,000, are those produced from 1900 to 1940, a period when the number and quality of trained artists increased statewide — and the period that dominates the artwork on the parlor walls.

Amid the paintings are historic photographs, signs, and other museum-quality treasures that come alive all the more because they aren’t displayed in a museum or gallery. Instead they are hung on aged walls oozing with history and personality, creating a low-key marriage between art and the setting in which it’s exhibited. Customers aren’t charged admission. They don’t have to hush their voices or strain against velvet ropes keeping them at arm’s length. They can breathe on the art and it breathes back.

That is, when patrons notice.

A couple walked inside, bought two ice-cold longnecks, and then wandered out and sat down at a sidewalk table.

“I was more focused on the beer,” said Leslie Hardman of Milwaukee, Wis., drinking her Lone Star in the sun after an afternoon spent touring the Stockyards. She and her husband, Tim, were slaking their thirst before heading to the airport.

Had they shown interest in the art or the building, they might have received a personal tour by owner and chief character A.C. “Ace” Cook. The fellow is hard to miss, but he comes across as so earthy, humble, and disheveled that most people fail to grasp his credentials. The self-taught scholar and collector of early Texas art is stirring widespread interest in a genre long overlooked by serious artisans, collectors, and curators.

One of Cook’s fans is Eleanor Harvey, chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. “He used to own a pawnshop in Denton, Texas, and he had the best collection of Texas art I’ve ever seen in such an establishment and one of the most interesting collections of Texas art that I’ve seen, period,” she said.

Early regional art is being discovered outside Texas’ borders, and a few heretofore unknown collectors such as Cook are being sought out for their knowledge and their holdings. “There are a couple of enterprising dealers who have made it down to Texas, and they are starting to include it in their inventory and beginning to educate people who buy art on the East Coast that this stuff is really wonderful,” Harvey said. “When the prices go up is when the East Coast art world pays attention.”

She recalled a Sotheby’s auction in New York several years ago that offered a 1930s Florence McClung painting at an estimated sale price of $800. (McClung lived in Dallas, began painting in the 1920s, and was highly collected regionally.) “I don’t think they knew what they had and certainly didn’t bother to call anyone in Texas,” she said.

A bidding war among Texas collectors broke out, and the price soared to $48,000, serving as a wakeup call to New York that early Texas art was gaining prominence.

“Texas art has been viewed as a regional phenomenon rather than equal to what may be happening in New York, London, Berlin, or Paris,” said Ted Pillsbury, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum who now oversees the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University. “It’s only a matter of time, and we will realize that some of the art in Texas is accepted on its own terms and can hold its own.”

It’s somehow fitting that the person doing so much to enlighten high-brow art patrons about our state’s treasures is a guy who personifies the big, friendly strangeness of Texas and its art, a gregarious and scruffy former pilot and pawnshop owner who bought an old building in the Stockyards in which to display, for free, an art collection that’s fawned over by pedigreed connoisseurs.

“The world would be a better place if there were more Ace Cooks,” Pillsbury said.

The world, or at least the tiny part of it that lived in Morton Valley, about 100 miles west of Fort Worth, caught its first glimpse of Cook in 1935. He was born during the Great Depression and survived those lean years without a problem. It was his own great depression six decades later that almost ruined him.

“I was sitting at home going to seed,” he said of his retirement in the late 1990s. “I was sitting at home dying. I wasn’t happy sitting in a chair with a Yorkie dog in my lap. I’d had a steady job all my life and was used to being around people. I was going nuts — I mean literally going nuts.”

Cook had been a go-getter from the get-go. Dreams of being a pilot like his adoptive father, Cliff Cook, prompted him as a boy to land a job doing odd jobs at an airfield in Ranger. He took his first flight in 1946 in a small airplane flown by the elder Cook, an early stunt pilot during the Wright Brothers era.

“I just fell in love with it,” Cook said.

He soloed at 16, began flying professionally at 19 for an oil company, and in 1961 became a civilian flight instructor for the U.S. Army in Mineral Wells as the country surreptitiously geared up for Vietnam. By 1963 he was flying DC-3 commercial jets for Trans Texas Airways, later called Texas International Airlines and then Continental Airlines. Meanwhile, he married and had two children and developed a drinking problem.

