The history of Fort House is as much a narrative about a nineteenth-century family home as it is local twentieth century efforts to preserve the landmarks of Waco’s prosperous past.
The man behind one of Waco’s more distinctive homes was not a Texas native. Originally from La Grange, Alabama, William A. Fort came to Waco in 1854 with a caravan of five hundred people. He and his father established a plantation four miles south of Waco in the Downsville area. On May 7, 1856, he married Dionita Elizabeth Wilson. After the Civil War, Fort decided the area south of Waco was too devastated, so he purchased six acres of land at South Fourth Street and Webster Avenue from his wife for $1,300. In 1868, he built Fort House and moved his family to the city. Fort rose to prominence within Waco as the acting president of Waco National Bank, and the owner of the city’s first transit system.
Fort designed the house according to the Greek Revival style. It is constructed of locally made pink brick possibly sourced from the Trice brick kiln in East Waco. On either side of the front door are cypress wood, fluted ionic columns. The columns were made in New Orleans, shipped to Galveston, and then transported to Waco overland by ox cart and flat-bottom boat. The house also features cypress shutters and pine trim. The balcony above the front door originally extended to the columns.
The earliest floor plan consisted of a central hall with a bedroom on the left; staircase, parlor, and dining room on the right. The upper floor repeated the arrangement below with bedrooms to the right and left of a central hallway. At first the home featured a detached kitchen in order to minimize the danger of fire and to prevent kitchen heat, odor, and noise from entering the house. Around 1876, Fort elongated the ell, or perpendicular wing of the house, by adding two bedrooms on the upper floor and a kitchen and three-walled area on the first floor. This area was left open for wagons to pull in and unload provisions directly to the house.
The original plot of land on which Fort House stands extended from South Fourth Street and Webster Avenue to encompass six or more acres. The western boundary was Fifth Street. A white picket fence enclosed the property until the Fort family replaced it with a fancier wrought- iron fence sometime prior to 1890. This enclosure was necessary as the Fort family kept horses, cows, and poultry and maintained extensive vegetable gardens and orchards.
Fort House underwent significant changes in the early twentieth century. From 1911 to 1955, the house ceased to be the residence of its namesake family and was rented out to various tenants. The property fell into decline until the Junior League of Waco purchased it in 1956. The Junior League commissioned architects Bob Bennett of Waco and Raiford Stripling of San Augustine, authorities on early Texas restorations, with the task of returning the home to its former state. Initially, the organization intended to use the refurbished home as a headquarters and tearoom. However, recognizing the property’s historic value, the Junior League deeded the house to the Waco Society for Historic Preservation (later Historic Waco Foundation). In 1970, Congressman W. R. Poage announced Fort House had been selected for the National Register of Historic Places. The residence now serves as a public museum.
Preserved for posterity, Fort House stands as a physical reminder of the legacy of the Fort family and the value Wacoans place on public history.
For tours of Fort House, or for more information about Historic Waco Foundation, visit www.historicwaco.org.