By Joshua Winata
Killeen Daily Herald
On a frigid January day in Lampasas, Wanda Bierschwale was staying warm inside her apartment, richly decorated in scarlet and gold hues, dark woods and, in the corner, an antique stove pipe fireplace. In the mornings, the Lampasas resident said she likes to sit in one of her plush armchairs and admire the view through the abundant windows on the north side of her living room.
"I love my front yard," Bierschwale said.
That's because her "front yard" consists of the Lampasas County Courthouse and the charming downtown square, where people below bustle through their workday. Bierschwale lives on the square's southern edge above her antique shop in one of the few developed upstairs spaces in downtown.
Bierschwale downsized to the loft from a 5,000-square-foot house across town more than a year ago because she and her husband Bill were ready for something that was smaller and, more importantly to them, didn't require yard work. The downstairs shop is actually a way to sell off their massive collection of antique furniture that no longer fits in their home, Bierschwale said.
"We did it so we could live our dream," Bill said.
Although Bill is in a wheelchair now, he is still able to access the second story via a private elevator, and the couple is very pleased with their decision to move. By simply stepping out onto their balcony, they get front-row seats at festivals, parades and concerts. During Christmastime, the lighting display put on by the city serves as stunning holiday decoration, Bierschwale said.
Their story is a rare one in the Lampasas historic downtown district. Bounded by East Second and East Fourth streets and South Pecan and South Chestnut streets, the district contains 25 two-story buildings (excluding churches and government offices) representing more than 45,000 square feet of available upstairs space, according to county appraisal district and store owner estimates.
Of that amount, about 70 percent remains undeveloped. From the street, the upper-story windows are dusty, black rectangles, hovering overhead for entire blocks like unblinking eyes staring dully over downtown.
While now atrophying with lack of use, the deserted second floors maintain a decadent appeal and beckon with glimmers of potential. Sunlight pours in through massive panes of glass that frame vignettes of the courthouse and surrounding square like idyllic paintings. Original tin-paneled ceilings, unfinished wood floors, limestone facades, exposed rafter beams and paint-peeled walls ooze with rustic charm and silently bear witness to the city's rich and storied history.
At the height of its glory in the late 19th century, Lampasas was a major trading center for all of West Texas, and downtown was its commercial center, according to local historian Jeff Jackson. Two-story buildings were prime real estate for glamorous businesses such as saloons, cafes, theaters and opera houses, and a number served as temporary courthouses until the Lampasas County Courthouse was built in 1883, Jackson said.
There was an especially high concentration of two-story limestone buildings constructed along East Third Street that remain today, still standing after decades of flood, fire and recession.
As the economic boom of the 1890s died down, downtown occupancy remained high if not capricious. Shops in downtown became more practical, though still plentiful, with businesses like general stores, telephone companies, hospitals and lawyers offices claiming the second floors.
In Lampasas Market on the northwestern corner of the square, a rear staircase leads up to a 3,000-square-foot second story frozen in time, deserted since a dance studio moved out in the 1980s. The only remnants of that era are painted window signs for insurance agencies and the Federal Land Bank, boasting 4 percent loans, and dusty waiting chairs sit in the hallway outside of the former Lampasas County Health Department.
"This is probably our favorite room," said Todd Briggs, owner of Lampasas Market.
Other artifacts tell the tale of a more prosperous time. A vintage dentist chair left by former occupant Dr. Buchanan sits above Rutland's Fashion & Western Wear. Next door at Richard Hammett's law offices, a scrawling inscription on the second floor wall – dated 1914 – is signed by Wiley Hetherly, ancestor of current Lampasas Mayor Judith Hetherly, alongside a handwritten sign touting "Meals 25?," likely left from the building's previous incarnation as a cafe. Above Jones Florist, a fireproof iron door still bearing scorch marks separates a space designated as doctors' waiting rooms.
Such historic jewels are found throughout the downtown area, but that's all they are – history. As surrounding areas near Fort Hood and Austin expanded, Lampasas began its steady decline.
"I'm not saying we've dried up, but we have to create our own atmosphere or something unique to get people to come back to Lampasas again because there are so many shopping opportunities elsewhere," said Briggs, who grew up in Lampasas. "We just have to get the people back here."
Today, a handful of businesses remains on the upper floors, all professional offices, and the few employees working there take distinct pleasure in their location.
Office supervisor Bryan Linder of World Financial Services moved in August from a four-story office building in Atlanta to his second-story Lampasas branch, which he said conveys a more friendly ambiance.
"I come to work now, and I can see all these people and say hi to them and go across the street and eat and come back up," Linder said. "It's always cool to tell people we just opened up an office downtown on the square and they know where I'm talking about."
