Artemas R. Roberts was a whiz at selling insurance. The 43-year-old salesman was so successful in 1907 that with his earnings he began to think big — really big. With his nest egg and the help of chums and business partners, he was able to finance construction of an iconic building which dominates Waco’s skyline to this day.

The soaring structure was built at a cost of about $755,000 (or about $17.2 million in today’s dollars) a century ago. It is still with us today as the Amicable Life Insurance Co. building, also known as the ALICO.  

The tale of how the skyscraper on the Brazos River came into being and survived 100 years is filled with drama, comedy, splashy surprises, astonishing feats, perilous coups and colorful characters. There were few more controversial figures on the local scene than its founding father.

Roberts had a Dickensian childhood. He was born into poverty in 1864 in Civil War-torn Missouri, orphaned and crippled by a bout with polio. As a teen, he moved to Alvarado, Texas. He attended Sam Houston State Normal School, a teacher’s college, in 1884. Roberts taught school, but he aspired to greater earning potential and set out for Dallas.

In the big city, he learned the insurance trade by working his way up at Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York’s Dallas office. He came to Waco in 1906 and first worked for Texas Life Insurance Co.

After leaving there, Roberts signed on as North Texas manager with State Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Rome, Ga., while he planned his return to Waco.

Meanwhile the Texas Legislature passed the Robertson Insurance Law, which required insurance companies doing business in the state to invest 75 percent of their reserve in state securities or pay a proportionate tax. To punish the state, 23 companies pulled out of Texas — opening the door to enterprising entrepreneurs to jump in and fill the void.

Seizing the opportunity, Roberts spent much of 1908 enlisting area businessmen to join him in the creation of Amicable Life Insurance Co.

Among those who helped him:

— William Waldo Cameron: Son of the Scottish immigrant timber baron, and chief of William Cameron and Co. Inc. since 1899, the younger Cameron was well-known in the Waco community. His firm ran lumber yards, sawmills, sash and door departments, wallpaper, paint and mantel stores.

— R.T. Dennis: A furniture magnate, Dennis owned a store in a three-story building across the street from what became the ALICO. That store eventually was destroyed by the 1953 tornado, with great loss of life.

— J.P. Massey: A member of the inaugural board of directors, he also worked as the ALICO’s cashier.

— J.R. Milam: A grocery tycoon who in later years engaged in a pitched legal battle with Madison A. Cooper Jr., who in 1954 sold his interest in the Cooper Grocery Co. to Milam. The firm was renamed the J.R. Milam Co.

— H.M. Minier: A real estate entrepreneur and cotton planter, Minier also served as treasurer for the ALICO and on the board of directors.

— T.J. Primm: A tax collector and another expert in the Waco real estate scene, Primm also was a member of the original building and finance committee and served on the first board of directors.

— Sam Sanger: One of the merchant princes of Waco in the family firm with several brothers, Sanger owned one of the state’s leading dry-goods and retail firms.

— R.B. Spencer: Founder of R.B. Spencer & Co., a lumber business, and an active member of the banking industry, Spencer (1871-1923) served on the executive committee for the ALICO.

— A.R. Wilson: Wilson was tapped as secretary and assistant actuary for the Amicable, as well as its board of directors. Wilson became the president and actuary in 1920, replacing Roberts. In 1946, he became chairman of the board of directors and was known for being “good at decisions, calculation of risk and knowing when to take risk.”

Amicable Life Insurance Co. was chartered on Feb. 2, 1909. A year later, the stockholders met for the first time, electing Roberts president, actuarial and general manager of the firm.

Amicable started selling policies in May 1910 — the first one to W.W. Cameron himself, according to a 1955 company history. By Dec. 31, 1910, more than $2 million in new business has been written. The firm did more business in its first 36 months than any insurance company in the nation, according to historian Frank W. Johnson, author of 1914’s A History of Texas and Texans.

Roberts had not given up his dream of a showy structure with a commanding view of the community. He set about building Texas’ first skyscraper — the ALICO Building — right across the street from his former workplace.

