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Metro Tower skyscraper survives tornado, neglect

Giant of the skyline

BY Doug Hensley
For the Avalanche-Journal

For decades, it has been one of Lubbock's most recognizable buildings, rising from the brink of destruction and shaking off a legacy of controversy along the way.

From landmark to eyesore and back again, this is the journey, literally and figuratively, of a battered but unbowed structure.

Although now known as the Metro Tower, many remember it as the Great Plains Life Building, a 20-story structure that served as a stark reminder of the damage perpetrated on the city by the May 1970 tornado that killed 26 people and caused $135 million in damage.

According to an Associated Press story, attorney Charles Brazill was working alone in his library on the 19th floor of the building that spring night.

"I had no warning because I had been up there all evening," he said in a story published in 1985. "My wife called and said she thought the wind was about to blow a window out at home. I told her the building was falling down and I had to get out of there, right now."

He reached the hallway before the storm knocked him to the floor. Then the building began to sway - but it never toppled despite losing thousands of bricks and having some 60 percent of its windows shattered. Ultimately, engineers determined the force of the tornado caused the building to "drift" approximately 10 inches. In fact, a study issued by the Texas Tech civil engineering department in the aftermath of the tornado reported the Great Plains Life Building was "structurally safe and can be repaired to serve a useful function in the future."

Despite that testament to the quality of engineering behind the building, the 111,000-square-foot structure became a business address no one wanted. A-J accounts reported that tenants stayed away. Pigeons, though, claimed the place as their own. The vacant Great Plains Life Building, a downtown showpiece completed in 1955 at a cost of more than $3 million, tragically now was Lubbock's most visible scar.

Then things got worse.

According to a Jan. 5, 1972, story in The A-J, approximately 10,000 bricks crumbled and crashed to the ground, causing confusion in the downtown area and prompting precautionary police barricades around a two-block area.

"I was standing in the middle of the lot," said eyewitness Jerry Stevens, who worked as an attendant in a parking lot north of the building, "when I saw a couple of bricks fall and looked up. The whole section buckled and I ran. I heard a pop and turned and saw a huge flash of light from the broken power line."

No one was injured by the falling debris, which came from the ninth and 10th floors of the building's north side. A recent winter storm was cited as the culprit, but the building's structural integrity remained intact, according to officials.

"I don't see how anyone kept from getting hurt," said eyewitness Pete Brown. "Cars were on the parking lot on the west side. Bricks were scattered around. It was scary. The first thing that hit my mind was to get out of there."

The incident set off a protracted and sometimes bitter battle that pitted the city and downtown business owners against the building's owners. Two weeks later, City Councilman Morris W. Turner insisted efforts be made to force the owners to either rebuild or demolish the skyscraper, according to an A-J article.

The building's New York owners countered, "It is the city's responsibility to see that this dangerous condition is corrected." City officials, meanwhile, were smoldering over expenses incurred as a direct result of the falling brick as well as more than $50,000 of unpaid city and school taxes in the nearly two years since the tornado struck.

The feud simmered for another year with various ideas floated. At different points, the building was to be converted into either a home for the elderly, a 175-room hotel or a high-rise apartment complex contingent on Federal Housing Administration funding. As it turned out, FHA guidelines precluded that from taking place.

"The building, as it is, is not doing anything for the town or for the owners," said Richard Lax of Realty Equity Corp., which owned the structure. "The entire situation has to be approached on the basis that we're all pulling together for the same thing.

But nothing happened.

A year later, though, the Small Business Administration approved a $500,000 disaster rebuilding loan just a few days after high winds caused more bricks to fall. The loan never became reality as a result of a $100,000 tax lawsuit that had been filed by the city on Valentine's Day 1972.

"We're very concerned with the lack of progress on this high-rise pigeon roost," David Hester, president of a merchants organization, told The A-J in 1973. "Downtown businessmen go to bed every night with the building on their mind. We all hope that when we awake the next morning it will be gone."

His group tried to do its part, filing a nuisance suit in September claiming the building was hazardous, unsightly and offensive to the senses. By November of that year, an out-of-court "arrangement" was reached hours before the tax suit was to be heard.

The building, which had been under seven ownership groups from New York to Florida in its less than 20 years, was foreclosed for taxes and would be sold on the courthouse steps in a Feb. 5 sheriff's sale.

A few curious souls began kicking the tires almost as soon as the announcement was made. Cleddie Edwards, city tax attorney, told The A-J he had been contacted "by a few people, but they don't want to say who they are representing and haven't said what they want to do with the building."

Just hours before the public auction, Gaut & Gaut Real Estate Investments of Amarillo purchased the building for $115,000 in back taxes and an undisclosed amount of money, according to an A-J article. At the time, the city had assessed the building and its land at $292,930.

"Vandals have done about as much damage to the interior as the tornado did," Rufus Gaut said. "Doors are marked up. Walls have been kicked in, and we've had reports of people carrying carpet out of here."

The new owners breathed new life into the building, opening three floors of the Metro Tower on Oct. 15, 1975. The company installed a smoke vestibule to the building's stairway and a smoke-protection system for all floors tied directly to the central fire station. Energy-conserving reflective glass also was installed, according to an A-J story. New tenants were happy to occupy what was once again becoming the premier downtown business address.

In 1976, the Continental Room, a European-style restaurant with a view from the 20th floor, opened. The 6,000-square-foot establishment was owned by a group of Lubbock residents and could seat 95 for lunch or dinner with room for another 70 in a lounge area.

The Metro Tower enjoyed a continued renaissance through the next decade, claiming 85 percent occupancy by the mid-1980s. The occupancy rated dipped to 40 percent in the ensuing years, but the Metro Tower was purchased in 1997 by NTS Communications, which attracted a number of other communication-related businesses as the building edged toward full capacity.

"It's been a pretty good investment," NTS official Brad Worthington told The A-J in 2000. "We know it's a 50-year-old building, but structurally, it's sound."

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The A-J Remembers The Most Important People in Lubbock's History

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