From Hayter to The Hill: Tour Historic Downtown Arlington (part 2)

I wrote this walking tour for the Arlington Historical Society newsletter. Part 1 appeared in the February/March 2021 edition, with part 2 in the April/May 2021 edition. It was my first time being published in the newsletter! 

Be sure to check out the Arlington Historical Society’s website and Facebook page. If you’re in the area, visit our Fielder House Museum in Arlington.

Fielder House Museum
1616 W. Abram Street
Arlington, Texas 76013

Fielder House Museum

I wanted to post this with an interactive map, but that didn’t work out.

From Hayter to The Hill: Tour Historic Downtown Arlington (part 2)

by Jason Sullivan

This article first appeared in the April/May 2021 edition of the Arlington Historical Society newsletter.

In the newsletter’s previous issue, we completed Part 1 of the Historic Tour of Downtown Arlington. Part 1 started in Founders Plaza. We visited Andrew Hayter and learned about some of the founding families. City Center Plaza had Arlington’s World War II Memorial, the City of Arlington historical marker at City Hall, and the downtown library to explore local history and genealogy. Knapp Heritage Park and Arlington Music Hall were towards the end, with the Bankhead Highway through Arlington historical marker as the finale.

Part 2 highlights – 

  • Historic Vandergriff Building
  • First United Methodist Church of Arlington
  • Old Town Historic District
  • The Hill neighborhood

Part 2 starts at Center and Division Streets with the Historic Vandergriff Building. With construction completed in 1928, it’s the oldest commercial structure remaining in Arlington. Vandergriff Chevrolet occupied the building from 1937-1966.

Historic Vandergriff Building

In 1937, the Vandergriffs arrived in Arlington. While not one of the founding families, their influence is no less important. Tommy Joe Vandergriff (1926-2010), also known as Tom J., was mayor of Arlington from 1951-1977. His leadership helped bring General Motors Assembly Plant, Lake Arlington, Six Flags Over Texas, and the Texas Rangers to Arlington. From jobs to entertainment and prosperity to growth, Arlington still feels Mayor Vandergriff’s impact.

Today, the Historic Vandergriff Building is a City of Arlington Local Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. There are four historical plaques on or near the building, two Vandergriff Chevrolet signs, and a large mural on its south wall. The neon signs, while a fun addition, aren’t original — they were added during renovations. The building’s location near the center of the city’s original boundaries further cements its place as a significant structure in Arlington. 

Let’s cross Division Street and continue with the tour. Next up is the First United Methodist Church of Arlington. In 1885, a wooden church was located at this site. Fast forward over 130 years later — at the same site with continuous service — and the church is thriving with over 5,000 members. The church, with its Gothic Revival architecture, is a City of Arlington Local Landmark. It’s also a United Methodist Historic Site, and it has a Texas Historical Marker.

First United Methodist Church

Further north on Center Street is the Old Town Historic District. Inside the district is the Old Town Neighborhood which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Note: Arlington has two historic districts. While not part of this tour, we also have the South Center Street Historic District, located further south than where part 1 of the tour started.)

Old Town Neighborhood

According to the district’s marker – “Old Town Historic District encompasses approximately seven blocks of late 19th century and early 20th-century residential properties. Located at the northern edge of Arlington’s original town plat, the district’s boundaries include Sanford, North, Elm, and Oak Streets. Architectural styles in the neighborhood include Pre-WWII housing, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Bungalow, and Art Moderne. Early residents include city pioneers, community leaders, and merchants.”

Located across from the marker is the boundary for the North Edge of the Original Town. (The marker for the southern boundary is also on Center near South Street.)

North Edge of Original Town

After exploring the Old Town Historic District, make your way back to Division Street and head west. Turn right onto N.L. Robinson Drive. Part of West Street, the city renamed a portion of this street after Pastor Dr. Norman Lee Robinson of nearby Mount Olive Baptist Church.

Northwest of the original city boundaries was a five-block area known as “The Hill.” Its area includes Sanford, West (N.L. Robinson Drive,) Prairie, and Taylor streets. At one time, it was the only area designated for the city’s African-American residents when racially segregated neighborhoods were the norm. The Hill’s most significant impact was before desegregation during 1890-1950. It remains a vital part of Arlington’s history. Churches and schools were fixtures of The Hill neighborhood, along with homes, stores, and a park. 

In addition to Mount Olive Baptist Church, there is what’s now known as the Armstrong AME Church and the Arlington Church of God in Christ. All three churches were founded in the 1890s and are still active today. They each have historical markers on site.

Mount Olive Baptist Church

The final stop on the tour is 400 W. Sanford Street. It’s the address for George Stevens Park. Mr. Stevens served as a Principal of Booker T. Washington School (and its precursors) from 1941-1965. It evolved from one of Arlington’s first black schools and later became part of AISD. The school tripled in size during his tenure. As a tribute to his impact, George Stevens Park is located near the school. Located in the park is a sign with information about George Stevens and a Texas Historical Marker for “The Hill.”

George Stevens Park
The Hill – Texas Historical Marker

With that, our tour of Historic Downtown Arlington comes to an end. From Hayter to The Hill, we’ve seen significant pieces of Arlington’s history. The distance on a map is less than a few miles, but we’ve traveled back in time to some of Arlington’s earliest and most prominent people and events.

The next time you’re on Center Street, take a trip through the past and tour Historic Downtown Arlington.

Blog and photos by Jason S. Sullivan, 06-03-21

This article first appeared in the April/May 2021 edition of the Arlington Historical Society newsletter.

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