A Historic Texas Building Becomes an Unusual Habitat

Original Source: Preservation Magazine/People Saving Places

By Wendy Lyons Sunshine | Online Only | Mar. 27, 2009 

Mineral
This historic buiding in Mineral Wells, Texas, is
home to 30,000 migratory bats. Credit: Bat World

Seventeen years ago, Amanda Lollar learned that a dilapidated apartment building in Mineral Wells, Texas, halfway between Dallas and Abilene, was going up for sale. The roof was damaged, and the building was infested with bats. The owner planned to bring in an exterminator before for the sale, and that worried Lollar, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. So she made a bold move. She purchased the 19th-century structure “as-is” for $20,000, with the intent of saving the thousands of wild migratory bats that lived there.

Named for the springs that percolate through its dry soil, Mineral Wells attracted health-conscious visitors in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who came to be healed by the town’s healing waters.

Today the historic downtown has seen better days. Vacant storefronts dot Main Street, with the occasional retail shop wedged next to modest eateries and banks. In typical small-town style, the buildings are of similar width and depth, and set flush to each other. Made of brick or stone, with stucco interiors, they’re designed to have shops at street level and living quarters above. Some of these buildings even still have a potentially active spring well inside. One such building—owned by a bottling company that sells the water from its well—doubles as a tourist attraction.

Downtown Mineral Wells doesn’t get much tourist traffic, but it does attract another kind of visitor. Migratory Mexican free-tailed bats make it their annual stop-over point each year, attracted by the nooks and crannies in the old weathered brick and stone buildings.

Constructed in 1899, Lollar’s building is a “Italian Renaissance-style commercial building with rough-cut sandstone walls and smooth-cut pilasters, a crenellated parapet with peaked pediment, dentils, a chamfered entry, and hood molds over low-arched windows,” according to Bob Brinkman of the Texas Historical Commission. Crumbling mortar allowed bats to scuttle in and roost under the eaves. Because of these bats, the building is essentially being mothballed and maintained instead of abandoned or demolished. Read an excerpt from Forum Journal about a Yosemite Valley farmhouse that survived not because the National Park Service chose to preserve it for its historical significance, but because a rare colony of bats made it home.

Amanda
Amanda Lollar holds a 20-year-old fruit bat that
was scheduled to be euthanized by a zoo. Credit: Bat World

Lollar’s first priority, after the bats had flown off to winter quarters, was to fix the leaky roof. “That’s when we started to clean out the crawl space,” she said. Pulling down a few foot-wide ceiling planks unleashed a torrent of guano that billowed black dust throughout the vacant second floor. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of you,” said Lollar. “We were wearing goggles, gloves, masks, the whole bit, and I was coated. It even went into my socks and between my toes.” Lollar calculates she and a volunteer eventually bagged up 6,000 pounds of bat waste, which a gardener hauled off for composting.

Over the next few winters, Lollar removed the ceiling to expose the crawl space, opened sash windows, and brought in industrial fans to improve ventilation. Lollar lay padding on the floor and hung netting so young pups that fell could climb back up. She also installed two catwalks that allow her to inspect the colony and rescue ailing bats.

Ultimately, Lollar transformed the second floor into what she calls a “pre-release flight cage” with 16-foot ceilings. During spring and summer, thousands of bats hang from the rafters as others swoop and soar, making clicking and chirping sounds. Approximately 30,000 bats come and go through rooftop crevices each night. With help from an anonymous donor, Lollar hired an engineer to study the building and then had the foundation stabilized in 2007. She continues to lease out the lower floor as offices, to help defray expenses and maintain the building.

“I’ve not done anything to the building that couldn’t be repaired and restored,” says Lollar, who would love to see it brought back to its original state. “I’d prefer to sell it to somebody who will restore it. I will happily help them bat-proof it.”

Lollar calculates that downtown Mineral Wells attracts more than 150,000 bats each year. A nearby historic hotel, for example, hosts an enormous population under the arched ceramic roof tiles that serve as tiny bat condos. Back in 1995, Lollar tried to persuade the local tourism committee to promote the bats, but her efforts fell short. Today Lollar’s wild bat sanctuary is largely ignored or criticized by residents (but she emphasizes that bats provide valuable pest-control services: Every evening they swarm out to dine on tens of thousands of moths, mosquitoes, and other insects). Her sanctuary remains a popular destination for conservation researchers and graduate scientists who want to study bat colonies in the wild.

Lollar, who has become a recognized expert in bat care, plans to build an artificial cave in a less developed area a few miles away, and relocate the wild colony there. Then, she hopes, the historic building she saved could receive more attention and undergo a rehabilitation of its own.

Wendy Lyons Sunshine writes for OnEarth, Sierra, Planning, and many other publications. She is a teaching fellow at the University of North Texas.

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