The McDermott Motors building is a prime example of the way in which many of Waco’s notable architectural structures have been adapted throughout history in order to continually serve the city.
Wilford Dees McDermott opened a Buick dealership in Waco with the help of his father-in-law, Robert Buchanan, in 1926. Buchanan hoped running a business would help McDermott and his daughter settle down and become more responsible, and thus provided McDermott with the funds to construct a brand new building for the dealership on Washington Avenue which opened to the public on November 1, 1928.
The McDermott Motors building reflected the extravagant tastes of its owner and namesake. McDermott commissioned renowned Waco architect Milton Scott to design a Spanish Colonial Revival-style building, complete with a flat red tile roof, Mediterranean-influenced transom windows, and terra-cotta details. The showroom featured decorative spiral columns and scrolled metal balconies, as well as an embellished fireplace. McDermott filled the state-of-the-art facilities with the newest available technology and overbuilt the front portion of the store to accommodate future expansions.
Unfortunately, the McDermotts’s extravagant spending combined with a tough economy led to the business’ end at the onset of the Great Depression. After Robert Buchanan passed away in 1930, McDermott struggled to keep the Buick dealership afloat. The shop closed, but McDermott refused to sell the building, instead choosing to lease it to Waco’s National Guard unit.
Prior to the 1930s, the National Guard made use of the grounds of Waco’s famous Cotton Palace for their training and storage facility. Yet the demise of the cotton industry concurrent with the Depression led to the closure of the Cotton Palace. The vacant McDermott building—with its spacious, sturdy structure which lent itself to vehicle maintenance and storage—proved to be an ideal replacement. After the lease began in 1931, the National Guard temporarily renamed the structure Fort Fiske Wright, to honor a revered local officer who died heroically in World War I. In addition to its utilitarian purposes, Fort Fiske Wright served as a sort of civic center where veterans gathered to smoke and play dominoes and their sons brought dates to dances.
The advent of the Second World War led to the building transitioning from military use to wartime aviation production. Few National Guardsmen remained in Waco, and in 1941, Fort Fiske Wright closed. In 1943, McDermott leased the property to North American Aviation, one of the US military’s main suppliers of aircraft. The company painted over the windows and the army supervised the assembly site, but despite these efforts at secrecy, Wacoans discussed the airplane wings which were constructed there and shipped elsewhere for assembly.
At the conclusion of World War II, the McDermott Motors building served once again as an automobile dealership for a short time when leased to D. T. Hicks, before entering a period of twenty years of disuse. Although McDermott received several offers from prospective buyers, he refused to sell the property until 1978. For a short time, a Christian bookstore resided in the historic building, and beginning in 1988, the charitable organization Caritas ran its operations there. Yet after a furnace fire resulted in enormously high repair costs, the building once again sat vacant.
The turn of the century brought about new uses for the McDermott Motors building. Texas physician Len Dippel purchased it in 2001, completing some renovations on the building as well as an application to list the building on the National Register of Historic Places. However, his plans to adapt the building into loft-style apartments were never realized, and in 2014, local entrepreneurs Joel and Josh Peel, owners of Hole in the Roof Marketing and Sticker Universe, respectively, bought the property. The brothers plan to complete renovations on the historic building and move their growing businesses into the unique and spacious structure.
This recent revival and repurposing of the McDermott Motors building ensures that the building will continue its legacy of adapting to meet the needs of the city.