Top O’ Hill Terrace, a tearoom turned nightclub, operated in Arlington, Texas, from at least 1921 until 1949. In the early 1920s Thomas and Beulah Marshall opened the elegant Top O’ Hill Terrace tearoom in a spacious home along the transcontinental Bankhead Highway. Its easy accessibility from Dallas and Fort Worth, picturesque location, and renowned chicken-fried steaks made it a favorite spot for ladies’ luncheons, bridal showers, and tea parties.
The Marshalls sold Top O’ Hill to Charles Frederick (Fred) and Mary Browning in 1930. The Brownings intended to capitalize on the well-to-do crowds flocking to nearby Arlington Downs, an elite horse track that opened in 1929, by converting the tearoom to a nightclub that included illicit gambling, prostitution, and, during the period of Prohibition, illegal alcohol. Fred Browning was well-versed in operating underground gambling parlors. In 1928 Browning’s Loma Linda club in Richmond, Texas, was raided by Texas Rangers who seized a box of dice and twelve packs of playing cards. Browning was charged with operating a gaming establishment but was acquitted after he pleaded that he only rented Loma Linda as a club house and knew nothing of any gambling. Meanwhile, Oklahoma state officers raided his Beau Monde club near Tulsa, Oklahoma, and charged Browning and fourteen others with running a gambling establishment.
Once the Brownings acquired Top O’ Hill, they wasted no time in installing security measures to protect them from police raids. Browning made noticeable modifications to the 900-foot entrance driveway by building sandstone walls, erecting guard towers, and adding an iron gate. Visitors were vetted by the guards at the gate before being allowed to pass, then had to navigate a series of checkpoints and passwords before being admitted to the basement-level casino. The top part of the house continued to operate as a well-regarded restaurant.
Once inside the opulently-decorated basement, guests played poker, craps, or blackjack; fed coins into the slot machines; and bet on the roulette wheel. As they played, they were treated to big-name acts such as Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, John Wayne, and Howard Hughes. Liquor was available at a bar located in the corner of the room, and prostitutes could be hired for the evening.
Along with gambling and vice, Browning had a passion for thoroughbred racehorses. He built a top-notch horse barn and hired expert jockeys, trainers, and grooms. He had a private, oak-paneled stable built for his prize racehorse, Royal Ford.
Browning’s less-visible changes to the property were put in place to thwart police raids. If police drove up to the elaborate gates, a guard could trigger a buzzer that sent a warning alarm to the house. While officers made their way up the long, winding drive, Top O’ Hill workers used the time to hide gaming tables and equipment behind specially-built wall panels. Guests escaped through underground tunnels into the nearby woods or hillside or to the tea garden where they would arrange themselves to appear as if they had been drinking tea all along.
While Top O’ Hill flourished, its notoriety was not overlooked by everyone. J. Frank Norris, the pastor of Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church, called it “a blight on Tarrant County” and vowed that one day he would own the place. Norris kept up the pressure on Top O’ Hill through his sermons, newsletters, and radio broadcasts. He even attended a raid on the casino in 1933.
Top O’ Hill endured several raids over the years, with virtually no long-term impact. A 1947 raid by Texas Rangers, however, changed all that. Led by Capt. M. T. Gonzaullas, the Rangers eschewed the front gate and instead approached the house from the rear by crawling up the hillside and under barbed wire for several hundred yards.
Avoiding the guards and guard dogs watching the property, the Rangers waited until the back door was opened for a patron. Seizing their chance, they burst through the open door and then kicked down two wooden doors before arriving at the guarded steel door to the basement. Upon hearing the commotion, patrons began fleeing the casino through a thirty-yard tunnel into the woods only to be apprehended by another Ranger waiting at the exit.
Gonzaullas let Top O’ Hill and other illegal gambling houses know their time was short by saying, “This raid is to serve notice on this place and any other in this area that they are going to be stopped if we have to call on them every night.” With the raid, Top O’ Hill’s star began to fade. Browning sold the property in 1952 and died in October 1953.
Although Norris died in 1952, his prophecy about owning Top O’ Hill came true in May 1956. The Bible Baptist Seminary, part of Norris’s First Baptist Church, purchased the property and moved the school from downtown Fort Worth to Arlington.
As of 2020 Arlington Baptist University, formerly Bible Baptist Seminary, continued to use the site. Structures like the elaborate gate and guard towers, the sandstone walls, the tea garden, and even some of the tunnels remained. The Texas Historical Commission designated the site a historical landmark in 2003.