It's easy to see why he likes the historic building, which once housed drugstores in decades past: In addition to the views of the square, the Western-themed office also includes a bar and spacious meeting rooms that are used for conferences, banquets and church gatherings.
Still, Linder said the second floor is better suited for professional services versus retail, especially with the lack of foot traffic and accessibility issues. His office, even as one of the few in downtown with an elevator, has proved challenging for handicapped and elderly patrons to reach, he said.
"We haven't had a lot of luck with open houses and things like that," Linder added.
The rest of the upper floors are used solely as storage space by their ground-level occupants. Some businesses, like Jones Florist on East Third Street, have purposely chosen not to develop the second story, currently overflowing with silk flowers and holiday inventory, because the shop desperately needs the room, former owner Nina Lee said.
Although none of the property owners was able to give a cost estimate, the one reason universally cited for not developing upper stories is money. In most of the buildings, wiring and plumbing fall below building code standards, not to mention leaking window and roofs and lack of air conditioning.
Bierschwale said she spent about $64,000 renovating just the rear half of her 1,400-square-foot loft, and her building, constructed in 2001, is actually one of the newer ones in downtown.
"When you're talking about the amount of building here, it's quite a few dollars. It's going to run up into money once you start actually fixing it up. You basically have to redo everything up here," Briggs said. "It's just going to take some time."
Debra Farst, state coordinator of Texas Historical Commission's Main Street Program, confirmed that such attitudes are common throughout Texas. Building owners frequently pour their investments into ground-floor businesses, which have higher visibility and more foot traffic, and tend to put off second-story development, she said. While business owners are saving money by not developing, downtown is deteriorating.
Things are on the brink of change, however, with a coordinated revitalization action plan called Vision Downtown Lampasas, publicly unveiled last year.
"The city's aim in this is to keep a fiscally vibrant historic shopping district. We want to stop the deterioration and the loss of income and business from the continued deterioration of the downtown area," Lampasas City Manager Michael Stoldt said. "It's not the money you make, it's the money you don't have to spend."
While survival is the immediate goal, Stoldt said he hopes that the downtown will become a tourist destination in the long run and possibly generate income through hotel and motel taxes and higher appraisals.
The action plan details recommendations for second-story spaces, earmarking them for residential use in mixed-use developments. In a sense, downtown is reverting to a proven model that hearkens to Texas' past.
"It gets back to the origins of these now-historic buildings to begin with because that's what people used to do: They lived above their businesses," Farst said. "The great thing about the trend in Texas, especially from what I've seen, is that it's happening in even the smallest of cities."
Using upper floors as housing is an idea that is being applied throughout the state, with residential projects springing up in Lockhart, Cleburne, San Marcos and other smaller Texas Hill Country downtowns. And it's not just limited to the state either: Farst called the mixed-use trend a "national phenomenon," and numerous architectural and urban studies have confirmed the success of upstairs downtown housing, which garner higher rents and occupancy.
Residents in downtown also help stimulate economic development as the demand for basic services increases, Farst said. More people living downtown means more people to support the shops and retail establishments, Stoldt said.
The Lampasas action plan calls for the development of a case study to show property owners how to recapture their initial investments, followed by tours and events held in second-story residences to stimulate public interest. Bierschwale said several tours have already come through her home, and the response has been positive.
"When they come out of the doors of the elevator or up the stairs, they're surprised at what they see because it is, to me, pretty elegant," Bierschwale said.
The downtown task force is working on creating an official inventory of downtown properties and their owners and determining the current tax base of the central business district, which coincides with the historic downtown district.
In downtown Lampasas, there are currently only four upstairs lofts, three of which are occupied with the fourth under renovation.
"I think if we had the money to go in and fix (the upper floor) up as apartments and lease them out, I think we could lease every square inch of it in 30 days," Briggs said of his property. "People want to be downtown. What apartments there are downtown stay full constantly."
Others in Texas reported similar results: "We have never had a vacancy for more than two weeks. Most of the tenants have been there since they were built," said Maxine Ammons of the Cleburne Downtown Association.
Residents Gary and T.J. Munroe moved into their downtown loft in 2002, charmed by Lampasas' small-town atmosphere. Refurbished by the Texas Historical Commission a decade ago, their building once served as a boarding house. A row of doors that used to lead from each apartment to a balcony have been split and converted into unique hinged windows overlooking an alley, and tin plates on the walls cover holes where stove pipe chimneys used to be.
Contrary to popular perception, the couple said that one of the advantages of living downtown is the peace and quiet, especially in the small town where business usually shuts down by 5 p.m. That's not to say they wouldn't mind seeing that change.
"We would like to see some sort of new business and activities down there to help the merchants out," T.J. said. "Peace and quiet's probably overrated sometimes."
Contact Joshua Winata at email@example.com or call (254) 547-6481