Story by Matt Joyce // Photographs by Sean Fitzgerald
Not far from the banks of the Canadian River,
tucked among the River Valley Pioneer Museum’s artifacts of Panhandle ranching and railroad history, black-and-white portraits gaze from the gallery wall as if they’ve been waiting patiently for a century to look you in the eye.
The display depicts scores of ordinary people—country families in their Sunday finest, uniformed World War I soldiers, teenage sisters in lacy party gowns, roustabouts in ill-fitting overalls, mothers coddling babies …
Before Lake Marvin was dammed in the 1930s, the area was home to the Texas Panhandle’s first cattle ranch, established in 1875 by A.G. Springer. Ranching flourished in the grasslands, which spurred the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway to build a line through the Panhandle, leading to Canadian’s founding in 1887. Flush with new wealth, ranchers and merchants built numerous red-brick homes, churches, and institutions, many of which survive to this day—among them the 1910 First Baptist Church.
You won’t find pews or preaching in the old First Baptist, however. The renovated building now houses the Citadelle Art Foundation and the eye-popping art collection of Malouf and Therese Abraham. Two years after the church was vacated in 1975, the Abrahams bought it for $15,000 and undertook a massive renovation to make the 8,000-square-foot building their home. They lived there for 30 years, raising their three sons as Malouf practiced medicine and Therese served as mayor. They moved out in 2008 and converted the Citadelle into a nonprofit art museum.
“I think you ought to make a big deal out of everything,” says Malouf, whose Lebanese grandfather opened a general store in Canadian in 1913. “Like if you fall in a mud puddle, you should splash around and invite everybody in. We could have a two- or three-day auction in New York or London and just scatter all this stuff to the four corners where it came from, or we could keep it all together. And we thought we should keep it all together—and right here. I know it will change the future of the town and the kind of people who want to live here.”