Frank Lorenzo took over the airline in 1971, a man known for ferocious business practices and a dislike for labor unions. Cook saw a cloudy future and in 1974 went to work as a part-time apprentice pawnbroker at Belknap Jewelry and Loan in Fort Worth. “They were the only ones that would give me a job,” he said. “I fell in love with the pawnshop business, worked for them two years, and then started my own pawnshop at the intersection of Chicago and Lancaster [streets] in 1976.”

By then his drinking was causing problems at home. He had begun drinking at an early age, and all those years spent in oil fields and army bases only encouraged his intake. By 1978, he was an alcoholic. “My wife stood me up one day and gave me an ultimatum — either I quit or she was going to leave and I’d never see my family again, starting that very day,” he said. “She gave me the incentive I needed ... . I quit right there and never had another drink.”

He continued to fly full-time until a 1982 labor lockout put him in a position of striking or crossing a picket line. Cook ranks “scabs” somewhere below cockroaches. “I elected not to cross,” he said. “Labor had been too good to me and my family. I gave up my career. It was a traumatic deal.”

After two years of picketing, Cook put flying behind him and concentrated on his pawnshop, where he held collateral and loaned money at high interest rates to people with bad credit or bad money skills or in bad trouble. He liked people, they liked him, and he developed a regular customer base. He opened another pawnshop on the Mansfield Highway, and then another in Denton in the mid-1980s. When Cash America offered to buy him out in 1995, Cook took the money and ran. But he had nowhere to go except to his easy chair, where he gained weight, developed high blood sugar and other health problems, and sank into depression.

One day he was visiting the Stockyards, complaining about having nothing to do, when someone passed along the rumor that the Jewish couple who had customized Cook’s pilot uniforms back in the 1960s and ’70s were selling their business. Mike and Jenny Bornstein had owned MB Uniforms & Tailoring for more than two decades by the time the Stockyards became an official historic district in 1976. The Bornsteins offered uniforms to the working class and tailor-made clothes to the city’s rich and famous, such as Ed Bass, Amon Carter Jr., and Holt Hickman. Once the Stockyards became a tourist draw, the couple added souvenirs and trinkets. They had shown no inclination to sell their business or the building that housed it, but that changed in 1999 after Mike Bornstein, then 76, fell and injured his hip. Cook talked to the couple and learned they already had a contract to sell the building without even listing it on the market. He told them to let him know if anything changed. Sure enough, the contract fell through, they notified Cook, and he finally had a project that would get him off his butt.

Only slowly did it dawn on him that the building’s long rectangular shape offered promising gallery space for his art collection.

Years earlier, one of the first books Cook had read after getting into the pawnshop business was A History of Texas Artists And Sculptures, a 1928 work by Frances Fisk. “If you read that you couldn’t help but get interested,” he said.

The combination of beauty and history, along with an innate desire to hunt and gather excited his senses. “I’ve always been a pack rat, even as a kid,” he said. He consumed as much information as he could find on early Texas art, although information was sparse. He studied artists, memorized their names and styles, and searched for their paintings at garage sales, flea markets, and estate sales. He learned to distinguish fine art from folk art, and he bought paintings that exhibited flair and flourish even if he didn’t recognize the artists’ names. He bought paintings covered in dust and had them cleaned. He had torn canvases repaired. He literally became a horse trader, once trading a pony to a Dallas family in exchange for “Margaret’s Peak,” an oil painting done by Frank Reaugh in 1908.

He also gathered an impressive array of original photos, including the only known studio shot of Judge Roy Bean, which Cook displays beside three rare portraits of Bean’s unrequited love, Lillie Langtry. Some of his antique signs include a 100-year-old Lone Star Lager Beer advertisement on reversed glass — the only one like it he has ever seen.

Money is a taboo topic with Cook, who believes art is to be enjoyed and shared, not tabulated. His collection includes 400 paintings and sketches, but he refuses to reveal their worth. “That’s just bragging and I won’t do it,” he said.

