Debbie Liles was doing her thesis for her master’s degree about an obscure figure named Wyatt C. Hedrick, a talented architect during the Depression era. His company designed and built a number of Fort Worth’s buildings at a time when the city was transitioning from a small-time cow town into the metropolis Texas celebrates today. One of his most prominent projects was the Will Rogers Coliseum, and, reasoned Liles, someone must have written something on its construction and design. Nobody had.
Liles was born in England, and grew up with a keen appreciation for history, which she credited to her mother. Her travels around Europe culminated in a journey to Texas when she was sixteen. She later married a Weatherford native and raised a family, but her passion for the past led her to earn a degree in history and ultimately research and write her first book, entitled Will Rogers Coliseum, a pictorial history of the famous building.
Liles was spurred to write the book both because of her desire to become a published author prior to earning her doctorates and because of her interest in local history. Through her work at the Texas State Historical Association, she had come into contact with the publishing company Arcadia, which specializes in local history.
“It all kind of fell in line,” she recalled.
“For me, I wanted to tell a story. There is no historic protection on that building,” Liles said, explaining her choice of pictures to include in the work. “The City of Fort Worth can plow it down tomorrow. It has no historic protection. I wanted to present the history of the structures in a way that helped it gain historic preservation.”
The coliseum, Liles explained, clearly meets the qualifications for preservation as a historic building.
“Why they don’t preserve this structure is beyond me,” Liles said, noting that it was often on the top ten list of most endangered buildings in Fort Worth. Through her book, Liles hoped “to give anybody that wanted to help preserve the structures a tool.”
The Will Rogers Coliseum was built in 1936 as part of the 100th year celebration commemorating Texas’ independence from Mexico. Funding for the building was partially provided by the federal government under the New Deal.
“If you look around now, we still have millions of structures that were built during that period,” Liles said.
Will Rogers Coliseum takes the reader back in time through the history of the area and the construction and use of the iconic landmark, revealing periods were cows were little taller than donkeys and showcasing photographs of famous personalities like the Rev. Billy Graham speaking at the coliseum.
Liles hopes to write more books — “I have three or four on the back burner right now,” she said — after finishing her dissertation. But whether she does or not, her pictorial history will bring Will Rogers Coliseum to life for a whole new generation of Americans who may not remember the Depression, but who may visit one of its most well known artifacts every weekend.