The skylines of such major cities as Dallas and Atlanta changed markedly in the 1960s and 1970s. Though it took millions of dollars and an army of builders and architects, these projects emerged from the visions of only a handful of individuals. Trammell Crow was one of the leading developers of the mid-twentieth who brought these visions to reality, moving from a modest background to becoming a Texas business legend.
Fred Trammell Crow was born in 1914 in East Dallas. He was one of eight children in a small, three-room house. His father was an accountant and provided a modest living for the large family. From a young age, Crow was willing to go out and find work. Starting at age ten, he took a series of odd jobs from plucking chickens to loading trains.
Crow graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Dallas in 1932. Initially unable to afford college, he took a series of jobs to save for his education, which was difficult as it was during the Great Depression. Eventually landing a $13 per week job (or about $254 per week in 2018 dollars) as a messenger for a local bank, he was able to enroll at Southern Methodist University in 1933. After an extended program of night courses, Crow graduated with a degree in accounting in 1938 and that year became the youngest certified public accountant in the state.
He worked for a Dallas accounting firm before enlisting in the navy in 1940. During his time in the navy, he worked as an auditor to ensure proper fulfillment of contracts with defense manufacturers. Crow married Margaret Doggett in 1942, who had narrowly escaped death in 1939 when the Nazis sank an English passenger liner she had boarded. He stayed in the navy until 1946, and returned to Dallas.
Crow and his wife eventually had six children. Crow was reported as a devoted father, attentive in their lives, and would often bring them to the office as young children while he worked on his various projects that developed into a real estate empire. By 1949, he saw manufacturing and distribution increasing in Dallas and the need for storage. He built his first warehouse and leased it out to Ray-o-vac Battery. However, almost half the space was unused; and Crow leased the remaining space to Decca Records. It was a different approach than the traditional practice of building to the specifications of a specific customer. Crow made it successful and quickly branched out.
By the mid-1950s, he was the largest developer of warehouses in the city. He also worked with fellow Dallas real estate developer John Stemmons for many years. The two developed the Dallas Market Center in 1957. Stemmons, concerned with the large debt accrued with the project, largely ceased working with Crow afterward. However, Crow continued to expand and develop the property which eventually included the Dallas Trade Mart and Dallas World Trade Center.
The decade of the 1960s saw some of his most ambitious projects materialize. In the early years of the decade, he began working with Georgia businessmen to create Peachtree Center in downtown Atlanta. Billed as “a city within a city,” developers envisioned it as a new downtown core for the city. A series of 14 buildings would be built or redeveloped into conference centers, office space, and hotels. Peachtree Center Tower, a 31-story building, was unveiled in 1965. In the late 1960s, he partnered with financier David Rockefeller and developer John Portman to build San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center, ultimately a complex of seven buildings. The complex included hotels and office buildings, the first of which was completed in 1971, with the last completed in 1989.
In the mid-1970s, inflation and increasing interest rates started causing problems for Crow. This forced him to reorganize his company, but his properties kept bringing in rents. Business journalists began calling him the world’s largest landlord. His business expanded into dozens of cities across the nation. By the boom years of the 1980s, a real estate development could scarcely be found in Dallas without Trammell Crow’s name on it. In 1984, he completed the 50-story Trammell Crow Center in downtown Dallas, a building that topped 700 feet in height. As a noted patron of the arts, he donated much of his East Asian art collection to establish an Asian art museum open to the public inside the building.
However as the new century began, he slipped into Alzheimer’s Disease. His once brilliant mind for business slowly eroded until he slipped away entirely in 2009 at age 94. His epitaph read, “Builder of Buildings, Builder of People.” His wife of 66 years passed away in 2014.
The company Crow built was sold to CBRE Group, a California-based real estate conglomerate, in 2006 for $2.2 billion.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com.