10: The Plaza
Hightower John Neely Bryan did many things over the course of his life. He was a farmer, a lawyer – even a gold prospector – but what he’s probably best known for is founding a major American city.
Now he wasn’t the first person to live in this particular part of north Texas. The Caddo People had been there for centuries. But as with many Native Americas, their story typically gets ignored when the history of a place is told – which is basically what I’m about to do as well.
Anyway, Bryan built a log cabin on the east bank of the Trinity River.
He farmed there but he was also a savvy businessman and so to make extra money, he operated a ferry across the river. It turns out he was a developer as well and In 1844 he hired a surveyor to plat the town that would grow to become Dallas, Texas.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Dallas was a major commercial center within the state. As it continued to grow, city leaders felt the need to celebrate their history. And so they created a Plaza on the site where Bryan had first settled. They intended to use this Plaza to tell the story of Dallas.
That’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the tenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.
I’m Brantley Hightower.
Although Bryan chose to settle where he did because of it’s proximity to the Trinity, Dallas’s relationship to its river has always been somewhat strained. It could be a difficult difficult neighbor - it was hard to cross and it often flooded. The 1908 flood was particularly bad.
Willis It's the worst flood the city had experienced and it flooded a substantial part of downtown Dallas because there was no protection.
Hightower That’s Willis Winters, the Director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. The broad flood plains on either side of the Trinity were great for farming – that’s why Bryan settled there in the first place - but as Dallas became more urbanized, the issues caused by the river began to outweigh any agricultural benefits it provided. It was 1908 flood that finally motivated the city to act.
Willis …That’s what brought about the desire for a new master plan for the city, especially downtown, George Kessler was brought in and pushed for building a levy system and moving the river one mile farther to the west of downtown all started as a result of the 1908 devastating flood.
Hightower So rather than move the city away from the river, Dallas decided to move the river away from the city. They also worked to consolidate the many railroads that crisscrossed the city into a single line that ran near the courthouse on the west side of town. This area began to develop as a thriving center of commerce. John Slate, the Archivist for the City of Dallas, picks up the story from here:
John So, you have a lot of businesses that were built on the streets facing the courthouse. So, we had livery stables and then of course with the livery stables, you have things like carriage works where some of that was the very first industry in Dallas. And then that also led to a fairly major industry in Dallas in the 19th century and early 20th, which was saddleries and then also farming implements.
Hightower By the turn of the Twentieth Century, the west end of Dallas was where goods would arrive by rail before being stored in warehouses for local distribution. It was also the major point of entry for people coming into the city from the west. This included those traveling on a new state highway that connected Dallas to neighboring Fort Worth. But coming into a city through its warehouse district wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing experience. And so city leaders began to study ways of creating a gateway to Dallas that was more appropriate to the place that Dallas was becoming. Here again is Willis Winters:
Willis And the Dallas architect, Otto Lang, actually made a proposal for a grand… entry portal into Dallas in the mid-1930s. That's the first documented design that we've seen of the landscape proposal for this new state highway entering into downtown.
Hightower Two city blocks would be cleared and the ground regarded so that three major downtown streets would all have room to converge as they traveled under the railroad tracks on the west side of town. This would eliminate a dangerous grade crossing and the resulting open space could be made into a public park. But instead of this being a park designed for people, it would be primarily experienced by those traveling in automobiles.
Willis This was an automobile, vehicular portal to downtown. It was something the city didn't have. I'm not aware of anything comparable to it, at least in Texas at the time. So this was Dallas celebrating the automobile, establishing a connection, a physical connection to Fort Worth through this tremendous promenade of flowing through downtown, down these sloped streets… and then proceeding west towards the neighboring city.
Hightower By 1936 the plaza had been cleared and sixty-five-thousand cubic feet of earth had been regarded. The realignment of the streets was completed just in time for a party a hundred years in the making. Here again is John Slate:
John Having a western front door to the city was really important also because of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, which was getting ready to open in June of that year. And the importance of having that entryway meant that there was a lot of work done in a short amount of time, and having that completed just ahead of schedule was a major source of pride for the city… It was great because it was ready for the Centennial and for the literally several million people who showed up for it.
Hightower The Texas Centennial Exposition was a six-month long celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Texas winning its independence from Mexico. The 50 buildings constructed for the event on the east side of Dallas are considered one of the most extensive collections of art deco buildings in the world.
