Even in the dusty days of the Wild West, downtown Fort Worth was a place to see and be seen. Folks like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday could be spotted in an area of saloons, gambling parlors, and dance halls called Hell’s Half Acre. Around the turn of the last century, a particularly notorious group could be seen in the area fairly frequently: famous western outlaws Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and “associates” who came to be known as the Fort Worth Five. Like many of the cowboys heading out on the Chisholm Trail, they came to the heart of Fort Worth for a bit of rebel rousing good times.
Skipping through a century in fast forward, a proper city grew up around Hell’s Half Acre. The Westbrook Hotel, one of the city’s grandest, was built in 1910. Around 1980, the building was imploded and paved over to become the Chisholm Trail lot, providing parking for the mix of retail, restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues around it. At some point, no doubt to keep the good times but lose the rebel rousing image, the area was renamed Sundance Square, after the infamous outlaw.
Flash forward to this past weekend when the results of a massive overhaul were unveiled. The parking lots have been turned into a beautiful 55,000-square-foot pedestrian plaza with a grand view up and down historic Commerce Street. The “new heart of Fort Worth” is designed as a multi-function space, able to accommodate events large or small, and includes a permanent a stage and an enclosed pavilion.
For its opening weekend, local bands played on stage while kids of all ages played in the jetted fountain. Street performers roamed the plaza, engaging and entertaining the crowds. Kids especially were enchanted by the Wave Wall, a waterfall that pulses to appear like a wave washing across the wall. Beneath four huge, color-changing umbrellas, you could enjoy a variety of beverages and bites from nearby restaurants (Del Frisco’s Grille opens onto the plaza), or just relax and enjoy the scene.
The plaza is bookended by two new structures that echo the architecture Fort Worth is known for: The Commerce Building and the Westbrook, named for the grand hotel that once stood there. Inside are retail, restaurant and office spaces. A third building, paying tribute to the Sundance Kids’ partner in crime, will open in 2014: The Cassidy will be the largest of the three new buildings, with retail and restaurants below luxury apartments.
While not all of the new spaces are filled yet, a variety of restaurants, new and old, already serve the area with menus from casual barbeque and Cajun to high-end steaks and seafood, along with several options for coffee and cocktails. Where once there were dance halls, today you’ll find the incredible Bass Hall performance center, alongside the AMC Palace movie theater and a variety of live music and comedy venues.
It was said that Fort Worth had a knack for separating cowboys from their coins. That still holds true. Just as cowboys stocked up before hitting the Chisholm Trail, you can outfit yourself with new boots and western wear, custom jewelry, your favorite Thomas Kinkade print and, of course, all of your Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys gear, all within steps of the Square.
As the sun set on opening festivities, downtown Fort Worth sparkled with a new light. The updates have invigorated the historic district with a new energy, and provided a much needed “town square” style gathering space. Just as in the days of Hell’s Half Acre, it’s the place to stop for a photographic memento of your time in Cowtown. And you’re still likely to see some colorful characters in Sundance Square, but surely, none will be as dangerous as its namesake ne’er-do-well.
Sundance Square photos © 2013 TravelLatte.net.