Fair Park needs an animating idea

I WAS VASTLY relieved to hear Park Board chairman Betty Marcus confirm that the $322,000 contract that the city has signed with Management Resources (former Disney employees from California) is for the implementation of the $18 million bond program that was approved for Fair Park more than a year ago, not for a new study.

Certainly Fair Park has been the dubious beneficiary of enough studies. We’ve had the ERA report, prepared in the Sixties by other Disney-connected experts, followed by Marvin Springer’s plan in 1971. Both told us what most observers could figure out: Fair Park needs more space for parking. Fortunately, $2.5 million worth of parking, planting and new fencing is currently being added, and some of the bond money has been earmarked for this problem.

The most recent study, submitted in 1981 by LWFW of Dallas, is especially disappointing. It’s not that the report doesn’t have some good suggestions. The traffic plan and the plea for plants, benches and trash barrels (most likely contributed by LWFW’s collaborator, Myrick, Newman, Dahlberg and Partners) make much sense.

But the report stumbled into political unreality when it proposed a new consolidated management for Fair Park, a proposal that was immediately resisted by the State Fair Association, which has run the fairgrounds under contract with the city for almost 80 years. The State Fair Board pointed out that the association’s current contract runs through 1991.

LWFW took another kamikaze plunge when it suggested coordinated theme development and fund raising for Fair Park’s five museums. Each museum was quick to declare its own independence. No stranger to cultural politics, the Park Board knocked out the offending sections and sent the LWFW plan to the City Council, which wisely did nothing with it.

The central problem with the LWFW report is not its political artlessness, though that is certainly an obvious deficiency. The most glaring difficulty with this and all the other studies of Fair Park is the absence of an animating idea that will excite the city and its visitors.

LWFW tried to find it. Caught up in the current enthusiasm for “theme” parks, the group scoured the contemporary landscape and came up with “Science, Industry and Technology” as an appropriate sobriquet under which the Science Place, the Museum of Natural History, the Garden Center, the Dallas Historical Society and the Dallas Aquarium could present themselves to the world. But was anybody going to believe that this collection of underfinanced endeavors is a center for science, industry and technology? Even if this approach could be made credible (which I doubt), is it what we really want?

While LWFW was preparing its report for Dallas, Roger Kennedy, director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology in Washington, D. C, was dropping the technical aspect from that museum’s raison d’etre. He unified the blurred image of his institution by renaming it the National Museum of American History. Building on strong collections and resident expertise, Kennedy is creating a niche for the museum that will bring it new and enhanced importance. History may be the key to Fair Park as well.

But let’s look again at LWFW. At the heart of its proposal lies the Dallas Aquarium, an antiquated structure that operates under the aegis of the Dallas Zoo. LWFW wants to build a new $7.5 million (in 1980 dollars) aquarium along the lines of the highly touted one in Seattle. But LWFW says that the Dallas Aquarium has no non-profit support group similar to the associations that give paintings to the art museum and pass bond elections for the symphony hall. A group has since been formed, but it still seems far safer to build on strengths that have existed longer.

The most grievous misunderstanding in the LWFW study concerns Fair Park’s wonderful complex of art deco buildings. Constructed for the Texas Centennial in 1936, they’ve been cited by architecture critic Ada Louise Hux-table as some of the finest examples of art deco in the country. While LWFW concedes that this is “the largest single collection of art deco buildings in the Southwest, and as such has historic merit and architectural significance,” the study claims that “this alone would not substantiate their being.”

Why not? Those art deco buildings are Fair Park’s most compelling asset, the central element of authenticity from which all else flows. It’s our good fortune that nobody took LWFW’s advice and destroyed the old gas building. Instead, the vigorous little structure with its handsome tower has been restored as an office for the Sesquicentennial Committee, which is organizing a two-month state fair for the 1986 celebration.

It seems to me that the message of Fair Park is history. (LWFW came close to this realization with its suggested Fair Park subtheme of Dallas and the Southwest.) Based upon its heritage from the Thirties, this complex can be as successful as Old City Park, but on a much more varied and grander scale. Of course, let’s keep on developing the State Fair. Add more rodeos, concerts and mini-fairs, plus the Grand Prix that State Fair general manager Wayne Gallagher has just negotiated for the park. Rebuild the amusement area and make it a source of year-round excitement. Invest in more amenities. LWFW is not off-base on these things. But let’s remember that history is the natural foundation of Fair Park, and history sells. It sells because it tells newcomers where they are and natives where they came from. History sells because it replenishes the spirit.

While the people at Management Resources are developing plans to implement the bond program, they might also give some further thought to Fair Park. No extensive study is called for; there’s no need to weigh in with pounds of paper. Let’s ask them for only one sheet containing a single creative idea that will tell us what to do with our architectural treasures at Fair Park.