The NAT - where the past meets the future

The NAT - where the past meets the future
Kasey Tam, Nat owner
Kasey Tam, Nat owner

By John Kanelis

Kasey Tam is a young woman who likes old things.

She really likes old buildings. At this time, she is the proud owner-to-be of arguably one of Amarillo's most historic and colorful venues.

It's known as The NAT. And the building has been through several sea changes since its doors opened in 1922 on Sixth Avenue and McMasters Street.

"I love old buildings," Tam said. "And I've become a hoarder of old buildings," she added with a huge laugh.

The 28-year-old Amarillo High School graduate acquired The NAT in May 2012. The previous owner, she said, had sought to keep the site as a book store, concert-and-dance venue and a "place where he could have wrestling matches."

The NAT, Tam said, "has had great owners and some owners who allowed it to fall into disrepair."

Now it's an antique store. It is full of antiques, as in crammed full. The first floor contains thousands of items and the second floor is rented to 86 vendors, who sell their own wares, according to Tam.

"The previous owners wanted to feature local artists. Now, we want to sell new and used stuff. I'm really happy with the turnout," said Tam.

The NAT opened in 1922 as a natatorium, a fancy word for swimming pool. Guy Carlander designed the pool. According to a pamphlet Tam provided, he "boasted that it had the latest in pool technology." Carlander wanted to use the pool year-round, so he covered it in 1923. The pamphlet notes: "Evidence of the former natatorium can still be seen inside and outside the ballroom, especially the interior and exterior lap siding as well as signs admonishing bathers to 'Keep Off the Roof.'

That use lasted about four years, when J.D. Tucker purchased the site and converted the pool to a dance hall in 1926. For the next two decades, it became an attraction for big bands led by such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Harry James, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman and Paul Whiteman.

In 1935, during the depths of the Great Depression, The NAT Café was built and attached to the ballroom.

Then came the 1950s and '60s, and The NAT welcomed the likes of Little Richard, Roy Orbison and Bob Wills. Indeed, Little Richard – whose real name is Richard Penniman – was arrested for "lewd behavior" during his performance at The NAT. What was lewd about his actions? Tam said "he took off his shirt."

"Not a lot of people remember the pool," Tam said, noting that it closed so long ago that most of those who swam at The NAT are now deceased, "but they do remember the dance hall era and the performers who came here."

The NAT, she said, "was the safest dance hall anywhere between Oklahoma and Albuquerque." Thus, she said, it served as a nice attraction for tourists traveling through the Texas Panhandle along the Mother Road, Route 66.

Legend had it that Elvis Presley performed at The NAT, but Tam said The King didn't sing there. He performed instead downtown during the 1950s. "Many people still think Elvis played at The Nat," Tam said.

Like a lot of old buildings, The NAT has its share of myths, according to Tam. One of them is that it is haunted.

She recalled not long ago a couple was in the store browsing near the back of the first floor. "We heard a loud crash," Tam said, "so we ran back to see what had happened.

"The couple tried to tell us that a ghost had knocked some merchandise over," she said. "Unfortunately – for them – we had cameras that recorded what really happened. They had done it."

Wes Reeves is a public affairs specialist with Xcel Energy and is into historic preservation. He called The NAT "an Amarillo thing. I just love buildings that give Amarillo a unique identity."

"You can go anywhere in the United States and see a street that looks like Soncy," Reeves said, "but when you're on Sixth, and you see The Nat, you know exactly where you are."

The advent of radio in the 1920s played a big part in boosting The NAT's attractiveness as a dance hall once the pool closed, Reeves said. "Radio was pivotal," he said, "and people were willing to pay money to dance there."

Reeves noted how the region was devastated by the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, "but The NAT kept going, changing with the musical styles."

He said he has "a lot emotional attachment to these old buildings. And a lot people remember taking someone to places like The NAT." He talked about how some residents today can recall their "first kiss" at The NAT, or proposing marriage.

Reeves said he retains hope that "young people will want to preserve these relics."

Tam said she "catches heat" from millennials who want to see it returned to a place with concerts and dances. I grew up in Amarillo and remember when The NAT was rarely open. Now it's open six days a week.

Tam said she has "learned a lot from the older folks who come here. We get people here from the Ware Towers (retirement center) and they remember a lot of nostalgic things about The NAT. I've heard a lot of romantic stories" from the World War II era.

Tam is leasing the building currently. Her lease agreement expires soon. Is she going to walk away?

Tam answered emphatically: "I intend to buy the building when the lease expires. We have a good thing going and I definitely plan to stick with this for a while."