More than a century after its original owners named Thistle Hill for the flowers blanketing the surrounding pastureland, the historic mansion sits, an era preserved, amid a city that’s grown up around it.
Two parking garages flank Thistle Hill to the east and west. The Dodson Specialty Clinics, which offer outpatient care, dwarf the mansion from the south. Cook Children’s Medical Center, which has neighbored the mansion since 1989, owns all three, as well as some of the land across the street, on Pennsylvania Avenue.
After decades of coexisting, the children’s health care system now owns the mansion, too. Thistle Hill’s most recent steward, Historic Fort Worth, gave the property to the hospital after changes in the neighborhood affected the mansion’s viability as an event venue, according to a recent press release.
“Cook Children’s truly is the logical next owner due to not only its proximity to the hospital — because it truly does surround Thistle Hill now — but also, because of (Cook Children’s) commitment to preserve the structure,” Gail Landreth, a Historic Fort Worth board member, told the Report.
The health care system plans to use the mansion as a meeting space and maintain “its historic beauty,” according to the press release. Cook Children’s declined to elaborate on its plans for the mansion beyond the press release.
The mansion’s public tours, available four days a week, as well as all booked rentals will continue through the end of 2022. And, because of a legal agreement between Historic Fort Worth and the Texas Historical Commission, the health care system and any future owners of Thistle Hill must seek permission from the state agency before modifying the property.
Thistle Hill, built in 1904 for Electra Waggoner, a cattle baron’s daughter, and her husband, A.B. Wharton, changed hands throughout the 20th century after serving as a private residence for two families. The shifting ownership reflected the shifting landscape around the mansion, Landreth said.
“As the neighborhood around it changed, it became less attractive for an individual homeowner,” she said. “Now, the changes in the landscape have made it not as attractive as an event venue.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the clang and rumble of construction on Cook Children’s westside parking garage permeated the grounds of Thistle Hill. The mansion’s walls, which for decades have contained lavish dinners, parties and weddings, did not guard against the noise.
The Girls Service League of Fort Worth purchased the mansion from the Scott family, who succeeded the Whartons, in 1940, offering its rooms as dormitories for young women. Although the league protected Thistle Hill from demolition, the fate of similar mansions at the time, the nonprofit couldn’t afford the cost of major repairs, according to the Texas State Historical Association.
In a grassroots effort to “save the Scott,” a second nonprofit, Texas Heritage Inc., purchased the property in 1976, initiating its tenure as a house museum and event venue. Historic Fort Worth received Thistle Hill as a gift in 2006.
Since the 1970s, the mansion has been triple-landmarked — designated as a historic site at the local, state and national levels. In 2007 and 2015, Thistle Hill also received Texas Preservation Trust Fund grants, tied to a deed covenant between Historic Fort Worth and the Texas Historical Commission.
A deed covenant is a voluntary legal agreement to protect a historic property or site by restricting its future development. The covenant is “running with the land” and applies to new owners like Cook Children’s, Chris Florance, spokesperson for the Texas Historical Commission, told the Report.
During its stewardship of Thistle Hill, Historic Fort Worth restored the mansion’s interior, garden pergola and front porch terrace. The nonprofit also added a ramp and wheelchair-friendly bathroom, enabling the mansion to become compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Thistle Hill needs further restoration, Landreth said. The perimeter wall, decorative woodwork around the roof and nearby carriage house, which once served as a shelter for both cars and horse-drawn carriages, require repair. Those responsibilities now fall to Cook Children’s, Landreth said: “We are simply passing the torch.”
For years, the mansion has hosted innumerable family-friendly celebrations: holiday parties, Easter egg hunts, picnics on the lawn. The transfer of ownership to Cook Children’s, the only pediatric hospital in Tarrant County, makes sense, Landreth said. The gift serves as an initiation into the next phase in the mansion’s life.
“Over the years, (Thistle Hill) has really opened up to the community, and that’s why it’s beloved by so many people,” she said. “It touched a lot of lives, and now I hope it will continue to touch a lot of lives.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify that Thistle Hill received Texas Preservation Trust Fund grants in 2015 and 2007.
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.