Consider, however, that Dallas gallery owner David Dike said Reaugh’s oil paintings fetch upward of $100,000 at auction. And that’s today. Collectors of Texas art say the future looks even brighter.

David Dike Fine Art has bought and sold Texas art since 1986, although Dike couldn’t specialize in it back then. “At that time, if I had to keep my doors open selling Texas art, I wouldn’t have lasted long,” he said.

Since then, education about and appreciation of the genre have increased. Two Texas art dictionaries have been published in the past 10 years, including Paula and Michael Grauer’s Dictionary of Texas Artists 1800-1945 that credits Cook and Dallas art collector Bill Cheek as having “done more than anyone to promote Texas art.” Some of the genre’s most noted artists are associated with the Fort Worth Circle, a group of local painters and sculptors who worked during the 1930s to 1960s. Many of them had studied in Chicago, New York, and abroad and employed a wide variety of styles and techniques with a bent toward modernism. At the risk of angering the ghosts of Sid Richardson and Amon Carter, many art collectors don’t include the likes of Charles Russell (Montana-based) or Frederic Remington (New York) in Texas art.

“The misconception a lot of people had was Texas art was primarily cowboys and Indians,” Dike said.

Nowadays, galleries are beginning to feature more Texas artists in exhibitions. Names once known only to a few — McClung, Dawson Dawson-Watson, Ruth Uhler, and many others — are attracting interest at auction houses. The art is getting older, many of the artists are dead or have stopped working, and values are beginning to escalate, although plenty remain in the $1,000 to $10,000 range. Meanwhile, eBay has made it easier to buy and sell. “One of these days, before I die, we’ll see Texas art bring over a million dollars,” Cook said.

Add it all up, and collectors who bought early Texas art at low prices as recently as a few years ago are looking at a potential windfall — should they be interested in selling.

“Ace has no intention of letting it go,” said the Smithsonian’s Harvey, who has approached Cook in the past about acquiring some of his collection.

Harvey, Pillsbury, and other curators have asked Cook to let them borrow works for exhibit, and he is willing to share. Mostly, though, he is content hanging his collection in the Stockyards for anyone who wants to take a gander.

Jitters were beginning to discombobulate Cook as he did some last-minute preparation for a lecture. A famous author’s name just wouldn’t roll off his tongue correctly.

“Micher ... Mitchernur ... what the hell’s that guy’s name?” he hollered.

“James Michener,” said Morris Matson. He was driving up I-35 in his hatchback, taking Cook to his first lecture at the University of North Texas. Matson is Cook’s good friend, fellow art collector, and a retired Fort Worth finance director.

“Hell, I may fall on my face tonight,” Cook said. “I never addressed a college. I don’t have any education to speak of. My education is all trial and error, and I’ve errored a lot.”

The men are old friends. If Cook had been full of bravado, Matson would have been knocking him down a peg or two. Cook, however, was battling anxiety, so Matson offered gentle assurance that everything would be fine. Still, he was obviously amused that his old friend’s typical bluster was showing cracks. Talking in general, and talking about early Texas art and history in particular, are Cook’s favorite pastimes. Seeing him squirm over a little chat in front of art professors and students was fun.

Suddenly, Cook couldn’t recall the name of a famous art museum. “I’m vapor locking,” he bellowed. “I’m afraid I’m going to freeze up.”

Cook, 69, is a loud guy anyway, but nerves were turning him into a foghorn. Throw in his thick drawl, mangled metaphors, rural euphemisms, and cuss words, and he’s a guy who makes you grin even when he’s not trying. Watching him work up a lather is a sight to behold.

Once in the classroom, Cook sat straight, silent, and serious while Matson set up a slide show and dimmed the lights. Cook’s long hair, usually tangled and barely contained under a gimme cap, was neatly slicked back. He typically wears faded t-shirts, baggy pants, and tennis shoes, but this night he had spiffed up with what constitutes dresswear for him: a print shirt tucked into Dockers. However, black socks worn with leather sandals ruined any chance of his becoming a GQ cover boy.

