Photo by Alex Macon.

Visual Arts

Let Artists Transform the Old Dawson State Jail

A 10-story art experiment using the vacant building could be just what's needed to kickstart a new chapter along the banks of the Trinity.

Leaving Downtown Dallas heading west on Commerce Street, beyond Dealey Plaza and on the other side of the inner loop, sits a banal, rectangular building at the foot of the Trinity River’s east levee. Were it not for its northern neighbor, the Lew Sterrett Justice Center across the street, the 10-story beige and brown brick building would dominate its surroundings. Now an afterthought, the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail sits empty, a hollow reminder of the nation’s love affair with incarceration.

The state cut funding for the privately operated jail in 2013, closing it for good. The building has always been an eyesore, but it’s more so now that it’s unused. Because of its location on the bank of the Trinity, however, the building and the land it sits on have long been coveted by the city, which views it as a crucial link between downtown and the river. In 2016, Texas put the jail on the market to the tune of $4 to $5.1 million. The city has yet to make an offer.

So, what will become of the Dawson State Jail?

During the recent Tent City homeless crisis—which is ongoing despite the clearing of the original site—there was talk of converting the old jail into housing for the city’s homeless population. While it wouldn’t solve Dallas’ homelessness epidemic, it would at least be something, albeit with exceedingly bad optics. For its part, the city reportedly would like to see the building repurposed as either apartments or a hotel. While not out of the question, the design of correctional facilities makes them difficult to remodel to fit such desires. Besides, as long as Lew Sterrett is across the street, who would honestly want to pay market rate to live or stay there? With no firm plans, Dawson State Jail remains an unused and uninviting space. But it doesn’t have to.

In 2013, Mehdi Ben Cheikh had an idea. Ben Cheikh, director of the Galerie Itinerrance in Paris, saw an old, former low income housing project slated to be torn down as an opportunity. Working with the local government, he was granted approval to temporarily turn the doomed building into an art exhibition, though he doesn’t quite like that term, as he told Huffington Post at the time. The project brought 100 street artists from all over the world to participate in what was called La Tour Paris 13. The artists transformed the building’s 36 apartments, totaling over 4,500 square meters on nine floors, covering it with art inside and out, each room becoming a gallery space. During October of that year, the exhibition was open to the public. Though the work was inevitably ephemeral, it transformed an otherwise dead space into a vibrant part of the community once again.

Let’s do something similar with Dawson. The precedent for art in Dallas’ skyline is already there. The taxpayer funded Omni Hotel, known now for its messages of solidarity appearing on the façade, once was home to a video art exhibition. Called Expanded Cinema, the exhibition used the building’s exterior lighting to show short films for one night in 2012 and 2013, creating a community experience. Further, Reunion Tower has also gotten in on the act. Instead of the white lights that dominated the ball for years, on any given night it comes alive with color and animated images. Is it art? It is if you want it to be.

Why not let artists go wild with Dawson? Dallas deserves more than a hollow shell.

In 2012, artist Shepard Fairey, in conjunction with the Dallas Contemporary, decorated West Dallas with murals, before development there was in full swing. They drew attention to an area that many who live on the other side of the river chose to ignore for decades. Many of those are now gone, ironically becoming victims of the area’s rapid gentrification. Further back, local artists painted murals along the Good Latimer tunnel, welcoming guests into Deep Ellum for years. They were eventually destroyed when DART built its Deep Ellum station and replaced the murals with the kitschy Traveling Man.

While an exhibition similar to La Tour Paris 13 may buck Dallas’ current infatuation with electronic light displays, it presents an opportunity to reshape the narrative of the former jail going forward. While operational, Dawson was dubbed the “worst state jail” in the state because of inadequate medical services that led to the deaths of several inmates. Although the citizens of Dallas would be remiss to forget the conditions that were allowed to take place in the jail, the time has come to remove the blight of the vacant building. Reclaiming and repurposing the building, letting artists cover it inside and out, even if only temporarily, would be a step toward accomplishing that.

Until someone coughs up the cash to buy the jail from the state, it will likely remain an empty reminder of the incarceration issues that plague our society. Its location, in what is becoming a major focal point for cross-Trinity traffic, makes it all the more imperative that something be done with the building. Why not turn it into something that the city can be proud of before it is either remodeled or torn down? A 10-story art experiment could be just what the area needs to kickstart a new chapter along the banks of the Trinity. Why not let artists go wild with Dawson? Dallas deserves more than a hollow shell.

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