When curator and historian Vickie Bryant talks about the Top O’ Hill Terrace, her eyebrows often rise, and eyes glisten – she’s like a 10-year-old bubbling over with one too many secrets.
This might be expected from someone who has been knee-deep for the past couple of decades in amassing the folklore about Arlington’s most notorious speakeasy, a stain of mortification on the one hand and a tourism gem for a university on the other. (More on that one later).
Top O’ Hill Terrace, with its underground casino and a ground-level brothel, has long been described as Sin City before the epithet so snugly suited Vegas, partly because it was an illicit establishment with all the accouterments of gambling, gangsters, girls, and the gang of celebrities who followed the smell of unadulterated exhilaration.
I get the feeling Bryant prefers it when people don’t know about this historical addendum so that she can be the one to tell it.
Bryant now oversees a museum on the very spot where Top O’ Hill Terrace was born and gained the reputation as a mobster’s paradise entertaining such luminaries as John Wayne, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra. That it is on a college campus is beside the point.
That it’s on a Baptist college campus is a whole other matter.
Perhaps this is why Arlington Baptist University President Clifton McDaniel calls his school’s embracing a gambling and prostitution enterprise “a redemption story.” What bad people meant for evil good people have turned into good.
“We are trying to share this story with the world, so what better way to do it?” McDaniel says. A few dozen people had just finished a nearly two-hour presentation and tour that pointed out tunnels (we walked through one), trapped doors, and a wheel barrel that supposedly hauled off dead bodies that needed to be disposed of.
“We believe there will be much tourism coming in on our campus, and we will get a chance to share with them the gospel. We believe this is our story to tell how God redeems.”
It’s a little surprising how many people don’t know about the Top O’ Hill legacy or its owner, Arlington native Fred Browning. A basement was constructed on the property off what is now Division Street to conceal a high-stakes casino; the tunnels to escape frequent law enforcement raids.
Top O’ The Hill had a legitimate restaurant, apparently, and a tea garden large enough for Dizzy Gillespie and Tommy Dorsey and other significant band types to entertain and for crooks Bonnie and Clyde to, as Bryant puts it, “let their hair down.”
The college took over the property in 1955 after a massive raid by the Texas Rangers scared off clientele, forcing foreclosure.
Today ABU prepares students for Christian living by integrating faith and a biblical worldview. It is small – about 250 students – offering subjects such as Biblical counseling, children’s ministry, pastoral ministry, music and worship, and a business studies course. It even has women’s and men’s sports, such as volleyball, soccer, golf, and basketball, for students who live in one of the two dormitories on a tidy campus that, due to its elevation, has some of Arlington’s more terrific views.
The invitation-only tour was a great way to announce a campaign to open the underground casinos and tunnels as part of an ambitious campus expansion that includes new baseball and softball fields. (A rendering of the new facilities was shown to tour participants, though all the talk was of those darn tunnels), as well as a new conference center and cafeteria.
Daniels said they plan to add hospitality and tourism to their business degree plan.
“That way,” he says, “once it opens up, and we go more commercialized, our students would be able to intern in it. We think it will become quite popular.”
It already is, according to Trip Adviser, which ranks Top O’ Hill Terrace right up there with Six Flags and AT&T Stadium as must-sees.
“We believe that the way God has brought us to this is to not only preserve the history of Arlington,” Daniel says, “but to show the history of our school, as well.”