Matson had barely begun introducing his friend when Cook interrupted, his self-control apparently no match for an overpowering desire to talk. The booming voice caught the students off guard, and they chuckled. For the next hour and a half, Cook talked art. He started by blasting Michener, who in 1989 visited the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Wyoming and wondered aloud why states such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana were well known for their regional art, and yet Texas had no regional art of significance. Michener’s statement still irks Cook all these years later.

Texas art compares well with other regional genres and some of the best there is in New York and Europe, Cook said, but critics tend to dismiss it as Western nostalgia or folk art, or they clump it in with generic American art. Even many Texas museums dismissed regional art for years and still do to some degree. “It’s always been fashionable for people from New York or somewhere to come here and tell us what is good art,” he said.

He launched into a story about a gifted Texas artist who died in anonymity. “If he had been from New York, people would still be slobbering all over him.”

The lights were low and it was a night class, yet nary an eyelid drooped and nobody left even when the lecture stretched well beyond normal class hours.

Earlier, Jack Davis, dean of UNT’s School of Visual Arts, told Fort Worth Weekly that Texas art leading up to the mid-20th century is garnering more interest and UNT is considering having graduate students document the genre’s best artists, especially those with Denton connections. “We’ve got bits and pieces, but we don’t have a lot of in-depth work on this art,” he said. “It’s an unusual opportunity for students to do original research.”

Cook lauded the art school staff for their numerous visits to The Bull Ring to pick his brain. “They came down and bellied up to the bar and weren’t afraid to ask questions,” he told the students. “Who gives a damn if you don’t know something as long as you’re not afraid to ask questions?”

Afterward, students told Cook they wished he were a professor so they could take his class. Cook smiled broadly and invited them all down to his shop for a personal tour. Not a bad offer, considering there is more early Texas art displayed there than in any Tarrant County museum.

England’s Douglas Chandor was internationally known for his portraits of British royalty and politicians, and later for his portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the elusive Eleanor Roosevelt, painted in the 1920s after he moved across the Atlantic to New York. In 1932 he married Parker County’s Ina K. Hill and settled in Weatherford. His gardener, Alphonso Harrison, became a close friend, and Chandor’s painting of the African-American man in plain overalls and floppy hat occupied a prominent spot in the artist’s Weatherford home until he died in 1953. Now it hangs in The Bull Ring, not 10 feet from a cooler of iced longnecks.

“It’s a Texas masterpiece, quite possibly the greatest that Chandor ever painted,” Cook said. “He painted the guy out of love rather than as a commissioned subject.”

The ice cream shop’s walls sport four paintings that were displayed at the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, considered by many as the state’s most spectacular art display.

“Texas art is primarily in private hands. That’s what makes The Bull Ring special — it’s a collection that’s right there for all the world to see,” said Peggy Howell, a fundraiser and publicist for the school of visual arts.

The collection and display aren’t perfect. Some paintings are hung so high on The Bull Ring’s 15-foot walls that they are hard to view, and Cook is a missing a few masters, such as Julian Onderdonk of San Antonio, one of the few 20th-century Texas artists to have been acclaimed by the New York art world years ago. Works by Onderdonk, among the first and best to paint impressionist bluebonnet fields a century ago, go for prices that were already out of sight when Cook began collecting, so he saved his money for paintings by equally talented but more obscure artists who are now getting recognition. Still, Pillsbury, another serious collector, puts Cook’s so-called “Hockshop Collection” on a short list of the best collections of early Texas art in the country.

“It could probably be a stronger collection, but given the resources with which it was put together, I think it’s a remarkable achievement,” Pillsbury said. “There are other collections more important and considerably larger, but this is in the Top 10.”

Cook, obviously, has made his peace with the established art world. There was a time, however, when locals down at the Stockyards viewed him with curious suspicion.

