Tuesday, June 6, 2023 Jun 6, 2023
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Environment Razing Against Time

The old Sanger buildings are marked for demolition. Dallas’ past is marked for oblivion.
By Bill Murchison |

“One could scarcely help fancying it must have run there,” said Dickens of Ebenezer Scrooge’s lodging place, “when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.” Who is to say that the complex of buildings presently housing El Centro College in downtown Dallas did not similarly get lost-long, long ago, amid the dust and swirl and bustle of a frontier city on the rise?

The El Centro buildings-with their lofty sandstone, steel, and cast-iron dignity-constitute an architectural treasure of treasures in a city divorced from most reminders of its pre-Jazz age past. To the north and south of the four buildings sit bland structures of generally Coolidgean vintage. To the west, El Centro is raising a modern class building. Whole blocks to the east have been cleared away for parking lots; London during the Blitz cannot have looked vastly different from these wastelands. A bit farther eastward rise the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas: One Main Place, the First International Building, and all the rest. The El Centro buildings must surely feel like dowagers at a singles bar.

El Centro wants to terminate their misery swiftly. Three of the four buildings have been marked for demolition; the college has decided to use their sites for expansion. Only one, the newest, is deemed of further value to the college. A fight to save the buildings is presently being waged by preservationists who claim the block-recently added to the Interior Department’s National Register of Historic Places-is too memorable for Dallas to lose.

Memories by the thousands linger on in the buildings. Once, the El Cen-tro complex was the Sanger Brothers’ complex, site of the pioneer department store that, having merged with the A. Harris store, moved in the mid-1960s to new quarters on Pacific Street. It was shortly afterwards that the newly created Dallas Community College District located the first of its campuses, El Centro, in the old buildings.

The first of the four, located on the south side of Elm Street, between Austin and Lamar, was completed in 1884. (The date appears on the keystone of the third-floor pediment.) It was designed in what architects call the High Victorian Italianate style -the commercial style that preponderated in the ’70s and ’80s and that still imparts period flavor to the main streets of nearly every American city. The architects-we do not always know the names of those who designed the less grandiose edifices of Victorian commerce-whoever they were, joined in the contemporary celebration of Italian themes: tidy rows of narrow windows, cornices, pediments. But the Italianate style incorporated purely American artistry, too, in the form of cast-iron street-level fronts. The art of ornamented cast-iron has not been practiced for decades, but in its Victorian heyday it had a pragmatic beauty all its own. The most delicate forms-fleur de lis, acanthus leaves, fluted columns -could be molded of plain old iron. Just such a ground floor, even if spare of ornamentation, was given the eldest El Centro building; a solid, perdurable base for the four masonry stories above. A street-level plaque discloses that the iron was supplied by the MacMurray-Judge company of St. Louis, Missouri.

MacMurray-Judge also contributed an ornamented cast-iron front to the 1884 building’s younger neighbor on the northwest corner of the block, at Elm and Austin. But what a different feel to the architecture. The slightly fussy formality of keystones and pediments is gone. Here is a structure of sweeping arches and ponderous pillars. The style of the new building into which Sanger Brothers Dry Goods, about 1890, moved its thriving business, is known as Richardsonian Romanesque. In nearly every enumeration of the three greatest American-born architects, the name of Henry Hobson Richardson appears, along with those of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright; it was Richardson who brought to its full American flowering the style of preGothic Europe. His disciples were numerous and diligent, in Dallas as in New York City. The Sanger Brothers building, in true Richardsonian fashion, employs not only brick, but rusticated, i.e., rough-surfaced, red sandstone (now, lamentably, painted a dingy grayish-brown). At the northwest corner a parapet wall protrudes slightly, so that the effect is that of an entrance enclosed in a tower. A citadel of learning indeed, this second eldest of the El Centro buildings. But a modern citadel in its day: the architects, for perhaps the first time in Dallas, framed the building on a steel skeleton. The technique soon became general in Dallas construction projects.

Around the corner from the Sanger building, when it was finished, stood an even better exemplar of the Richardsonian style: the Security Mort-gage and Trust Company building, completed in 1888. The Security building, a hulking structure of eight stories (two were added at century’s turn) might be part of the schloss at Heidelberg, such is the antique grandeur of its soaring red walls. Drury B. Alexander of the University of Texas architecture department has called it “the finest commercial example of the Richardsonian Romanesque style in Dallas.” It sits at the northeast corner of Austin and Main. A pity the top two stories were added, for they cause the building to look over-extended, like a gangling teenager with sleeves too short for him; but it is still a compelling structure. One notices first of all the oriel, the four-story bay window projecting from its corner; columns break up its windows and seem to lift it even higher. The base and cornice are delectably ornamented. The high arched doorway on Main Street is complemented and extended by window arches of three stories; the arches themselves maternally enclose octagonal bays of two stories each.

The Security Mortgage Company’s tenancy of the building was brief; Sanger’s, still growing, bought the structure about 1895; it was Sanger’s that added the architecturally dubious, if useful, seventh and eighth stories.

Already the El Centro block yields a festival of style and design; but there is more to come, for abutting on the Security building just to the east is the Sanger building of 1910. It is as different from the Security building as the Security building is different from the cast-iron-fronted edifice to its rear. This time we know the architects: Lang and Witchell, a creative and prestigious firm who were later to build the Lone Star Gas and Dallas Power & Light Company buildings. The building they reared on the eastern half of the block bounded by Main, Lamar, and Elm-where an earlier Sanger’s building of two stories had stood-is in the full flush of the Louis Sullivan tradition, Sullivan being the magisterial Chicago architect who was both classicist and modernist. Sullivan built great skyscrapers; the Sanger building is no skyscraper-only eight stories, rather -but it impresses: clean, unfettered piers-the vertical stretches between windows-rush upward from the street; at street level, they are ornamented with the naturalistic and stylized foliage that Sullivan substituted for Europe’s Art Nouveau. There was originally a cornice atop the building, but it was removed in the 1960s. The building’s frame is of steel.

Altogether, then, the four buildingsof the El Centro block comprise whatProf. Alexander calls “a 26-year progression of the history of the ChicagoSchool of Design”-the architecturalschool that so notably, in its day, influenced Dallas architecture. Theremay, one day soon, be nothing leftbut the tag-end of the progression,the Sanger building of 1910. El Centroseems bent on waving the wrecker’sball into action. But there is stilltime, brother. Go and see.

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