Joining the recently completed Amicable building, the Praetorian building towered over the city in 1915 as one of the first skyscrapers in Central Texas. The building’s unique architecture and distinctive character ensured that it continued to serve Wacoans long after the renowned Praetorian Insurance Company closed its offices.
The Modern Order of Praetorians, a nonprofit fraternal insurance organization founded by Charles Gardner in Dallas in 1898, rapidly expanded in the early twentieth century to cities throughout Texas. At that time, five of the state’s largest insurance companies held home offices in the rapidly urbanizing Waco, contributing to the city’s reputation in trade publications as the “Insurance City of Texas.” This prestige, combined with Waco’s rapid development, drew the attention of the Praetorians as the fraternal organization searched for new locations, and in 1911, a Praetorian office opened in Waco.
The Praetorians employed C. W. Bulger and Son to design a high-rise building to house a Waco chapter. The Dallas-based firm, strongly influenced by the Chicago architectural style, had previously designed the Praetorian’s home office in Dallas in 1909 and based the Waco building off a similar design. Begun in 1913 and completed in 1915, the seven-story building featured a gray granite base, terra-cotta tile detailing, large show windows, and the Praetorian shield logo. The interior featured marble wainscoting, tile floors, and high ceilings with deep cornices and pilaster at its construction, although alterations to the building in the 1950s removed some of these details.
The opportunity to lease space in Waco’s newest skyscraper clearly interested many Waco businesses. By 1916, floors three through seven housed tenants, with the Praetorian offices on the sixth floor. The seventh floor housed operations for several railroad companies which played an integral role in twentieth-century commerce in Waco. When First State Bank and Trust rented out the first floor and basement for its operations between 1917 and 1933, the Praetorian building became known as one of the most attractive and functional bank buildings throughout Texas.
Over the years, the historic building has borne several names. In 1934, it became known as the Service Mutual building. The name changed to the Southwestern building in 1956 when the Praetorians sold it as a part of the consolidation process that accompanied the firm’s shift from a fraternal organization to a mutual company a few years later. For short periods of time, the building was also known as Franklin Tower, One Liberty Place, and the Liberty building as it changed hands between different insurance companies.
Following its sale, the once grand Praetorian building entered into a period of disuse. For a few short years between 1962 and 1965, the Veterans Administration operated from its premises. However, tenancy dropped rapidly after 1965, and beginning in 1973, the building sat vacant.
Yet some saw the unique structure's value and sought to restore its historic dignity. W. S. Service Corporation later purchased the building and identified it as a candidate for rehabilitation and renovation. On July 26, 1984, the National Register of Historic Places added the building to its list as an exemplar of the Chicago School of architecture. In 1989, a new owner dubbed it Williams Tower, although it became known as the Praetorian building once again beginning in 1996.
Though the Praetorian building of Dallas was torn down in 2013, the Waco Praetorian remains largely the same as it did in 1915. The building’s current owner, Peter Ellis, received a tax incentive in 2013 to renovate and restore the building. Several floors today contain loft-style apartments. Other portions of the building house Anthem Studios, and the owner continues to consider options for opening a restaurant and retail stores in the future.
Just as the extravagant structure reflected twentieth-century prosperity at the time of its construction, the newly renovated Praetorian building towers over the city today, an integral part of the reinvigoration of downtown Waco.