Jim Schutze’s Modest Proposal to the Dallas Morning News

Get your popcorn ready. Jim Schutze just played a fairly entertaining rhetorical chess opener.

Dallas Morning News headquarters. (photo: Antonio Campoy/Flickr)
Dallas Morning News headquarters. (photo: Antonio Campoy/Flickr)

Get your popcorn ready. Jim Schutze just played a fairly entertaining rhetorical chess opener. Call it the “Preservationist Queen’s Gambit,” the “Sicilian Architectural Defense.” Let’s set the board:

The Dallas Morning News has been a champion of historic preservation, pounding its fist whenever an old building in this city comes under threat. Most recently, they have caused a worthy ruckus over a 19th-century home in the Cedars and the proposed desecration of the Meadows Building. Schutze argues that their outspoken ire over old buildings feels out-of-scale when considering the extent of child poverty in Dallas, but I don’t see why the two things have to be mutually exclusive. Both indicate an aspect of the city’s character that ignores its obligation to reconcile with historic realities while favoring the numbing feeling that comes with swallowing well-marketed visions of future fantasies. But I digress.

The point is, the DMN likes old buildings. Enter into the mix the news that the newspaper may soon move out of its own historically significant home in the southwest corner of downtown Dallas, the George Dahl-designed 1949 structure that is known as “The Rock of Truth” because of the quote carved into its cement facade.

Now, according to Jim Schutze’s reading of the world of backroom Dallas (conspiratorial business leader string-pulling), the DMN‘s move has been a long time coming. The “Rock of Truth” plays into one of the oldest and shadiest land deals in Dallas. People like Ray Hunt, who has shown he possesses the power to make the mayor reverse political positions and put the Dallas citizenry in legal peril with the snap of his fingers, has been trying to figure how to drive development to the southwest corner of downtown for decades. The effort has come at considerable taxpayer expense, as the city leveraged public money to fund all sorts of idiotic projects to help drive value to that land, from perpetual convention center expansion to developing a financially questionable hotel to building a high-speed toll road along the Trinity River.

To be fair, with each passing year we only learn more and more that Schutze’s reading of the world of backroom, conspiratorial Dallas is pretty much Real World: Dallas. And the DMN does have a long track record of being, well, less than truthful with regards to things like the Trinity Toll Road. (Also to be fair, reporter Brandon Formby has finally figured out a way to get the paper to report honestly and thoroughly on transportation matters.)

I’m digressing again, but you probably see where this is going. The sale of the DMN‘s building would open up more land for the redevelopment of that part of downtown. Maybe that spot becomes the location of a high-speed rail terminal. Maybe it is just the location of the West Village-y development that backers hope will spring forth from the front door of that terminal. Regardless, the point is the sale of the DMN‘s building is most valuable for the newspaper if the building can be razed and the dirt can be freed up for new development. But then that would mean destroying a historic building. And, just like that, two of the daily’s favorite pet projects — historic preservation and boostering development in the southwestern corner of downtown — are seemingly at odds. I’ll let Schutze take it from here:

Why doesn’t Belo seek historic designation for its own building? Do you even get how genius that is? That way they could protect it from some dumb cable guy who comes along and wants to demolish it for a parking lot or something.  The News would be setting just the right example for the city.

Yes, yes, historic designation might put a certain ceiling on the resale value. There would be sacrifice. But any cost the company might suffer in the sale price would only make the whole thing that much more worthwhile leadership-wise, because it would set the example the rest of the city needs to see.

A lower sale price for the property would show that A.H. Belo and The Dallas Morning News don’t just talk the talk. They weren’t preaching for everybody else to take the pledge while they hid several large barrels of whiskey for themselves. “Rock of Truth” is not some empty motto, some cheap commercial tag-line like “Spicy or Mild” on the front of a take-out chicken place.

Who better for this? They’ve been shouldering the whole burden, Wilonsky and Lamster and Grigsby and the rest of them, for so long, selflessly wearing out their fingers wagging at everybody else in town to preserve. You could almost say, if the News won’t preserve itself, why should anybody else?

From my perspective, the solution is simple. The DMN‘s building should be protected from demolition. It’s kind of a no-brainer. It is undoubtedly an architecturally and historically significant structure for Dallas. That it was the city daily’s home for so many years makes it so. It is also a representative building by one of the city’s most distinguished architects, reflecting Dahl’s ever-evolving brand of minimal, vernacular modernism. From an urban design perspective, the building is a linchpin for its particular corner of downtown. Its presence ensures that the scale and visual harmony of the area around Ferris Plaza is complementary both to other historic structures like Union Station and the nearby Hotel Lawrence, and to the pedestrian flow of the streetscape.

Of course, somewhat ironically, the success of the streetscape of this particular corner of downtown has been obstructed by the very efforts that represent the hope of driving more life to the area: flashy or byzantine boondoggles like the tacky Omni Hotel or the cluttered convention center. In this context, preserving the DMN‘s building wouldn’t merely be an act of mummifying Dallas’ architectural legacy. An adaptive reuse of “The Rock of Truth” would ensure that any redevelopment of the area around Ferris Plaza stays in tune with its current, refreshingly human scale.

Even though Schutze’s piece seems to dare Lamster and Wilonsky to opine on the matter, given their track record and the affection with which reporters have spoken about “The Rock of Truth,” I expect them to argue that the building ought to be preserved. That said, given the paper’s history in covering its own backyard, whether or not the building actually is preserved is a, um, pending matter.

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