Mystery might be popular in theater productions at White Elephant Saloon Upstairs, but real ambiguities don’t play well in the Stockyards. Nobody knew the old MB Uniforms & Tailoring building was for sale. Suddenly, in late 1999, the familiar Bornsteins were gone and their building was in the hands of a somewhat odd fellow named Ace Cook, who was friendly enough but not particularly forthcoming with his plans. The building at 112 E. Exchange Ave., between the White Elephant Saloon and Riscky’s Steakhouse, was in the middle of a key block, the section of East Exchange that city officials and property owners such as Holt Hickman are turning into a family mecca of museums, shops, and restaurants less reliant on the bar crowd than was true in the Stockyard’s rowdy past. Any of the Old Guard might have jumped at the chance to acquire the building. After all, properties are seldom listed for sale in the Stockyards, ranked as the state’s sixth biggest tourist draw.

The Old Guard never had a chance on this one, and now a new guy was holding the deck.

Cook was country but he certainly wasn’t cowboy. He wore socks and sandals and baggy trousers to contain the added girth he’d put on during retirement (he has since whittled down the weight considerably). Above his faded t-shirts, gimme caps helped contain graying hair that retained enough strawberry to remind you that he was a natural-born redhead with the spirit to match.

A red-headed stranger had come to town with funny clothes, a hidden game plan, and an unusual way of talking. He didn’t sound Texan. His accent is unique unto himself.

“He sounds so gruff when he talks that you don’t know if he’s going to bite you,” said Steve Murrin, the former Fort Worth City Council member who owns several Stockyards buildings and has been a personality there for decades. He’s known for knee-high cowboy boots, parachute-sized bandanas, and a walrus-sized mustache, and yet he says with a straight face, “Mr. Cook is a little different than what people are used to.”

Stockyards regulars and preservationists take their cowboying seriously, and they prefer newcomers with similar leanings. They get grouchy when someone starts changing stuff. That’s messing with history, and Cook’s building surely boasts a colorful past. Built in 1910, it housed a succession of cafes and saloons on its street level and second story, which later caught fire and was partly demolished. The basement, though, was where the vice usually occurred.

Doyle Brunson played cards there in the 1950s before he became world champion of poker. In his 1978 book, considered the “poker bible” by many players, he described the scene: “The first games I played which amounted to anything were down on Exchange Street in Fort Worth, Texas,” he wrote in Doyle Brunson’s Super System — A Course in Power Poker. “I’d be surprised if you could find a tougher street in the whole world. There were shootings, muggings, robberies, and just about every kind of violence imaginable. The stuff we see on tv today is tame compared to what Exchange Street was like almost any hour of the day. But at the card table, amidst all that violence, everything was as gentlemanly as could be. It was literally two different worlds. My buddy Dwayne Hamilton and I would frequent a card room run by a gangster named Tincy whose main claim to fame was having killed half a dozen people. He ran an honest game, though, and Dwayne and I did fairly well. No-Limit Hold ’em was our main game.”

Fort Worth resident “Wild” Bill Powell, who grew up here in the 1950s, went to The Bull Ring recently, praised the renovation, and provided Cook with a hint of the stories his walls could tell. In an interview earlier this month, Powell recalled accompanying his cattle rancher father on trips to the Stockyards. “It was a bunch of piss-smelling pool halls where real cowboys like my dad would kick back and flirt with the bar girls,” he said.

Some of those trips with his father included a walk down concrete steps into “the basement,” where a 10-year-old Powell saw his first murder. A man he knew as Sparky walked by holding a longneck bottle upside down, heading toward a man at the bar. Powell thought it odd to see Sparky carrying his bottle that way. The man at the bar was soon lying on the floor. “He got his throat gouged out with a broken beer bottle,” Powell said.

Afterward, Sparky tossed the beer bottle behind the bar and nodded at the barmaid, Three-Fingered Polly, who “winked and nodded back at him and then he left,” Powell said. Regular customers knew of a back exit for quick access to the banks of Marine Creek.

In the 1960s, the raucous place was tamed by the Bornsteins, who had been leasing the upstairs portion for MB Uniforms & Tailoring. They bought the building, closed the basement, filled the outside stairwell with dirt, and sealed it with concrete. “I never was downstairs. I was afraid to go downstairs,” Jenny Bornstein said. Until she and her husband closed off access, the “winos played dominoes downstairs and played around down there.”

For the past quarter century, millions of tourists wandering along East Exchange have passed over the steps that once led patrons downstairs to a woolly world of booze, whores, and gambling.

