Waco has a treasure of carefully preserved historic homes that show off impressive design styles from the late 1800s to early 1900s, including the four estates managed by the Historic Waco Foundation. But do residences across the city share any distinctive architectural themes?
B.J. Greaves, commercial architect and principle of Waco firm ArchiTexas, said those elaborate homes are unique, standout structures instead of the norm.
“In Waco, you’re not going to see a whole neighborhood get devoted to a particular style,” Greaves said. “You may see individual homes that are representative of a certain style, more to match the preferences of the person that built it.”
Most often, the more architecturally appealing homes were built by Waco’s affluent, early residents. But as the city developed, design trends became less important than functionality for families.
The true explosion of home development in Waco happened after World War II as veterans returned to the U.S. in large swells and started families.
That meant the quick emergence of neighborhoods filled with simple yet sturdy and affordable two-bedroom homes.
“There were two things going on. It was obviously an opportunity to make money for the people building and selling the buildings, and these people needed a place to live,” Greaves said. “It was part of the American Dream. They came home from war, got a job, married and had a child or two, and this sort of completed it.”
Greaves’ childhood home in the 2000 block of Baylor Avenue in South Waco reflects that trend. His father, William Thomas Greaves, was drafted by the Army in 1942 and served in the Pacific theater until the end of World War II.
The family’s wood frame house was built around 1947 in the modest style of other homes dotting the block. An exception was the home across the street, which took up two lots and intertwined wood and neat rows of limestone. A physician’s widow and her son lived there, he said.
Greaves said the homes in South Waco didn’t pop up all at once, unlike the planned, rapid neighborhood development model pioneered by Long Island, N.Y., developer William Levitt in the years after the war.
At one point, the dome of Baylor University’s Pat Neff Hall was visible from the street because there were few homes and trees filling out the neighborhood, he said. Still, the streets were quickly lined with new homes over a few years.
“The home that I grew up in, I don’t think for a minute that it was built custom for somebody,” Greaves said. “I think it was just built knowing that the minute they drove the last nail and the paint dried, there was somebody waiting to move in.”
The exteriors didn’t vary greatly from house to house. But the interiors would be decked out with what now are considered luxury upgrades: crown molding, wood floors and tiled bathrooms.
“It was just expected, and it didn’t really speak so much to a style, it was just what they did,” he said.
“Maybe they saw it as a nice little feature in an otherwise modest home.”
Waco’s earliest homes, like many across the state, had few notable design elements and were simply built to provide a safe shelter for the new residents, Greaves said. Home styles were based on what materials were readily available. Log cabins emerged in forested areas, while dugouts were constructed in prairie lands.
As cities started to form, residents began building homes that suited their family size and reflected their personal style or professional status.
An eight-block stretch of Colcord Avenue in North Waco, for example, is dotted with large, two-story homes that mostly were built by doctors who worked at Providence Hospital when it was located at 18th Street. Some have features such as a French-style porte cochere, columns and bay windows.
Other early historic homes would borrow European design elements as immigrant residents attempted to capture some of the familiar features of their native countries.
The East Terrace house, built by businessman John Wesley Mann, is an example of the Italianate Villa style with narrow, rounded-top windows and intricate balconies. The historic Cooper House is an English, Queen Anne structure featuring round, pointed-top towers, a wrap-around front porch and stained-glass window panels.
But as the city grew and blocks attracted new families, the larger homes would become neighbors to smaller, simple houses owned by emerging, working class residents.
“To me, it just says something about the way that neighborhood developed and the people that lived there,” Greaves said. “How the people living there felt about it, I have no way of knowing. I’d like to think that they were all friendly with one another, and it just made for a really nice experience.”