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THE PARK THAT PETER BUILT

Thanks-Giving Square took 16 years, $7 million, and lots of fights at City Hall. Now that it’s finished, is anyone but Peter Stewart happy?
By Jane Sumner |

“It was going to be a nice, plain, green place . . .” The speaker, a man who had been involved with the plans for Thanks-Giving Square almost from the beginning, sounds like a parent recalling a child who had gone astray. We are standing in a window high above the one-acre triangular park whose zig-zag walkways make it look, as one critic puts it, like a miniature golf course. At one end there is the white spiral chapel that some liken to a Dairy Queen, others to a giant screw. A crowd has begun to gather outside the locked iron gates. “You know,” the speaker resumes matter-of-factly, “Peter planned for everything but people . . . and they come by the busload.”

All at once, the twin walls of water on either side of the Great Gate erupt into life. A workman unlocks the gate and, one by one, the tourists enter, unsure what they will find inside.

They won’t find what Peter Stewart finds there. To its founder, a pleasant-faced, sweet-tempered, but utterly relentless man, Thanks-Giving Square has the makings of a national shrine, an international attraction. With his eyes shut, transported, Stewart can see the Square’s spiral chapel as a city symbol as recognizable as the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. But other people who have worked with Stewart on his pet project suspect him of even more transcendent aims. They say that Peter planned it as a setting for the Second Coming.



Mention Peter Stewart’s name around veterans at city hall and you’ll see their eyes begin to glaze. For ten years, Stewart hounded them and cajoled them into bringing his vision of “a spiritual assertion at the Crossroads,” “a psalm to the City of Dallas in stone, leaf and water” into being.

“Thanksgiving may sound sickly sweet,” Stewart says, “but it has deep meaning for a great many people. The idea sells itself.” More to the point, however, was Stewart’s dogged salesmanship, for he extracted over $6 million for the park from business interests and the community. A gift of $25,000 bought an International Column in the Hall of World Thanksgiving. It also, some say with relief, got Peter Stewart off your back.

In 1961, Stewart, the heir to Col. Harry E. Stewart’s distributorships, had lunch with Ray Hubbard, then chairman of the city Park Board. Together, they came up with the idea of a “reverent, enduring retreat” in the heart of the city, a place that would be a green island, a spark of renewal, but would be more than just another park. Three years later, the Thanks-Giving Square Foundation was formed, according to its articles of incorporation, “to give joyful thanks, at all times, to God.” And to raise the money necessary to buy and build a park on Block 476, bounded by Ervay, Pacific, and Bryan.

The fund-raising formula was suggested by “Uncle Bob” Thornton, the flamboyant former mayor, who suggested that Stewart get the park’s neighbors to buy the site and the community to pay for its improvements. The first “substantial” gift, according to Stewart, came from Republic Bank. The bank’s tower now looms across the street from the spiral chapel; visitors who climb the steps and the steeply raked ramp to the chapel are dazzled by the bank’s aluminum facade. Republic’s board can hardly say their gift was not repaid by advantageous positioning.

By 1965, the Foundation was ready for its first major public relations and fund-raising campaign. Sixty Dallas businessmen assembled one day in the Chapparal Club and heard Stewart offer them a vision of “beauty, space, light, leaf, and water.” He likened the park to the court of Rockefeller Plaza, carefully pointing out that Dallas’ park would be 50 percent larger. In a sure-fire pitch to self-conscious post-assassination Dallas, Stewart predicted the park would have world-wide appeal. From New York, the tape-recorded voice of Mayor Erik Jonsson, away on civic business, called the project “something good that should be here, a place to stop, think, and remember our obligation to the Deity.” From Rome, the Most Reverend Thomas Gorman, bishop of the Dallas-Fort Worth diocese, attending the Vatican Council, sent “Godspeed.”

According to Stewart, the park would serve in the same way as the agora in Athens, the first open square for a free people. “It is interesting,” Stewart said, “that the first open square originated at the same time and place as democracy. A tyrant couldn’t let a lot of people congregate in the open and possibly get out of hand.” In time, hippies nesting in Stone Place Mall and the street preachers shouting at Main and Ervay would have an effect on Stewart’s warm feelings about freedom of assembly.

By the end of the summer of 1966, the Foundation’s Development Council had pledges in hand to purchase the land. The second phase of “Uncle Bob’s” formula then went into operation, and the Foundation enlisted the city for bond money and its power of eminent domain. As a result, $475,000 went into the 1967 Crossroads Bond Program for land acquisition for Thanks-Giving Square. Under the agreement, if Foundation efforts to buy the property at a reasonable cost failed, the city would then step in and condemn. In return, the city would receive the property purchased. There were, of course, reluctant landowners, but in time they too fell before the juggernaut of Peter Stewart’s will. Stewart managed to put the property together for $2.5 million without court action, and today he denies that the power of eminent domain motivated the Foundation’s marriage with the city.

Reviewing the agreement with the Foundation in 1968, Mayor Jonsson and the city council grew uneasy about Stewart’s retention of subsurface rights. What, exactly, would go in beneath the park? Souvenir shops, with proceeds going to the Square, perhaps? “I think we ought to have Stewart show us exactly what his intentions are,” Jonsson said to the council, but the matter suddenly disappeared from the council’s view. Later, Stewart said he had settled the matter privately with the mayor, for he never mentioned it in a luncheon talk to the city council.

Similar uneasiness was voiced about a clause in the agreement between the city and the Foundation that read, “the city, at its sole cost, will also maintain the atmosphere so that it will be conducive to dignified conduct, quiet meditation, and peaceful contemplation for a reasonable but not unduly prolonged period of time.” Mayor Jonsson reassured everyone that anybody who behaved at Thanks-Giving Square would be welcome. But it was the first rumble of thunder over the Square.