The Pig’s Last Stand
By Mary Baswell
For Reporting Texas
BEAUMONT — This industrial city is poised to lose one of its most significant cultural landmarks — and for once it has nothing to do with oil, gas or the Gulf.
Demolition day is approaching for Pig Stand #41, a once-popular, circular-shaped restaurant constructed in 1941. Local historical groups, along with a grass-roots movement, are now trying to raise $350,000 to save the shuttered eatery, which is on the Society for Commercial Archeology’s list of 10 Most Endangered Roadside Places. But in October, the city approved zoning ordinances that allows the current owners to raze the building.
Its mid-century futuristic roadside design stood out in Beaumont. “This is the cover of the calendar, theiconic post-war commercial building in Beaumont,” said Gregory Smith, National Register coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission.
The original, less distinctive Pig Stand opened in Dallas in 1921 and is regarded as the nation’s first drive-through restaurant. In his book “The American Drive-In: History and Folklore of the Drive-in Restaurant in American Car Culture,” Michael Karl Witzel credits the chain as the birthplace of “car hops,” the chicken-fried steak sandwich and onion rings. He says that #41 originated Texas toast, now ubiquitous across the country. In 1934, there were more than 120 locations nationwide; now there are less than a handful left.
Artist Randy Welborn featured the Beaumont diner in “The Celebration,” a piece from his Moments to Remember collection. In the Panhandle, #41’s signature design is depicted alongside Elvis Presley in a mural that pays tribute to Route 66 pop culture.
The restaurant closed unexpectedly in 2006. Two years later, unaware of its history, Port Arthur businessmen Hamidullah Habib, Abdulla Moosa and Saleem Meghani bought the property, intending to demolish the deteriorated diner and build a convenience store. The appeal was the diner’s location, the intersection of Martin Luther Jr. Boulevard and Calder Avenue, a busy commercial corridor and main artery to Beaumont’s downtown and Lamar University as well as Interstate 10 and Highway 69.
In 2009, Darlene Chodzinski, executive director of the Beaumont Heritage Society, met with the men, who own several gas stations in the area, to tell them about the building’s history. Surprised by its significance, they agreed to work with anyone interested in purchasing the property. Despite local media coverage of their offer, no buyers came forward. In October, the three returned to their original plan and the city approved a zoning request, leading many to believe a demolition permit is not far behind. The businessmen did not respond to interview requests.
The 2011 appraisal records show the land and its contents are worth $115,000, but restoring the property would cost nearly triple that amount. It’s eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which carries a 20 percent tax incentive for restoration costs, but the 71-year-old building would need to be brought up to code, including costly asbestos abatement and a new fire suppressant system.
But restoration is just one part. Chodzinski said that in order for preservation to be truly successful, the structure must be not only saved but also function as a business, a particularly risky investment in Beaumont’s struggling economy. Others in town don’t think the building is worth saving. “Let’s take lots of photos, save souvenirs from the building, then let it go — tear it down,” Elmer117 commented on arecent Beaumont Enterprise blog post.
Smith fears it’s may already be too late. He said that a community must mobilize as soon as a historic landmark like Pig Stand #41 is threatened. “Once the wrecking ball is in place, it’s too late,” he said.
In an eleventh-hour attempt, Save Our Pig, a group of young tech-savvy residents has begun a Web campaign to “fight” for #41. The organization, which declines to talk to the media, hosts social media pages as well as a website. In a recent Facebook post, it said it was “hoping” to speak with the owners “in order to further our goal and solidify our stance.”
Carolyn Howard, executive director of Beaumont Main Street, confirmed her organization is advising the group and said that its members are staying mum in an effort to avoid “over-promising and under-delivering” but are “getting ready to do great things.”
Smith called Pig Stand #41 a “one-of-a-kind building.” Inside, waxy-purple booths still line the dining room, swivel-stools are still perched at the bar. But outside, the building’s pink and blue paint is faded and rust flakes from its whimsical, wavy awnings. Someone has scrawled “Save Me” into the dust covering the windows.
“It’s not an easy problem and there’s no simple solution,” Chodzinski said with a sigh. “But most people are looking at it with their eyes wide open. They think it would be wonderful to save the building, but they just don’t see it happening.”