When Dallas was Las Vegas

Hideaway roulette wheel in mirrored box

 Layover in Dallas-Fort Worth? Near DFW airport, take time to visit the #1 attraction rated by  Trip Advisor in the area. You’ll need to take a taxi to arrive. Make advance arrangements to visit this little-known, off the beaten trail, one-of-a-kind place that is a hidden treasure, a place steeped in history, an attraction that you skip at your peril, a Texas Historic Landmark since 2004. It’s also a place where in the 1930’s a huge treasure passed hands nightly, reputedly ½ million dollars—worth a lot back more back then!

Currently the location of Arlington Baptist College, a little less than a century ago, before Las Vegas became of age, the site was “the” place where the rich, famous, entertainers, and gansters alike gathered in secret in a den of debauchery and gambling known as Top O’ Hill Terrace. Today you can see the evidence of the crimes committed at this speakeasy by joining a tour. They are led by the wife of one of the Baptist ministers who teach the gospel here now: Vickie “I don’t even allow a deck of cards in my house” Bryant. She also serves as curator, chief archivist, historian, and head of the effort to preserve this truly amazing historic site. She has assembled quite a collection of artifacts and spins a great yarn on a shoestring budget. The effort has been partially supported by contributions from Vickie’s salary and donations from visiting missionaries from around the world who occasionally get to Dallas for education and conclaves and are willing to support the cause despite their strong religious beliefs that what happened here was a sin. Vickie herself repeatedly, sheepishly seems conflicted about having been led to this work despite her Baptist upbringing. The new Baptist owners of the property revel in showcasing sin replaced by virtue.

The list of public figures who graced the premises include Ginger Rogers, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Bonnie and Clyde, Jack Ruby, and Gene Autry. Vickie has assembled pictures of many of the visitors at Top O’ Hill Terrace. She gathers much of her information from eyewitnesses who are dying off, visitors now in their 90’s who stop by and tell her their childhood experiences here.  She collects tangible objects from the attics of some of them that now are exhibited at the museum here. She’s compiled a video record from many of them and incorporates their statements into her tale, a tale so incredible that you’d think it was fiction—but it’s true!

Vickie gingerly broaches the subject of some of the murders that happened here, a crime without a statute of limitations. So, when she gets details from some of the elders relating their memories, they explain that they can’t spill all the beans until a few more people pass away. Such is the intrigue of Top O’ Hill Terrace.

The place was converted to an illegal gambling destination beginning in 1929 when a rural tea room on a hill overlooking Fort Worth was turned into a deliberately deceptive place for law breakers. At the gate and guard house at the beginning of a long road to the tea room, a signaling system was used to alert patrons when police were coming in. Those in the tea room would disguise gambling paraphernalia—designed for easy disguise—leaving  only an empty dining room and some idle waiters. Hidden tunnels would lead patrons to an outdoor tea garden where many of the top entertainers of the day performed and non-alcoholic (legal) beverages were being served. Other tunnels ran to the horse barn and to an outdoor swimming pool. One of the earliest air conditioning systems was housed in a building next to the main gambling hall, keeping the patrons comfortable in the heat of Dallas. An on-site brothel, currently used as a dorm, housed, among others, one of the era’s most infamous call girls.

A prominent Baptist leader in Fort Worth eventually got the police and prosecutors, who were complicit in the operation, to take action against its owners and shut it down. That’s where Baptism and sinners intersect. An interesting letter from the Baptist leader to the owner of Top O’ Hill Terrace, part of the historical collection, offers to help lead him away from sin to the Lord.

Today Top O’ Hill Terrace is an amazing peek into a past when Dallas was what Las Vegas is today, only without the imprimatur of legal gambling. Don’t miss this place! For details, go to www.topohillterrace.org to arrange a tour, $10 “donation” required.

Comments

  • Isabella Iverson says:

    Really enjoyed this article – well written with lots of facts.
    Hope many will take the tour. I have been there twice and
    will go again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *