Texas Over Time: Waco’s Provident Building-Once the Biggest Office Building in Central Texas and Beyond

June 19, 2019 geoff_hunt

By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator

Texas has changed quite a bit over the years, as is readily seen in our vast photograph and postcard collections. To help bring some of those changes to life, we’ve created a “Texas over Time” blog series that will illustrate the construction and renovations of buildings, street scenes, and more. Our collections are especially strong on Waco and Baylor images, but look for some views beyond the Heart of Texas, too.

Waco’s Provident Building-Once the Biggest Office Building in Central Texas and Beyond

 

 

 

     The Provident Bank Building that once stood at the corner of Fourth and Franklin Avenue in Waco, Texas, was the largest building in Waco and believed to be the largest of its kind beyond central Texas. It cost $438,000 to build when completed in 1890, and was once headquarters to Provident National Bank. The large stone building after completion was “regarded as the biggest and finest office building in the Southwest.” During its busiest years, it served as Waco’s center of insurance, banking, legal, and government operations. When the city and county governments needed a place to hold operations when their halls and courthouses were being built, the Provident Building accommodated their needs. It was also where famed publisher and freedom of the press advocate William Cowper Brann  kept his office for many years editing his famous Iconoclast newspaper.

 

William Cowper Brann takes a minute from editing the Iconoclast while in his office in the Provident Building, 1895. General Photograph collection, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

     On May 11, 1953, the old Provident Building also withstood Waco’s biggest natural disaster in its recorded history. This catastrophic F5 tornado hit the city’s central business district killing a total of 114 people and destroying 346 buildings. Across the street from the Provident, on Franklin Avenue, the multi-story Padgitt Building and its neighboring structures crumbled when hit by the winds of this storm. On the next street over, Austin Avenue, the five-story R.T. Dennis Furniture Company building was demolished as well with a loss of many lives. However, the old Provident Building “was damaged, but not structurally in the 1953 tornado and stood like the massive pile of stone it is as rows of other buildings across the street went down…,” according to the Waco News-Tribune of July 1, 1954.

 

The Provident Building once stood on the corner of of Fourth and Franklin Avenue, Waco, Texas. Photo by Fred Gildersleeve, circa 1910. Gildersleeve-Conger collection, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

 

     Unfortunately, the solid structure could not stand the test of time in both form and function for the citizens of Waco in the late 1950s. Consequently, the Provident Building was short-lived for such a significant structure. In the Waco News-Tribune of November 26, 1958, a story about the building states: “The massive, ugly five-story Provident Building at Fourth and Franklin will be demolished.” A piece in the April 7, 1959, Waco Citizen, announced this planned demolition with the papers editor, Bill Foster, Sr., giving reasons of “high insurance costs and low rent income.” As a result, the high costs of operation and maintenance on the building led to it being razed. Many other historic structures in Waco met a similar fate over the years in addition to those lost in the 1953 tornado and later during Urban Renewal of the 1960s and 1970s.

 

It took demolition workers from April to July of 1959 to dismantle the structure piece by piece and floor by floor. In the picture, the famous stone-cut sign that read “Provident Savings Life Assurance Society of NY” is being hoisted down in 1959. Bill Foster Waco Citizen collection, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

 

The Provident Building can be seen at the far right of this picture, above the watermark. It was taken from the top of the Alico Building and shows the great architecture that once stood at the intersection of Fourth and Franklin Avenue, Waco, Texas. Photo by Fred Gildersleeve, circa 1911.

     An interesting fact about the Provident Building is that its contractor, John Tennant, used surplus stone from it in constructing his home–what would become the Cottonland Castle. Although Tennant didn’t finish building the Castle, he is responsible for the sturdy engineering of its basement and foundation. Tennant’s vision of building the Cottonland Castle for himself seems to be inspired by the Provident Building. The Castle was eventually completed by famous Waco architect, Roy Ellsworth Lane, who finished the “frame up” job in 1913. Although short-lived for such a significant structure, the Provident Building on Waco’s Franklin Avenue stood for many years and was a landmark for locals and visitors for many decades.

 

Does the Cottonland Castle share some similarities to the old Provident Building? Perhaps, look at the stone work and roof design. Roy Lane was most likely influenced in the design by the Provident’s stone contractor, John Tennant. Fred Gildersleeve photo. Roy Ellsworth Lane collection, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

 

CHECK OUT THIS FLICKR SET FOR MORE PICTURES OF WACO’S Provident Building and Fourth and Franklin Avenue

 

Works cited:

“Sanford Reviews Phases of Waco’s Progress for JCC.” The Waco News-Tribune. September 6, 1940.

“Dallas Interests Buy Provident Building.” The Waco News-Tribune. July 1, 1954.

“Provident Building Will be Torn Down.” The Waco News-Tribune. November 26, 1958.

“Provident Building Disappears from the Street Scene.” Waco News-Citizen. April 7, 1959.

 

 

 

 

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