Allure of the ALICO: mystery and history behind Waco’s favorite building

Hewitt sophomore Timothy Arterbury said his favorite photo he's taken of the ALICO is a ground shot looking upwards from the street immediately in front of the building. Photo credit: Courtesy of Timothy Arterbury

By Sarah Jennings, Reporter

From almost every direction, the ALICO building points both strangers and Wacoans downtown. The literal shining beacon connects Waco’s generations together, a common indicator of a life lived in this city.

“I think people like it because it’s such a unique part of Waco,” said Colorado Springs, Colo., senior Victoria Cox. “It’s immediately associative with Waco, but it’s also sort of a mystery.”

Fred Gildersleeve, Waco photographer, captures the Amicable building's original street level facade before the renovations in the Urban Renewal project, c.1926. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Texas Collection

The ALICO building was constructed in 1910 for the Amicable Life Insurance Company and designed by architects Roy E. Lane and Sanguinet & Staats. It was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River and south of the Mason-Dixie line until 1929, according to the “Amicable (ALICO) Building” entry by Kyle Baughman and Amanda Sawyer on the Waco History app.

Unlike other structures at the time, the building had a steel frame — the reason it weathered Waco’s 1953 tornado. In all, the building is 303 feet to the top of the flag pole — 22 stories.

Besides the addition of the ALICO lettering, the top of the building has stayed constant. The street level, however, has evolved significantly. With the Urban Renewal Project taking place between 1958 and 1978, the Amicable building became the ALICO Center. Geoff Hunt, the audio and visual curator for The Texas Collection said at one point, KWTX put a massive antenna atop the building, raising the height to 456.5 feet. The antenna has since been removed.

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Three women walk the Austin Avenue Pedestrian Mall with the then-new facade of the ALICO center behind them. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Texas Collection

Hunt said the ALICO building gained a new façade indicative of mid-century modern architectural style in 1966. As a kid, he said he used to go to the Austin Avenue pedestrian mall. His interest in the building began then, he said. He has since put together a Flickr blog post titled “1966: The Year Waco’s ALICO Building Meets Mid-Century Modern.”

“The ALICO was built around 1911 and has adapted so much to its surroundings, matching the street level,” Hunt said. “It grew with the changing surroundings. But now it’s more of a remnant of the radical change that they did to downtown Waco with urban renewal with the pedestrian mall.”

While the history of the building interests many, others are attracted to the building for artistic and photographic purposes.

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Colorado Springs, Colo. senior Victoria Cox, climbed to a ledge on top of the Baylor Social Work parking garage for an adventurous shot of the ALICO building. Photo credit: Sarah Jennings

“The ALICO’s simplicity and iconic all-caps lettering make it an interesting photographic subject,” Hewitt sophomore Timothy Arterbury said. “The building has a very repetitive architectural pattern until the top three floors, where it is more accented. This helps emphasize the top of the building more, drawing people’s eyes to the bright red lettering. It’s also in the heart of downtown Waco, and since it towers over pretty much every other building, nobody can miss seeing it.”

This classic photograph is taken from S. 5th St. Geoff Hunt later took a modern shot of this photo. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Texas Collection

Arterbury is not alone in his interest in the ALICO and Waco architecture. Hunt, an avid photographer as well as a historian, recreated a classic shot of the ALICO from nearby Schmaltz’s Sandwich Shop. The photograph is from the repertoire of one of Waco’s earliest photographers, Fred Gildersleeve.

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Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator at the Texas Collection, stands near Schmaltz's Sandwich Shop on S. 5th St. to replicate Fred Gildersleeve's--an iconic Waco photographer (1881-1958), full building shot of the ALICO building. Photo credit: Courtesy of Geoff Hunt

“I just wanted to see if my lens could replicate, not copy, Gildersleeve’s work, of course,” Hunt said, “It was a challenge. Kind of like climbing a mountain, but taking a picture of the tallest building in Waco. I wanted to get the whole thing into focus, and into proportion.”

People view the ALICO building as a challenge, both to photograph and to climb.

“Apparently it used to be on the Baylor bucket list, to climb the side of the ALICO building to the top,” Cox said. “Not many people have done it, but it has been done. I think it’s actually an older tradition. I don’t know of many people who have done it recently, because the police have cracked down on it.”