Hometown pride is a funny thing, especially if you are, like me, not a native Dallasite, merely someone who has lived here for most of the past four decades. And if, like me, you’ve always felt a little uneasy about Dallas and how it will strike a first-time visitor. But everyone has a similar story to tell: a relative or friend is coming to town, and you want to make a good impression. You want people to go away with a smile.
This is one such story, with a happy ending.
I have a glamorous friend (I’ll call her Ella Mae) who lives on Park Avenue. Despite growing up a preacher’s kid in Roanoke, Virginia, she had a bad girl side: running away from home, dropping in and out of colleges, having an early trial marriage, being a single mother after dumping the husband, working as a sports reporter at a time when a nice girl did not do such things. But she landed on her feet, with a second husband, and a successful career as a writer and teacher. And she was always a proper Southerner, of impeccable charm and manners.
What could I show her when she came to SMU for several days? She had just returned from Singapore. She was heading off, afterward, to Martha’s Vineyard. This lady gets around.
We had a day together on the town. We had planned the usual trip to Dallas’ major cultural sites (i.e., the Fort Worth museums). But we never got there. Dallas had too much going on. We never got west of the Trinity.
This lady had a career, in a former incarnation, as a historic preservationist. Single-handedly she saved some important buildings in Princeton from demolition. She retains an interest in architecture, both domestic and commercial. She wanted to see what Dallas looks like. I was prepared for the worst.
Instead, she looked with an educated eye out of my car’s newly washed windows as we drove through Dallas neighborhoods. She winced at some of the mega-mansions on Beverly Drive, the faux this and faux that, but acknowledged that all architecture exists as an imitation of, or a response to, something in the past. And many of the houses, especially those of some vintage, throughout Highland Park met with her approval.
We tooled through Lakewood toward White Rock Lake, and then she really sat up and took notice. Tokalon Drive—perhaps the prettiest and hilliest street in Dallas—elicited oohs and ahs. We reached the lake, which was miraculously spiffy. No beer cans, trash, detritus of any sort, to be seen. (Actually, very few people were to be seen either.) Tiny waves lapped against the shore. We drove around the lake, then down Garland Road past the Arboretum to La Vista and slowly made our way along the entire length of Swiss Avenue. Like Beverly Drive, it has a collection of styles—the earliest frame mansion; another that looks like a French chateau; the false wainscoted Tudor house; a long, low prairie-style house right out of Wright; and the newest one, naturally a red brick Georgian thing; and so on—something for every taste. Maybe it was the parkway in the middle, or the size of the lots, or the generous setback from the street—whatever the cause, my pal was enchanted.
We sailed into downtown along Gaston Avenue, turned up Pearl Street and headed to the Arts District. She took one look at Philip Johnson’s Crescent and its mishmash of effects and gave it a thumbs down. I.M. Pei’s Fountain Place elicited smiles. We wandered the length of the central spine at the Dallas Museum of Art, and she was delighted to see the busy weekday traffic. At the Meyerson, kindly Doug Adams said we could pop into the McDermott Concert Hall, and we heard a rehearsal that proved all the claims about its fabulous acoustics. The bright red lipstick core of the Winspear beckoned, but stern guards prevented us from going inside.
Everywhere, Ella Mae looked up and around to notice something that never occurred to me: the way so many of the buildings downtown, seen from the street or from within one of them or another, make elegant geometric patterns along the skyline.
It was at the Nasher Sculpture Center that I knew we had hit pay dirt, that my chamber of commerce pride was justified. We entered the elegant, light-filled sanctuary. At the front Jeremy Strick, the director, greeted me. I made an introduction. A group of patrons—from Europe and elsewhere—was being shown around by curator Jed Morse. They were in town for a Save Venice event. A local society lady—a philanthropist with a Ph.D., that is a woman with brains as well as good jewelry—said hello. I made another introduction. We strolled through the garden on a warm, but not oppressive, afternoon. We sat on the back patio and ate our chicken salad sandwiches, looking out at the greenery, the sculpture, the skyline.
“This is heaven,” Ella Mae said. I had to agree. My unease, my nervous worrying about Dallas and all the hype that surrounds its frenetic desire to make a place for itself on the world’s stage, was put to rest. I will never use the phrase “world-class,” the surest indication of trying too hard, of not being “world-class.” But I realized, gratefully: we’ve got a lot going for us here.
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