The site of the building – Austin Avenue at Fifth Street — was already occupied by the First National Bank. Roberts signed the bank as the inaugural tenant of his Amicable Building; it would occupy the first two floors.

Long before Waco’s Amicable building was even a dream in the mind of its creators, the spot on which it stood was a notable part of the area’s landscape. The land originally was the site of a small pond that attracted animals and people alike.

An old-timer who went by the name of Tehuacana Jim remembered that buffalo often would gather at the pond to drink, which prompted Indians intent on killing a few buffalo to also visit the location frequently.

Another longtime Waco resident named “Aunt Sophie” Bereal, who turned 90 the year the Amicable building opened, remembered fishing in the same little pond as a young girl.

By the time of the Civil War, the future site of Waco’s tallest building was owned by W.E. Oakes, who operated a wood yard and blacksmith shop there. The story goes that Oakes needed a new pair of mules to use on his farm, so he traded the land at Fifth Street and Austin Avenue to get them.

Demolition of the old bank began in May 1910. It required more than 30 teams of men and mules to truck all the excavation dirt from the construction site.

The 45-foot deep foundation was dug in August 1910. Seeking bedrock to support the 10 million pounds of steel, stone and brick, workers with Westlake Construction Co. of St. Louis, Mo., discovered an “unknown subterranean lake” beneath the soil. About 500 gallons per minute of pristine artesian water was removed from the ALICO site over a fortnight. While the rest of the state endured yet another drought, Waco was literally allowing water to run down the streets.

Designers crafted plans for an artesian water well sunk 1,800-feet below ground level. It provided enough naturally filtered liquid to fill the infrastructure needs of the entire building. After several decades, the aquifer dried up. The ALICO was forced to use the municipal water system after all. But while it lasted, it was a wonder that earned the ALICO prominent mention in the 1930s column of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”

Watching the Amicable building being built seemed to be Waco’s favorite spectator sport in 1910 and 1911. The newspapers chronicled the progress of construction with frequent photos, many taken by legendary Waco photographer Fred Gildersleeve. He once secured an incredible vantage point by riding atop a steel beam being lifted to one of the building’s upper stories by a large crane.

Residents of McGregor took an interest in the Waco building’s construction, doing their best to try and catch glimpses of the ever-growing colossus 17 miles to the north. One newspaper report at the time the Amicable building was completed — in a time when air pollution was evidently less of a problem —refers to gawkers in McGregor viewing the skyscraper through their spyglasses.

From the start, Roberts had a vision for the Amicable building to be an indestructible symbol of strength in the middle of the bustling city. The Fort Worth design firm of Sanguinet and Staats was instructed to pay exacting attention to detail and spare no expense.

The structure was intended to withstand any storms that would buffet it. The building’s steel frame was designed to be “sturdy enough to resist a hurricane load.” Special attention was paid to wind bracing, according to the design specifications of consulting architect Roy E. Lane of Waco.

Indeed, it withstood a tornado on May 11, 1953, when it swayed but did not break in the fierce winds. But another concern for its creators was ensuring the Amicable would be fireproof.

The exterior was fireproof, based on its steel frame, tile and concrete construction. The interior boasted hall staircases fashioned of Italian marble. Every trinket or wall frame in the building was made of metal or other inflammable material. The only part of the building made of wood were the 733 window shades

Lane’s ALICO construction notebooks fairly drip with detail. The building’s lower stories would be “faced with polished granite” and limestone, richly molded, “and the upper stories faced with vitrified brick and terra cotta.

“No money has been wasted in useless ornamentation or heavy stucco work, but the design is massive and simple, without the incorporation of any imitation materials, and will be both artistic and highly pleasing to the eye.”

Lane’s notes talked about “massive granite columns three and one-half feet in diameter and thirty-one feet high. The entrance doors are of a heavy cast bronze and plate glass.” He mentioned the floors and walls would be finished with a selection of highly colored, polished marble imported from Europe. And ceiling ornamentation would feature “Roman gold and metallic effects.”

