Monday, August 8, 2022 Aug 8, 2022
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An Art Deco treasure-and the city’s heart and heritage
By David Dillon |

N A CITY inundated with flashy images of corporate and institu-tional power, Fair Park remains an anomaly. It is not chic and trendy, but populist and irremediably local. Within its 277 acres are vestiges of everything that Dallas has been: railhead, agricultural hub, retail and marketing center, football capital of the Southwest. Its icons range from the gilded beaux arts Indian at the Hall of State to denim-clad Big Tex nodding and “howdy-ing” on the midway. If Dallas has a cultural melting pot, this is it.

Fair Park is one of the finest collections of Art Deco buildings in the country, rivaled only by Miami’s Art Deco Historical District, and the only major Thirties exposition complex still intact. Yet in spite of encomiums from architecture critics and historians and an occasional glowing testimonial from city officials, Fair Park generally has been treated like an embarrassing poor relation-eligible for periodic handouts but not really welcome in the family.

The 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition had barely concluded when the city and state began squabbling over who should pay for the upkeep of the Hall of State, the state arguing it was the city’s responsibility since it leased the building, the city claiming that the state was merely trying to pass off defective goods. The debate got so hot that the State Board of Control threatened to padlock the Hall of State and move all the murals, statues and exhibits to Houston, where presumably they’d be more appreciated.

A related battle occurred over maintenance of the Museum of Fine Arts and other civic buildings, for which the city had neglected to provide funds in an earlier bond election. There were charges and countercharges of fiscal mismanagement and draco-nian accounting procedures, leading to threats of firings on all fronts. Both disputes were eventually settled, but they offered disturbing glimpses of problems to come.

While Texas gradually became more urban after World War II, Fair Park remained true to its agrarian origins-the scene of rodeos and livestock shows, complemented by a midway and corny dog stands. Colorful, but increasingly remote from the daily lives of most Texans. As the Dallas development train headed north and west in the Sixties and Seventies, Fair Park’s fortunes declined further. The Fair Park board, once among the most influential in the city, gradually lost its clout to the point that few city officials were willing to speak up for Fair Park in any municipal dispute.

The Dallas Museum of Art, the symphony and the opera, Fair Park tenants for decades, either left or have plans to. In making its case for a new building in the downtown Arts District, the DMA argued that Fair Park is unsafe, unsavory and inaccessible, that the arts would never flourish in such tawdry surroundings. While there was truth in these criticisms, they also reflected the social and racial prejudice that has plagued Fair Park from the beginning. The area recalls homely origins and hard times when Dallas first aspired to be an international city, or at least a passable imitation of an eastern city. Today it comes alive for only a few weeks each October during the State Fair.

BUT THAT IS only part of the story. After decades of not-so-benign neglect, Fair Park is undergoing an $18 million renovation in preparation for the 1986 Sesquicentennial. Nearly half the money, some $9.5 million, is being spent on new paving, lighting and landscaping to restore the site to some semblance of its original self. Another $4.6 million will go for renovating the Automobile Building and band shell. The Science Place (formerly the Museum of Health and Science) will move into the vacated Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and the Hall of State, the symbolic heart of the complex, will get minor functional improvements. A private campaign is under way to restore William Lescaze’s Magnolia Lounge, the first International Style building in Texas.

The goal of the Sesquicentennial plan, beyond basic cosmetic improvements, is to reclaim Fair Park from the automobile by closing many existing streets and creating a sequence of landscaped plazas and walkways. The Esplanade, the formal centerpiece of George Dahl’s original beaux arts plan, is being repaved and relandscaped, and a new lighting system is being installed using reproductions of 1936 Art Deco fixtures.

The lagoon area, surrounded by the Fine Arts and Natural History museums and the Dallas Aquarium, was originally intended to be a casual, natural counterpoint to the hard-edged formality of the Esplanade. It had some qualities of a tranquil neighborhood park, and until the departure of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts was among the most popular spots in Fair Park. The new plan calls for intensive planting and landscaping in the style of English public gardens along with construction of a small overlook on the northern edge of the lagoon and the installation of an environmental sculpture in the center. While the decision to turn Fair Park back into a park is sound, the key to making it work is the city’s ability to supply and maintain an extraordinary number of plants and flower beds. Riotous excess is called for, not a few token geraniums and marigolds placed in discreet concrete planters.