The building had never been much to brag about, just a frame structure with tin siding and a concrete basement. But its vintage looks made it fit, in a district with a rough-and-tumble history. There were worried gasps when Cook began his remodeling by removing the tin. Cook and his kibbitzers were pleasantly surprised to see what was underneath — a huge, vintage hand-painted Dr Pepper sign spanning the entire length of the wood-planked storefront. Cook liked the sign but he had other plans.


That was Sue McCafferty’s half question, half alarmed exclamation upon learning Cook had renovated the storefront with light-colored stone that had no connection to Stockyards history. She is founder and retired executive director of the North Fort Worth Historical Society and is seldom shy about expressing opinions on historical accuracy of planned changes in the district.

“Nobody could figure out what he was going to do with the building, and he wouldn’t tell anybody,” Murrin said.

The Dr Pepper sign was dismantled slowly, one board at a time, attracting a large crowd. “People were really interested in the old sign,” Cook said. “It had been covered up for over 50 years.” People offered to salvage or buy it, but Cook refused and put the dismantled sign in storage.

The original thin-slatted wood ceiling above the building’s first floor had been covered years earlier by an ornate tin ceiling, which had become rusted and discolored. Cook and his contractor spent weeks carefully removing the tin plates one at a time to avoid bending them and then reassembled them on the basement ceiling. The cellar hadn’t been used for several decades, and the walls were filthy. Cook water-blasted them clean, uncovering original handpainted signs. A couple of handguns, including a .45-caliber pistol once owned by Tincy Eggleston, were found inside a hidden wall compartment. Three spent bullets were lodged in a doorframe. Cook poured a new concrete floor in the basement. Upstairs, he reassembled the Dr Pepper sign on an inside wall behind a new bar.

The renovation took more than three years. Curious observers finally got a whiff of Cook’s plans when he announced he would open in the fall of 2003, selling coffee, ice cream, smoothies, cheesecake, chili, and the “coldest beer in the Stockyards.” The business seemed a good fit for the building and the Stockyards, and while the renovation wasn’t exactly authentic, it was done with charm.

After some early battles with the city’s development department, Cook convinced city officials that he planned to create a showplace. They responded with a spirit of cooperation that some developers view as rare. The city even allowed Cook to dig up the concrete on the sidewalk and rebuild the stairway to the cellar, where he built a party room for large groups, plus racks to store his supply of Texas wines. A security system protects it all.

“The building is better than it ever was when it was new,” Murrin said. “He took his time and did a little at a time, and it’s really something to be proud of.”

A Stockyards bar owner early on ridiculed Cook’s decision to sell Starbucks coffee and worried that the Stockyards was becoming just another yuppie tourist trap. Now he’s singing a different tune. “It’s definitely a plus,” said the club owner, who did not want to be named. “Everybody is really enjoying having a place to get Starbucks coffee.”

Even the notoriously demanding McCafferty was satisfied, despite her reservations about rocking the storefront. “Sometimes things have to be done,” she said. “When you do a restoration, if it’s a wood frame building, it might be a fire hazard. And if he’s put in something besides a beer joint or another barbecue restaurant, and he’s making good ice cream and coffee, and it looks cute and it’s interesting, I think it’s all right. I wish the man well.”

For a long time, Cook realized people were watching his every move and eager to learn his plans. “There was quite a bit of curiosity — too much curiosity,” he said.

Now that the renovation is done, he’s glad people are pleased. He’s blissfully working seven days a week, remains happily married to his wife, Diane, and keeps in close touch with his two children, including daughter, Charlene, who works at The Bull Ring.

Cook wasn’t trying to be mysterious, he was just being A.C. Cook. A pilot was all he ever really wanted to be. Since that career was sidetracked, he had been flying by the seat of his pants. Truth is, when he bought the building — just like when he worked his first day at a pawnshop or bought his first piece of Texas art — he wasn’t sure what his plans were. But just as in those activities, he threw himself into the project at 112 E. Exchange. This time, it wasn’t his bank balance or preservation of an art genre at stake. Buying that building saved his life.

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