He paid special attention to the passenger elevator service. “There will be three high-speed, gearless, traction elevators, large and commodious cars having rubber tile floors and being finished in bronze, and running at a speed of 650 feet per minute.” Operators could vary the speed to ensure smooth and easy starting and stopping, without any perceptible jar. These elevators were equipped with safety devices and fireproofed.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the building was dubbed “the wonder of the day” by the local press.

Roberts endeavored to bring his Babel-like vision to fruition, to make his tower the tallest south of the Mason-Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi River. His plans were threatened by a competitor in Dallas. The Adolphus Hotel, also under construction and similar in Beaux-Arts style, was designed to be 20 stories tall. But when builders decided to add another floor, Roberts would not be one-upped — he mandated the 22-floor plan so the Amicable building would maintain its bragging rights.

The Adolphus Hotel was finished a year later, in 1912, coming in second with 21 floors. The Amicable, however, kept its superlative as Texas’ tallest tower until 1922. That’s when the Magnolia Petroleum Co. built its 29-story building in downtown Dallas. (Now, it’s the Magnolia Hotel, topped by the popular Pegasus, a neon beacon in the big city.)

From the minute the Amicable building opened in 1911, Wacoans proudly boasted of its magnificence. Some Amicable insurance salesmen with offices in the new skyscraper had business cards printed up with facts about the building provided by company president Roberts. The cards, which could be whipped out to impress friends and clients, said that the Amicable building’s 22 floors contained 405 rooms, 1,223 doors and 733 windows, held together by 250,000 rivets and 3.7 million pounds of structural steel.

The cards also touted the Amicable building’s total weight of more than 40 million pounds: it required 2,004 freight cars to haul all the construction supplies to Waco, which would have formed a train 16 miles long if placed end-to-end.

While the building inspired pride, it was also the inspiration for jokes. American poet Amy Lowell, during a visit to Waco in 1920, is said to have described the Amicable building as “a toothpick in a pancake.”

During the year-long construction of the ALICO, a steady stream of people strolled by to watch the skyscraper climb ever heavenward. Every Saturday, market day downtown for folks in surrounding communities, would bring scores of shoppers and gawkers by Austin Avenue and Fifth Street to see the latest activity.

The steel came from New York City, by way of ship to Galveston, and then by rail to Waco. The building of steel frame was ridged enough to withstand the pressure of the heaviest storms.

All offices were equipped with electric lights, both chandeliers and wall bracket, and illuminating gas. Each hallway had a white porcelain water fountain with the refrigerated artesian water found on site when the foundation was being dug. A complete power plant was built on site. It included electric-generating machinery, high-pressure boilers for power and heating, conduits and outlets for telephone service, as well as oil-burning lamps in hallways.

Roberts’ gambit proved profitable from the start. Every office was tagged for occupancy before it opened for business in October 1911. The cream of the professional class and the kings of the commercial sector vied for space in the high-rise real estate. For the next 30 years or so, it was the exclusive address sought by doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants and wheeler-dealers of all stripes.

Even through the 1940s, it was still lauded by newspapers as “the nerve center of Central Texas.”

The building boasted an on-site beauty shop and barber shop for many decades. The Old Corner Drugstore (where Dr Pepper was born in 1885) relocated its operation to the ALICO.

In 1933, radio station WACO opened a studio on the eighth floor. It erected a tower on the roof that operated there for many years. One newspaper report shared the tale of two small boys who, in the late 1930s, took its presence as a challenge to climb. But halfway up the radio tower, they couldn’t muster the courage to keep ascending nor scramble down. They were so frozen in terror that it took the combined efforts of police and the fire department and the cajoling of four anxious parents to get the naughty lads down.

Temptation for a repeat performance by later daredevils was finally removed in 1947, when the WACO-AM broadcast tower was moved to the outskirts of town.

Roberts’ star had risen so quickly, there was even talk in 1918 of him running for governor of Texas on the Prohibition Party ticket. A Democrat by inclination, he nonetheless entertained visiting Republican potentates Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

For a brief time, in the spring of 1916, he flirted with media moguldom as owner of the Waco Morning News. But mere months after purchasing the paper, he sold his stock back to the previous owners, according to Patricia Bernstein, author of The First Waco Horror.

