Note: Another birthday, another perplexingly ordinary trip. Last year, I hit up Oklahoma City for some bitterly cold fun along the old Route 66. This year, I managed to make my first visit to Lubbock, Texas and some surrounding West Texas metropolises. First of all, I must communicate something of utmost national importance: West Texas is flatter than Kansas. Really, I swear! Even with the landscape that surely inspired Head East’s epic 1974 album, Flat as a Pancake, a nine-hour driving tour of Lubbock, Abilene and Midland left us entranced and perplexed. Inspirational and thought-provoking findings included:
- The world’s largest wind farm, and its “large” economic impact on the region
- Abilene’s barbeque deliciousness, which inspired the impromptu development of a barbeque evaluation matrix
- A small city of abandoned mega high-rises (i.e., Midland)
- A treasure trove of abandoned mid-century buildings and thriving malls in Lubbock
Lubbock, Texas: The donut city—in more ways than one
The first thing I noticed about the town of 225,000 was the abundance of donut shops. Literally, every other corner in Lubbock was offering up fried doughy tastiness. As I explored the town more, I realized that Lubbock took the donut a step further. The town had donut-shaped growth with bustling communities on the edge of town and a largely empty downtown core.
One of our first stops in Lubbock was unfortunately not a donut shop, but the local mall, South Plains Mall. After visiting so many abandoned malls recently, I figured this one would be on its way out as well. Not so. In fact, all three of the malls we saw in West Texas thrived. South Plains Mall, which opened in 1972, has undergone multiple additions to grow from 800,000 to 1.1 million square feet with 161 stores and five anchor tenants. And although the mall grew, it never seemed to get a facelift. The interior was still pure early 1970s delight. Even the exterior of the mall had an original goofy entrance adorned with a tower, archways, tiny orange tiles, and a giant sign to the let you know you were about to enter a mall, in case you were confused.
Probably helping the mall along with its growth and no need for renovation is that, unlike some of its urban counterparts that are located within mere feet of one another, this mall is the only one for 120 miles and serves about 500,000 people.
It almost felt like “normal” suburbia as we wondered around the outskirts of Abilene, minus the stereotypical vacant mall. We cruised by miles of busy strip malls and new, brightly colored housing developments on a four-lane highway loop around the city. It was bustling. I certainly didn’t feel like I was on the edge of endless cotton-coated plains.
Downtown, however, was a different story. Despite its close proximity to Texas Tech University and 32,000 students looking for a hip downtown area to hang in, the downtown seemed empty. Sure, there are buildings there, but, like Midland, they just weren’t being used. Besides the emptiness, I found it interesting that most of the structures looked like they arose during the 1950s or 1960s. I imagine the downtown didn’t just spring forth in 1952—Lubbock has existed since at least 1890. It always make me wonder what structures lived before the mid-century ones came to be, and at what point did people feel compelled to tear down those existing structures and install new ones?
I’m not complaining about the mid-century stuff though. One thing I appreciate about 1950s and 1960s structures are their simplicity. I’ve included some photos here of their simple beauty in Lubbock. Smooth surfaces, subtle repetition and crisp corners are a few of my favorite things. I fell in love with one building in particular. A striking, mid-century 20-story tower was coated in sheets of glass and funky concrete grid work on two sides and encased with giant white marble panels that flowed down the perpendicular exterior walls. The marble created a cool, refreshing feeling that quenched my thirst in the dry, brown town.
After photographing the building from one angle, we decided to grab pictures from the other side because we were feeling a little adventurous. Well, what do you know? They were tearing the marble down on the other side, and putting up styrofoam that looked like it would soon be encrusted with stucco. No!! The workers were also building additional ornamentations, like pop-out rectangles, down the once-smooth wall. I’m not sure what people see in stucco—maybe it reminds them of frosting. (mmmm)
Someday, as unbelievable as it may sound, they will probably regret this alteration. You can see this remorse with homes from the late 1800s and early 1900s. At some point, people went through and stuccoed over brick, siding and intricate trim work. You know, they just wanted to spruce it up a little bit. Now people are figuring out how to tear the stuff off without damaging the original materials underneath. Not everyone wants an Alamo home. Why can’t people just let this building sit a little bit, age and mellow like a fine wine. Given the cyclical nature of communities and their development, people will become interested in downtown again and find the buildings delightfully retro. The stucco probably won’t help speed that along.
Like the mall in the Lubbock “suburbs,” (I think it is all one town, actually) it didn’t have to be updated to attract hordes of people. Remodeling almost seems to be this last-ditch effort to save an area or a building. Like a donut, if something is good, it doesn’t need to be changed.