Mark Lamster on Fair Park at 80: ‘A Very Dallas Story’

Fair Park is still attempting to learn how to be more of a park and more fair.

Photo by Josh Blaylock.
Photo by Josh Blaylock.

To honor the 80th anniversary of the Texas Centennial Exhibition, Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster penned a piece worth highlighting about the complicated, paradoxical history of Fair Park, our city’s favorite neglected stepchild. Even from its inception, Lamster writes, Fair Park was shaped by confounding political forces which muddled the commissioning process for its now beloved art deco structures:

A politically connected firm from San Antonio wanted it, and so did the fair’s Dallas architects. Plans shifted back and forth until it was almost too late, and as a last resort the job was placed in the hands of a talented young architect from Houston, Donald Barthelme. . . .

Disorganization and political infighting result in a design that is at once endearing and triumphant but also incomplete and dysfunctional. That is a very Dallas story.

This history of dysfunctionality continues to overshadow Fair Park, which is trying to find new life through a plan advanced by the mayor to privatize its operations, while attempting to learn how to be more of a park and more fair:

But opposition is understandable, and not just for the astronomical cost projections associated with the plan, nearly half a billion dollars in total and millions annually from the city treasury. The surrounding African-American community of South Dallas can track a long and ugly relationship to the park and to the State Fair that has been its longtime chief occupant: segregated admission times, the callous demolition of the Hall of Negro Life, removal of cultural facilities to other parts of the city, eminent domain acquisition of local property, keep-out fencing that tells the neighborhood it’s not welcome.

Lamster gets at one of the more confounding aspects of Dallas’ character, that is, the way in which perfectly reasonable approaches to managing cities that work elsewhere don’t translate easily to Dallas. For example, there is no shortage of great parks — from Central Park in New York to Buffalo Bayou Park in Houston — managed by private entities. So why is there so much distrust over the Fair Park plan? It has everything to do with the indelible mark left by Dallas’ particular political history.

Lamster drives home this point with a quote from a Dallas Morning News article from 1941:

“It is paradoxical that the most heavily patronized park in Texas is the least understood and appreciated.”

Dallas, the city continually convinced it is on the verge of realizing its predestined greatness, never does seem to change.

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