Visitors to the exposition arriving from the west were able to make use of the new entry plaza – or at least the new roadways. Remember, this was in 1936 – the height of the Great Depression – and local funds simply weren’t available for extra things like, you know, plants.
Willis The city had no money to put into landscaping and to make it a prominent urban portal.
Then in 1937, the National Youth Administration funded a beautification project under the auspices of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Hightower Johnson was then a newly elected member of the U.S. Hose of Representatives and had just started his political rise to power.
Willis They hired George Dahl to design two pylons on Main Street, and the water basins that are there stretching along Houston Street.
So those elements, the water basins and two pylons were funded through National Youth Administration and completed in 1937. One of the pylons is still there.
Hightower The other was replaced in 1949 with a statue of a local newspaper man.
Willis Then the Work's Progress Administration came along after the NYA project was completed and began the more comprehensive landscaping and improvements of the plaza. And Hare and Hare, landscape architects from Kansas City, were brought in to do the planning for that.
They had to incorporate the pylons and the water basins from the National Youth Administration George Dahl project. And Hare and Hare designed some pergolas that are in the two corners of the park, fronting the park, adjacent to the railroad track… and in what we call a peristyle that sort of acted as a backdrop to the NYA-funded improvements parallel to Houston Street.
Hightower The WPA improvements to the plaza were completed in February of 1941. And for the most part, little has changed there in the 70-some-odd years that have passed. It is still framed on three sides by buildings.
On the south there is the Post Office Annex. Nearby is the eclectic Dallas County Courthouse lovingly called “Old Red”. Just north of there are two county annex buildings – the Renaissance Revival Criminal Courts Building and the more modern County Records Building.
Across the street sits the John Deere Plow Company Building with its Prairie-style massing and detailing that were unique for Dallas. Far more common was the Romanesque-style architecture Southern Rock Island Plow Company Building located across the street on the north side of the Plaza. Like any warehouse, it’s broad floors proved to be adaptable to a variety of different uses. Built to store farming implements it could store just about anything. By the 1960s it was used to store textbooks. It was called the Texas School Book Depository.
Remember that newspaper man - the one they put a statue of in the Plaza?
Hightower The other was replaced in 1949 with a statue of a local newspaper man.
Hightower His name was George Dealey. The Plaza I’ve been talking about all this whole time is Dealey Plaza. It’s the one that President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through as it made it’s way through downtown Dallas on November 22, 1963.
Chronkite: In Dallas, Texas three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s Motorcade in downtown Dallas. The first reports say the President has been seriously wounded by this shooting…
Remember those three streets that were moved in 1936? Elm, Main and Commerce Street were brought together underneath the railroad tracks in what became known as the “triple underpass”.
Remember those WPA pergola structures that frame the northern and southern end of the Plaza? They sat on top of embankments created by the regarding of the site. The hill to the north has come to be known as the “grassy knoll”.
In March of 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald took delivery of a mail-order rifle that was delivered to the Post Office Annex that forms the northern edge of Dealey Plaza. A few months later he started working in the Texas School Book Depository that defines the Plaza’s southern edge.
Across Houston Street, Abraham Zapruder worked on the fourth floor of the John Deere Plough Company Building. In 1963 the building was known as the Dal-Tex Building and on November 22nd Zapruder took his 8mm movie camera and filmed the 27 seconds of footage that became know as the “Zapruder Film”.
If you look closely at that film the Plaza all seems very familiar. The space is remarkably unchanged from how it looked on November 22, 1963 when President Kennedy’s motorcade turned onto Elm Street and passed by the School Book Depository. The film is silent so you don’t hear the shots but you know when it happens. Then you see the Presidential limousine speed off down the sloping roadway past the grassy knoll and under the triple underpass.
Chronkite: From Dallas Texas, the flash – apparently official – President Kennedy died at 1pm Central Standard Time – two o’clockEastern Standard Time, some thirty-eight minutes ago…
Johnson …I do solemnly swear… that I will faithfully execute… the Office of President of the United States… and will to the best of my ability… preserve… protect… and defend… the Constitution of the United States… So help me God.
If you will recall, twenty six years earlier Johnson had helped secure federal funds for the improvements to Dealey Plaza – the place where his predecessor had been shot.
