This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
In August 1910 on the corner of Fifth & Austin in downtown Waco, construction began on a state-of-the-art, steel-frame office building. Founders and board members of the newly formed Amicable Life Insurance Company had originally planned a structure with eight stories, but that number soon rose to seventeen and then twenty-two.
Construction on the building, known as the "ALICO Building," lasted a year and was the talk of the town, with crowds of onlookers common. Lee Lockwood remembers being in those crowds:
"They would carry those big steel beams clear up to the top of that building, and we'd just stand there with our mouth open."
Mary Sendón recalls the town's attitude toward the structure:
"My dad said, ‘That's crazy! What are they going to do? Put up one skyscraper in this little town?' And everybody made fun of it right at first because it was so tall. And when Will Rogers came to Waco and spoke at the auditorium—the old auditorium—he said that Waco was a tall skyscraper surrounded by Baptist churches. (laughter) And I think somebody else mentioned that it was a lonely spire surrounded by Baptists. Of course, the Baptists always got the brunt of the jokes. But my dad finally—they finally realized that Waco did need some growth. And, you know, they began to build other buildings, some six-story buildings. And they thought it was pretty good. Then they began to be proud of it. And the fact that it withheld the tornado was another thing. They thought, Well, that was a good contractor. He knew—he knew what he was doing."
During that devastating storm on May 11, 1953, Victor Newman was in his office on the 4th floor of the ALICO Building with business partner Floyd Casey. Newman describes their experience:
"Well, I looked up and, oh, the wind was blowing, and it was getting bad. But I'd been in storms, but I had never been in a storm like that. And Mr. Casey and I—he was there, and we were sitting there and looking. And I said, ‘Look, Mr. Casey,' and a telephone pole come down the street. It wasn't turning over or anything, but all the wires were hanging on it. And it was just floating just about right by our office, just going down. And when Mr. Casey saw that he said, ‘Vic,' said, ‘We have a tornado.' And so I said, ‘Well, what are we going to do?' He said, ‘I'm going to get under my desk.' And I said, ‘Well, I believe I'll get under mine,' and so we did. And we could hear all the noises upstairs. I thought that the building had broken in two, people just running down the stairs screaming and this, that, and the other. But when we—it was over—well, you know, that was plastered walls and things. But when it was over, there were no cracks in there, but it was just little sand, plaster, all over the top of our desk[s]. In other words, it was shaken that much. And they said up above that—up on the top floors—it was swaying enough that the desks was going from one side of the office to the other."
The building was one of the few downtown to survive the tornado. Portions of its façade were altered in the 1960s, and today the ALICO Building continues to tower over downtown Waco and serves as the home office for American-Amicable Life Insurance Company of Texas and its corporate family, in addition to offering rental office space. It's also a comforting landmark to locals, its neon lights visible for many miles at night.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For program transcripts or more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit baylor.edu/livingstories.
Search our collection of full transcripts available online.