Compared to the landscaping plan, the architectural changes are modest. The Automobile Building, a Forties replacement for the 1936 Varied Industries Building that burned, will get porticoes and planters to match those on the Centennial Building across the Esplanade. Balance was central to Dahl’s plan, balance in form, scale, proportion and detailing. The Automobile Building, with its low, crudely detailed entrances, destroyed the dramatic formal symmetry of the original design.

All of these improvements are welcome and 50 years overdue in most cases. Yet no one familiar with the problems believes that these changes will immediately reverse Fair Park’s long downward slide. The $18 million is being spent in highly conspicuous ways in hopes that five years from now voters will be so impressed with what’s happened that they will provide additional funds for more ambitious projects, such as restoration of the 1936 murals and a major renovation of the Hall of State.

What’s lacking, as it has been for decades, is a clear vision of what Fair Park should be. Various consultants have recommended turning the park into an educational and entertainment complex that can attract local residents long after Big Tex and the ferris wheel have been packed away for the season. One expert suggested building an Epcot-inspired midway, complete with robots and other electronic gadgetry. This alarming idea has since been scrapped. Other recommendations include construction of a new aquarium, although there is no money for one and prospects are slim for getting any.

Implicit in these discussions, of course, is a recognition that Fair Park can’t survive on nostalgia, no matter how deep and widespread. Its future is tied to a wider circle of events, especially the redevelopment of nearby Deep Ellum and the creation of strong links to downtown.

George Kessler recognized in 1911 that Fair Park was basically an island off the mainland of downtown Dallas, and therefore recommended construction of a grand boulevard linking the two. Like many of Kessler’s recommendations, this one was never followed. In 1984, however, the city finally approved a four-lane boulevard connecting Fair Park and the central business district. One leg would follow Pacific Avenue and the Texas and Pacific right-of-way to Exposition Avenue, then proceed down Exposition to Parry Avenue and the front entrance to Fair Park. The second leg would follow Second Avenue to Canton and Young streets. Pacific and Canton would thus become the major east-west connections to downtown, allowing Main, Commerce and Elm to become local streets for the emerging Deep Ellum neighborhood. In addition to tying Fair Park securely to downtown and its surrounding neighborhood-something that has never been achieved-the boulevard would also establish at last the grand ceremonial approach to Fair Park envisioned in Dahl’s original plan.

For the intersection of First and Exposition avenues, on axis with the main entrance to Fair Park, Dallas architect James Pratt has proposed a major ceremonial plaza. Preliminary designs show a large park dedicated to Dallas’ civic leaders, several fountains and an imposing monument composed of classical and Art Deco forms clearly inspired by the existing architecture of Fair Park. Funding would come from city, county and private sources.

If built as proposed, the plaza would counter a distressing trend in Dallas’ public design of ignoring powerful local imagery in favor of the imported canned variety. Together with the boulevard, the plaza would represent not merely a revival of Kessler’s plan but an attempt to marry his vision of the City Beautiful with the modern vision of the City Efficient.

The Texas Centennial Exposition of 1936 drew 6.2 million visitors in six months and generated many times that in revenue for the city. Its extension, the 1937 Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition, drew an additional seven million people. Together, these two events pulled Dallas out of the Depression. Although times and needs have changed, Dallas civic leaders are hopeful that the Sesquicentennial will have a similar effect.

“We must get something out of this effort,” said the chairman of the Dallas Sesquicentennial Committee, William Seay. “It ought to mean something to the City of Dallas-visitor money plowed into the city, or renewed Fair Park use.”

These are perfectly worthwhile objectives, not greatly different from those of the backers of the 1936 Centennial Exposition. But they may not be the most significant ones. For if Fair Park is Dallas’ melting pot, its repository of shared cultural values, then the Sesquicentennial could be an opportunity for the city to rediscover not only its past but its heart. For a city that is prosperous but basically centerless, still searching for what it wants to be, such a rediscovery could be the richest return of all.