For decades after the assassination, Dallas struggled with what to do with the Plaza. In the 1970s there was a push to demolish the Texas School Book Depository in an attempt to erase a physical reminder of the city’s darkest day. Those efforts weren’t successful, and in 1989 a new museum was opened on the 6th floor of the School Book Depository. Nicola Longford is the museum’s Executive Director.
Nicola The Sixth Floor Museum chronicles the assassination of President Kennedy here in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and we document his life, his death and his legacy, and present that in the context of contemporary culture for all audiences, young and old. Those who lived through the assassination and those young people who have no idea who president Kennedy was but they know a big event happened here outside our doors.
Hightower Nicola’s office overlooks Dealey Plaza. But no matter how pleasant the view of the park may be, it is always tempered by the knowledge of what happened there.
Nicola …Those that have windows overlooking Dealey Plaza… we never forget what happened, we never become immune or jaded or indifferent. We're passionate, all of us here about what we do, the various aspects and hope that we can encourage and provoke deeper thinking on the subject of the assassination of President Kennedy's legacy and apply that to the world in which we live today.
Hightower The original creators of Dealey Plaza sought to tell the straightforward tale of the man who founded their city. For 22 years that’s all Dealy Plaza was about. And although nothing physically changed in November of 1963, the story the Plaza told was forever transformed. Its story is now darker and more complicated and to understand it you need much more than just a statue and some fountains.
Nicola We know that we are charged with trying to engage younger audiences and understanding why experiencing history on historic sites and inside historic spaces can open up a door and a window into studying the past. That is never irrelevant, that the history is cyclical and there are so many parallels to the events that happened there in Texas and in Dallas in 1963 that pertain to now and will continue to shape the future. So that's what we hope to inspire in people, anybody when they come. It doesn't matter what age they are. Whatever we can do, if it's the storytelling, the pictures, the images, the collections, the engagement that we have with people through different programs, different aspects of the scholarly research that's still ongoing. That's what we're charged with doing.
Hightower The meaning of a place can evolve over time as layers of history are created. Sometimes that evolution is slow and sometimes it is instantaneous. But experiencing the place where that history occurred is a critical step in our understanding of it.
John Dealey Plaza is like the Alamo. It's the site of a horrible tragedy but it's also a major event in American history. And just like every little building that has "George Washington slept here" in it, people want to walk in the paths of history and see where it happened. Whether it was good history or bad history, it's still a part of our American heritage.
Hightower Memories fade. Events that were experienced by one generation become the stories that are told to the next one. But architecture remains. The story that Dealey Plaza was built to tell is not the story we know it for today. Yes, it is where John Neely Bryan settled, but it’s also where John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. One of those events clearly overshadows the other, but they both coexist. They are both embedded in the architecture of Dealey Plaza.
John What I think has happened, whether it was planned or not, is that architecture in Dallas has become a way of looking at history… I think that looking at these buildings as historical structures and as aesthetic landmarks has also helped people get their hands around the Kennedy story.
You can see the criminal courts building where Jack Ruby was imprisoned after shooting Oswald. You can see the records building, you can see the School Book Depository and you can see the courthouse. There's a narrative that is threaded throughout these buildings. So as you walk around the plaza, you're basically reliving a lot of Dallas history.
Hightower We are drawn to places like Dealey Plaza because they act as a direct connection to our past and somehow make it more real. Sometimes the past they connect us to is heroic and sometimes it is tragic. But either way they define who we are, where we came from and where we are going.
We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.
Thanks today to John Slate, Willis Winters and Nicola Longford. John and Willis co-authored a great book of photos that document the history of Dealey Plaza. I’ll put a link to that and the Sixth Floor Museum that Nicola directs on the show notes for this episode
Thanks also to Molly Fiden, Annie Marshall and the Columbia Broadcasting System for the use of clips from Walter Cronkite’s TV coverage of the events in 1963. The music today was by Chris Zabriskie. As always, special thanks to Julie Pizzo Wood who came up with our podcast’s logo and to Clara, my wife, for coming up with its name.
The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today at HiWorksArchitecture.com.
This is the last episode of the first season of The Works. These ten episodes were an experiment to see if producing a monthly podcast was something worth doing. I personally feel that it was. Crafting these stories was incredibly fulfilling. I’d like to think the quality of them improved over the past ten months but I know I still have a long way to go. I’m already looking forward to season two.
I’ll be taking a few months off to retool and reconsider what this podcast should be. There are lots of stories to tell and I look forward to sharing them.
And so until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.