Milton Scott's legacy stands tall
When John Vidaurreta started restoring the outside of Palm Court Apartments this summer, he saw the work of a master's hand in wood and stucco.
He discovered that the half-timbered detailing, which gave the apartment its distinctive Tudor appearance, was crafted like fine furniture.
"The wood was mortised and tenoned together, with a slot in one piece of wood and a tongue on the other," marveled Vidaurreta, a painter and craftsman. "Crafted that way, you don't need as many nails. It was very nice to work on that because when we started taking things apart, we knew it was put together to last a long time."
Small wonder: The landmark apartment building at 2005 Austin Ave. was designed by Milton W. Scott , the man who some consider Waco's greatest architect.
"He was very meticulous in terms of craftsmanship," said B.J. Greaves, an architect who compiled a book about Scott and oversaw the restoration of a Scott building, the Dr. Pepper Museum. "I think he had a lot of influence over the details. As prolific as he was, he was also a perfectionist."
Scott , who lived from 1872 to 1933, never went to college. He learned what he knew from books and on-the-job training as a draftsman. He put his stamp on Waco with dozens of landmark buildings such as First Baptist Church, Waco High School, the Clifton House and the Hilton Hotel, which is now the Regis-St. Elizabeth Retirement Center.
Many of his creations have been demolished. Others have shown their age, such as Palm Court, which was built around 1920. But its new owners, Andy and Lisa Sheehy, are determined to restore the complex and preserve it for future generations.
Andy Sheehy, who owns a computer business in Waco, didn't know about Scott when he and his wife bought the place. But they were captivated by the building's charms: its steep slate roof, carved wood detailing, high ceilings, marble bathroom thresholds, plaster walls and wood floors. The U-shaped building contains 12 apartments, which front on a courtyard. Around back are an old carriage house and butler's quarters that have been converted into more apartments.
The Sheehys hired Vidaurreta to strip and replace the stucco and repaint it a dark sage with white trim, reversing the original color scheme like a photo negative. Vidaurreta's crew used hand-carved redwood to replace the wooden corbels, or decorative brackets under the eaves. The Sheehys also have replaced window units with central heat and air and retiled some bathrooms, and they plan to add landscaping and parking.
The Sheehys say the apartment building is a long-term investment. The property was appraised last year at $272,000, and the Sheehys say they have spent more than $100,000 on renovations. They are charging rents of about $650 per month, and Baylor students are the target market. The Sheehys live nearby, and Lisa Sheehy manages the property.
'Not fixing it up to sell'
"We're not fixing it up to sell," Andy Sheehy said. "We had the opportunity to save this building and make it something special. We wanted to bring it up to a premium kind of place. We decided that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it right."
Sheehy estimates the apartment complex would cost more than $1 million to build today. The slate roof alone would probably cost $100,000. Sheehy said it was built of Italian slate, sorted so the largest slates are on the bottom and the smallest on top. The roof shows no signs of leaking or sagging after all these years, he said.
"If you look at that roofline, it's straight," he said during a tour of the complex. "There's no leaks, because it was done so well, and because it's such a steep pitch."
Vidaurreta said he was thrilled when Sheehy bought the building and asked him to work on it. He had seen the Dr. Pepper Museum's exhibit on Milton Scott and remembered the photo of Palm Court. He inspected the building and found it was still rock-solid, despite decades of deferred maintenance.
"Looking at the construction of that apartment complex, you could tell that he really built it to last," said Vidaurreta, a craftsman from the Homestead Heritage religious community near Gholson. "Back then, your work was you. You can see the integrity that they had. You can really see that it wasn't just 'I'm going to work, I'm going to nail through this board.' It was who they were. That's the reason it's lasted."
Milton Scott 's son, John Milton Scott , says the building reflected its architect.
"My father told me that if you accept a project, do it right," he said. "If you can't do it right, don't do it at all."
John Scott , now 86, was a teenager when his father died and is too young to remember Palm Court's construction. But he remembers that his father was a stickler for detail.
