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'Cowtown' Is Now Just a Link to Fort Worth's Past

April 03, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

FORT WORTH, Tex. — We've been spending time here with the art of Picasso, Cezanne and Gainsborough.

We also have relived decades of American and Mexican life with the photography of Edward Weston, who once had a studio in Glendale and was guided in his career by Ansel Adams.

And we traveled with "Robots and Beyond" through the forthcoming "Age of Machines" when robots will speak, see, hear, think and create works of art.

All of this has been happening in a city where the nickname of "Cowtown" is still cherished. These days, however, Cowtown is most of all an affectionate remembrance.

While shops catering to tourists continue to promote cowboy hats and boots, the dress on a business day or social evening in the city's renaissance downtown is what you'd expect to see in Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.

Fort Worth is recognized as the nation's third-largest center for art, and its Museum of Science and History puts on exhibits from leading museums from around the globe.

For visitors, being able to travel in half an hour from robots and pre-Columbian art to a barbecue on a cattle ranch is a blending of experiences not found in many destinations.

And we've discovered that bicycle trails along the Trinity River can be just as memorable as a horseback ride at sunset.

The panoramic view from our window at the downtown Worthington Hotel brought into focus the story of this contemporary city of 400,000. Prominently framed in the window was the dome of the red granite Tarrant County Court House, completed in 1895 to resemble the Renaissance Revival architecture of the Texas State Capitol.

Below the old courthouse, now completely restored, Heritage Park was showing signs of spring.

It was here that Fort Worth began in 1849 as a military outpost to protect settlers in the area. When Robert E. Lee was returning from the war in Mexico, the story goes, he stood on the bluffs overlooking the valley and said, "I hear the incoming march of thousands of feet." What he may also have heard were the herds of cattle soon to be moving by the tens of thousands along the famous Chisholm Trail below the bluff.

If Robert E. Lee could return on April 15 and look down Main Street from the steps of the County Courthouse, he would see the street and sidewalks transformed with outdoor galleries, art pavilions, performance stages and booths stocked with international foods for the weekend of the 1988 Fort Worth Art Festival.

Ballet and theatrical groups, modern and ethnic dancers, classical musicians, rock and country bands will take to Main Street to celebrate the arts and cultures of the city.

The art festival will take place along Sundance Square, where Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and other legendary characters hid out, lived, played and sometimes shot it out during the Wild West days of the Chisholm Trail, when another nearby area of what is now downtown Fort Worth was more realistically named Hell's Half Acre.

The heart of Sundance Square is two square blocks bordered by Main, Houston, 2nd and 3rd streets. It has become a catalyst for the renaissance of the entire downtown, which scarcely a decade ago was a business district where activity ended when the day's work was done.

The meticulously restored 19th-Century buildings of Sundance Square mellow the sculptured high-rise profile of downtown. They are occupied by attractive restaurants, specialty shops, one of the city's most popular entertainment centers and the superb Sid Richardson Collection of Western Art Museum. Billy Miner's Saloon is the city's most popular bar and grill, the place to meet after work.

Caravan of Dreams in Sundance Square is a performing arts center that would boggle the minds of the Sundance Kid and the cowboys of the Chisholm Trail. The nightclub on the ground floor is topped by a second-story theater, dance studios and a recording studio, then by the spectacular open-air Grotto Bar, nested among cacti and succulent gardens under the neon-lit Desert Dome.

The Worthington Hotel, spanning the 2nd Street border of Sundance Square, rises to 12 stories. It has 508 guest rooms, including 12 luxury suites, and such Cowtown restaurants as Reflections, with fine dining, and Brasserie La Salle. There's also a fully equipped athletic club with an indoor swimming pool, two outdoor tennis courts and aerobics classes.

The Museum District is close to the Texas Christian University campus, scarcely three miles from Sundance Square. Four major museums attract visitors throughout the year.

The Renaissance-style Kimbell Art Museum, rated as one of the world's best small museums, has the nation's second-largest art acquisition budget. This is a legacy of the late Fort Worth philanthropist Kay Kimbell, who dropped out of school at age 13 and went on to build a fortune in agriculture, oil and business.

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