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Famous architect's only Tyler building to be replaced by car wash

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TYLER (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - A piece of history in Tyler will be demolished this week and replaced by a car wash — even though some concerned residents and local historians have tried to save it.

The former Ben Fitzgerald real estate building, at the corner of the Old Jacksonville Highway and West Ninth Street, designed by the noted late Tyler architect Bruce Goff, will exist no more, possibly as early as Wednesday, the new property owner confirmed on Monday.

That building, completed in 1966, is the only confirmed example of Goff's architecture in Tyler. Goff, who died in 1982, lived in Tyler for 12 years and was heavily influenced by the renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The new owner, Jeff Reich, of Reich Enterprises in Longview, confirmed Monday, that he closed on the property on March 28 and has plans to build a car wash on the site. The other two buildings on that site, the London Shop Antiques, and the Midas Muffler shop will be demolished, too, Reich said.

The structure and 1.3-acre site in the Bergfeld area adjacent to Stein Mart was offered for sale at $850,000 through Simmons Real Estate in August.

"We didn't realize the architect was famous when we bought the building," Reich said. He said the almost 50-year-old structure, which had been vacant for a year, was in bad shape. "The building had asbestos in it, which had to be removed before it could be demolished," Reich said. It was Realtor Don Simmons who brought the history of the building to Reich's attention.

He said he is aware of the history of the city's Azalea District and has plans to build the full-service car wash so that it will blend in with the historic surroundings of the area.

"The exterior will be red brick and trimmed in a cream color," Reich said. There will be one sign, which won't be tall and will be made of brick, he said.

Reich said he is considering donating a corner of the property to the city so that a special plaque to honor the building or the Azalea District may be placed there.

Casey Brownlow, 46, has lived in his home on South College Avenue for 13 years and said he is concerned about the car wash being built at that location.

In an email, Brownlow said the area already is congested with traffic and a car wash could make that worse.

"The fallout will be … potentially lower home values for some Azalea District homes, noise violations from industrial washing, drying and vacuuming equipment and music from patrons' cars," Brownlow said.

He said Monday some residents in the area signed petitions pleading with Reich to reconsider the demolition, development and design of the property.

City officials confirmed on Monday that the Goff-designed building does not meet the historic requirements to halt the destruction. The building is not quite 50 years old, and because the car wash project is privately funded and no federal funds will be used in the new development, the structure may be demolished, said Michael Wilson, of development services for the city of Tyler.

"The building was properly zoned for commercial use," Wilson said, adding that the property sits at the edge of the Azalea National Historic District and not within that district.

Throughout his career, Goff seemed to retool reality to create another dimension, his colorful, dream-like creations preserved today in books, magazines, private collections, museums and the Art Institute of Chicago archives.

For all that he was, the celebrated Goff remains relatively unknown in Tyler, the town he adopted in 1970 and lived in until he died at 78.

Ironically, Goff's remains weren't laid to rest until about 18 years after his death, not in Tyler, but in Chicago's Graceland Cemetery after a Seattle architectural firm launched an international fundraising effort so he could have a proper burial, records show.

"It's really amazing how many people don't know about him," said Historic Tyler Executive Director Cassie Edmonds, a fan of his designs, said in August. "It's like everyone in the world knew who he is but us, and I think that's kind of sad."

She praised Reich, saying he worked with preservationists to help them retrieve two exterior doors from the structure.

"I didn't think we could save the building," Ms. Edmonds said Monday.

Her goal now is to retrieve the large "Ben Fitzgerald" sign from the top of the building, which Goff also designed — but there is an obstacle.

"The problem is the cost, which is $2,500," she said. Because there is specialized equipment that must be used to remove the sign, someone must be willing to do the work for that price, Ms. Edmonds said.

And she has a message for anyone who thinks that she and Historic Tyler's "Mod Squad" Modern Committee is giving up trying to preserve other modern buildings.

"Just because the building is gone doesn't mean we're gone," Ms. Edmonds said.

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