"We would go on Sundays to look at his projects," he recalled. "He insisted on very strict specifications. He was the owner's protector. Some contractors would try to cut corners, and he wouldn't let them. He checked everything meticulously."
He remembers one job where his father stationed a man by the cement mixer for quality control. And in case anyone had a mind to cheat on the concrete while the first man had his back turned, another man was watching a block away with binoculars.
He said his father designed the old Cotton Palace pavilion, but Milton Scott refused to sign off on the quality of the roof.
"The Cotton Palace board went around him and approved it," John Scott said. "From then on, it always leaked."
John Scott said his father read a lot about architecture, and even traveled once to Cuba to get ideas for a client's house. Otherwise, Milton Scott was usually too wrapped up in his work to take a vacation.
"We'd camp out on the Brazos sometimes, but, really, he didn't do much for fun," John Scott said. "I would see him sometimes when he was deep in thought. He'd set a cigarette in the ashtray, then light another one."
Scott made his name with buildings such as the Sanger Avenue School in 1901 and First Baptist Church in 1906. In time he would design at least 18 Waco schools and numerous buildings at Baylor University, the University of Mary-Hardin Baylor, Texas A&M University, the Methodist Home and elsewhere.
Scott married Ivy Eugenia Thompson Haythornwhite in 1911 and had two children. He bought a house on Fourth Street near what is now the Waco police station and built a cluster of apartments and cottages around it, creating the Terrace Garden apartments, which still stand.
He built Palm Court around 1920 for R.T. Dennis, a department store magnate who lived next door to the property. Several years earlier Scott had built the Dennis house, a big, ornate home also designed in the Tudor style.
When the Depression hit, Milton Scott was working on his own project, an apartment complex in downtown Waco called the Mar-Jon, using craftsmen from Denmark and Sweden. During the Depression, he lost most of his life savings, and he scrabbled to find architecture jobs. He lost the bid to build the new post office and federal building on Franklin Avenue. Financial realities forced him to lay off draftsmen and other employees.
Scott died in 1933, the depth of the Depression, done in by high blood pressure aggravated by his smoking habit and his stress over not having work or money, John Scott said.
"When my father died, Mama inherited a mortgage," he remembered.
John Scott left Waco as a young man for a career in mechanical engineering in Houston and retired to Waco 12 years ago. He says it's a shame so many of his father's buildings were torn down.
"I guess they had served their purpose," he said. "I'm sure they had a terrible time tearing them down."
LaNelle McNamara, who owns the old Sanger Avenue School, said that building is still sound a century later because Scott designed it to last.
"By today's standards, it's overbuilt," she said. "I think the greatest tribute to him is that his buildings are still standing."
Palm Court remained a prestigious address well into the middle of the century. The heir of the R.T. Dennis fortune, Suzanne Carroll Sloane, and her husband, William Sloane, lived in and owned the complex in the 1950s and '60s. The Sloanes hosted elegant parties at the apartment complex and adjoining swimming pool and housed guest artists of the Waco Symphony.
But the Sloanes met a dark end, and Palm Court was never the same. On Feb. 11, 1968, Sloane called the police to say that he had just shot his wife and his dog in their apartment and was about to shoot himself. When police arrived, they found the Sloanes dead.
In their 60s when they died, the Sloanes left no heirs, and the property fell into the hands of a series of investors. By the time the Sheehys bought it last year, the building was in a state of decline.
Vidaurreta says it appears the building hadn't been painted in at least 25 years, and the wood suffered from exposure. Also, metal staircases that were added outside weren't bolted properly to the building, allowing water to run down the walls and into door jambs.
But overall, the building has stood up remarkably well.
Vidaurreta says the Palm Court still speaks of another age — one of supreme craftsmanship, imagination and investing a piece of one's life into one's work.
"It's almost like an archaeological dig," he said. "You marvel at it and wonder, and you want to know more about the lives of the people who built it.
"What I really felt was thankfulness that they cared enough to do it right. I honestly don't think they knew how to do it any other way."
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