The old Dawson State Jail building on Commerce, pictured here in 2017. Photo by Alex Macon.

Architecture & Design

Can the ‘Ugliest Building in Dallas’ Become the Gateway to a 200-Acre Trinity River Park?

Designers hope to reimagine the old Dawson State Jail building in a way that reckons with its brutal past.

The long-running effort to transform 200 acres of Trinity River floodplain into a massive urban park hinges in part on the old Dawson State Jail building on Commerce. Closed since 2013, the building sits near the river’s east levee as something of a grim monument to mass incarceration (Lew Sterrett is right across the street) and as an absolute eyesore near downtown. The Dallas Morning News has not unfairly called it the ugliest building in Dallas. The Trinity Park Conservancy, charged with making Harold Simmons Park a reality, is describing it as a potential “gateway to the park.”

The organization has now begun outreach on reimagining the former jail, gathering feedback and hosting listening sessions aimed at “making sure the community has power in this project, because there’s been a lack of trust in previous projects,” says Jeamy Molina, the Conservancy’s director of communications. So far the Conservancy has heard from community design advocates and downtown residents as well as workers at Lew Sterrett and people who were formerly incarcerated at Dawson.

“Because this was a place that was closed off, people want it to feel open, they want to feel nature coming in,” she says. Others have mentioned how the building could connect to the neighborhood and the planned park, or described a need for spaces dedicated to arts and culture. Another theme, Molina says, has been a desire to see any redesign of the building reckon with its dark past. Before its closure, the privately operated jail was widely recognized as a brutal place, with very few windows and no outdoor spaces.

The Conservancy has tapped architects Weiss/Manfredi to lead the redesign. And to help with the engagement happening right now around the old building at 106 W. Commerce, the Conservancy’s partnered with Colloqate, a New Orleans-based design justice practice that was part of the successful push to take down Confederate statues in New Orleans. “They’ve helped move monuments in cities that don’t necessarily belong there,” Molina says. And the firm’s track record shows a commitment to building inclusive, people-centered spaces.

Last summer, Colloqate founder and design principal Bryan Lee Jr. wrote for Bloomberg CityLab about how our cities’ built environment can be used to oppress people—or liberate them.

For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it. That’s a key principle of the Design Justice movement, upon which I base my practice. Design Justice seeks to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.

That built-in oppression takes many forms. It’s in the planning decisions that target non-white communities for highway projects and “urban renewal” schemes conceived to steer economic benefits away from existing residents. It’s in a design philosophy that turned neighborhoods into mazes of “defensible space” that often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety. And it’s in the proliferation of public spaces that often fail to let certain cultural communities congregate without fear of harassment.

The Dawson State Jail is undoubtedly a monument that doesn’t belong here. Can it be transformed into a radically just space?

Molina says the Conservancy, with Colloqate and the other architects and designers, will continue to host listening sessions throughout the spring and summer and into the fall. I’ll update this post as those are scheduled. And you can give them your thoughts directly in the meantime.

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