As president, actuary and general manager of Amicable Life Insurance Co., Roberts was leader of the rapidly expanding enterprise until he was ousted in a boardroom coup in 1920.

Roberts had begun buying up shares of Amicable stock in about 1917, a move analysts later calculated was preparation for liquidation of his chief asset, the skyscraper. He convinced many stockholders to sell out for only a dime on the dollar, and when he had amassed 98 percent of the company it was near collapse.

But a savvy insurance examiner in 1920 blew the whistle on Roberts, who was planning to sell out to Southern Life Insurance Co. of Dallas.

According to a 1955 account of the coup by one of its witnesses, the board elected A.R. Wilson as the new company president. When an enraged Roberts tried to go for the gun in his desk, he was stopped by J.P. Massey, board secretary. Wilson asked for his keys and the two almost came to blows. Fortunately, the timely appearance of Waco Police Chief Guy McNamara ensured there would be no trouble. Some accounts say McNamara was tipped off beforehand and was stationed behind the curtains in the board room in case the need for his quick intervention would arise.

“Mr. Massey led Mr. Wilson back to his office and both imbibed a highball (this, during Prohibition), which seemed to be very refreshing and muchly needed to settle the nerves of the men who had been through such a trying ordeal,” the witness recounted.

A consortium of local businessmen bought back Roberts’ shares some weeks later. Half were sold to area banks and half back to the company itself. Roberts left Waco under a cloud and set out for Corpus Christi, where he farmed cotton and drilled for oil.

In 1931, he returned to Waco and purchased the Provident Building at Fourth Street at Franklin Avenue, where he organized Palladium Life Underwriters Inc. But the company went under during the bank “holiday” of March 1933, and a broken Roberts died only weeks later in Corpus Christi. He is buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery.

Additional sources: Waco Tribune-Herald files; the Texas Collection at Baylor University; Southern Architectural Digest (Sept.-Dec. 1911); 1981 thesis by John Kurtis Gayle; AlicoBuilding.com, WacoHistoryProject.org.

ALICO 2011: A view from the 17th floor

From his corner office on the 17th floor of the venerable ALICO, Doug McDurham enjoys the occasional visit from a red-tailed hawk that finds the window sill more than 200 feet above Waco the tallest perch downtown.

McDurham, executive director of Communities In Schools of the Heart of Texas, relocated the nonprofit agency to the historic high-rise in August 2002 to be closer to the beat of the streets.

“We wanted to be downtown,” he said. The fact that he’d be within walking distance of the major power-brokers of Waco — the school district, City Hall and business leaders — was one lure to move up in the world.

The building’s management had an entire floor open for CIS (the 15th). It was located below the floor set aside for meeting rooms and a break room, for which the nonprofit didn’t have to pay extra. Two years ago, McDurham moved his office to the 17th to make more room on the 15th.

“We love working in the ALICO,” he said of the solid, century-old structure. “But I will tell you this — it’s a little creepy on the very windy days. You can feel the sway of the building in your stomach.”

But the plusses far outweigh the occasional queasy episode, McDurham added. “I love some of the architectural elements of the place; the ornate, brass locks on the doors with the Amicable name in the scrolling; the mixture in the lobby of the original fixtures and the ’70s remake.”

He is especially fond of the old-style drop mail chute, a series of tubes that collect the out-bound mail. “When I put a letter in, I lean my ear over to listen (because) it’s kinda fun to hear it drop 17 floors.”

One time, be dropped mail in the chute and instead of the expected kerplunking on its gravitational journey, it seemed to thud only two floors or so below him. Further investigation revealed that a letter dropped by someone in the building days earlier apparently had gotten wedged in the tube, creating a bottleneck that had to be cleared.

Whether laboring late into the night on a funding grant or coming in early to get ready for a meeting, McDurham said the atmosphere is incredible. He said some of the magic of working in the lofty ALICO comes from watching the sunset or sunrise from the grand structure that remains a centerpiece of Waco.