The first time the American public saw the compound — an awkward collection of simple volumes punctuated by a tall, silo-like tower — was on February 28, 1993. The ambush had begun in a gun battle that cold Sunday morning, when 77 agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms descended on the Branch Davidians’ makeshift fortress outside Waco to serve a warrant on the cult for suspected weapons violations and other charges. Having been tipped off to the coming raid, the Branch Davidians, believing in an apocalyptic ending of the world at the hands of the government, assaulted the uniformed agents with a hail of gunfire. It became the longest shootout in American history, a bloody battle that lasted more than two hours, killing four agents and wounding 16.
That scene, now 25 years ago and fading into the memories of those who were there, has been recreated down to the smallest detail in an architectural model of the compound and surrounding site. The project is the outcome of a conversation between Scott Lowe, co-founder and partner in the Dallas-based international architecture firm 5G Studio Collaborative, and Jim Balthazar, ATF senior special agent. Balthazar was seeking a way to accurately and appropriately memorialize the events of that day, as well to create a teaching tool for agents to use with new recruits, visitors, and policymakers. Although the aftermath of the initial ATF operation and the subsequent ill-fated FBI siege had brought Congressional testimony and court cases — as well as a lengthy, detailed Blue Book report of operations that is now mandatory reading for all new ATF agents — there was no real memorial to the fallen agents or accessible way to tell the story. With the remains of the buildings razed a mere two weeks after the siege’s fiery end, a rudimentary model of the compound that was used for demonstrations during testimony was the only physical memory of the scene.
To Balthazar, this gap in the historical record was unacceptable. “The [existing] model had insufficient detail, and unless you knew what happened on that day, that model didn’t tell you anything,” he recalls. “It lacked the key terrain and architectural features, like the fence line and where the vehicles had been positioned. It wasn’t self-explanatory.” Those topographical and incidental elements had been crucial to the event, acting both as cover from gunfire and as obstacles to accessing the compound. In addition, building details such as doors and fenestration would provide important information about the tactics used by both sides.
The 5G team was up to the challenge. Project manager Eric Bartlett, Assoc. AIA, teamed with UT Arlington architecture student Nik Goodnight, and the two worked evenings, pro-bono, for the next nine months, crafting two intricately detailed models, one for the ATF Houston Field Division Office — which oversees the Waco Field Office — and one for the lobby of ATF’s Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“We utilized every available informational source to create the most authentic possible portrayal of the compound on that day,” says Bartlett. “The insight provided by the ATF agents highlighted just how critical the smallest details and debris on the site were to the events of the operation. So for us, the opportunity to interview everyone and utilize archival material to accurately detail the facts was incredibly important in order for these models to serve as true teaching tools and memorials.”
The 24-by-36-in model had to also accommodate wiring for LED lights that indicate positions of agents during the operation and make the model more self-explanatory. Important building elements — the location of cult leader David Koresh’s bedroom; the tower, which had been outfitted as a defensive structure; and the location of a buried school bus that acted as an underground tunnel that would provide the last-stand fortress for the compound’s residents — were crucial elements in illuminating the operation’s events and outcomes.
Because the Davidians were constantly building and adding on to their compound, wooden pallets and construction debris littered the site, a detail the architects included to great effect. Even the Davidians’ fleet of go-karts and specific types of vehicles that served as cover from the gunfire are placed in exact position. One of these, a van, marks the exact location of one agent’s death. The locations of the three other deaths are also marked, memorializing these agents’ sacrifice. For Waco veterans, the model is a poignant remembrance of a day that forever changed law enforcement in America. “I’ve been fortunate to be there when Waco veterans have seen the model for the first time, and it’s emotional for them,” Balthazar says. “They are amazed at the level of detail and that someone would make the effort to get it exactly right.”
Canan Yetmen is a writer based in Austin.