Dr Pepper’s Past: Is It More Than Pop Culture?

While preservationists and industrialists clash over the life of the old DP building, Kroger creates a new headquarters for nostalgia.

AS A YOUNG WOMAN, SUE STERLING would ride the old Inurban streetcar south from the small town of Vickery to Dallas. She remembers the excitement as the car approached Mockingbird and riders saw the Dr Pepper building emerging on the horizon.

The art moderne structure with its unusual angles and tall clock tower was built in 1948 and instantly became a landmark. It was huge, it was modern, and it had a fall-out shelter, important in those Cold War days. But most of all, it was the home of Dr Pepper, that sweet, syrupy, and truly Texan substance that promised Vim, Vigor, Vitality!

Butroday, the Dr Pepper building stands empty, poised on that precipice between the current owners’ development plans and the fervor of preservationists and passionate Peppers, Today, the questions is: Is the icon of pop culture a landmark of historic status?

Concocted in Waco in the late 1800s, Dr Pepper soon created a thirst among Texas consumers. Thanks to a good product and successful marketing, the thirst grew, leading the soft drink to achieve icon status and the products history to become lore: Remember “The Friendly Pepper-Upper”? The clocks that tell when to drink Dr Pepper? (At 10, 2 and 4 o’clock, of course!) Remember the exotic suggestion, dreamed up in 1958 to increase winter sales, to serve Dr Pepper hot’! What about the catchy jingle, “I’m a Pepper. He’s a Pepper. Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too”?

There’s a Dr Pepper museum in Waco and even a Dr Pepper collectors’ tan club with a membership of more than 500 who communicate through a quarterly magazine, The Lion’s Roar. The allegiance seems almost fanatical.

For many, the soft drink’s history is inextricably tied to their personal histories. Sue Sterling is one of these people. She met her husband when they both worked for Dr Pepper in the ’50s. They continued to work there-she in the credit union, he in the marketing department-until they retired. Over the years, the couple amassed one of the largest collections of Dr Pepper memorabilia in the country-more than 1,250 items, all pre-1960 and now in the museum in Waco.

For others the building is simply a monument, a cornerstone of the Old Dallas, much like Pegasus, the flying red horse on the downtown skyline. Preservationists also argue that the building meets criteria for landmark status not only because of its architectural design, hut because of its cultural and historical significance as one of the first national headquarters in Dallas and as a trend-setter for development in the Greenland Hills area.

In 1988, when the building was just 40 years old, Dr Pepper/Seven-Up Companies moved to a new building on Walnut Hill. The Mockingbird site stood vacant for a number of years, to the dismay of Pepper fans. “The building deserved more than that,” says Sue Smith. “All the people that’s liked Dr Pepper feel the same way I do. It’s a place of honor in the city of Dallas as far as I’m concerned.”

Finally, in 1993, the building and surrounding 15 acres were acquired by Dai-Mac Investments Corp. The company sold more than half of the property to Kroger Company for a grocery store (a small portion of the site had already been sold to DART before the Dal-Mac acquisition).

In the spring of 1993, fearing that the building would be razed, the city’s Landmark Commission triggered a ban on its demolition by beginning the process of declaring it a historic site through zoning laws. But Dal-Mac, after more than a year of voluntary meetings with those who wanted the building preserved, announced in late October of ’94 that it couldn’t find any “economical, viable uses” for the structure. This “hardship relief” application set a separate legal process in motion to try to speed up a resolution to the problem. The Richardson-based company also announced plans to tear down the building, except for the stone entrance and clock tower, and to put in a shopping center. On November 15, the hardship request was denied by the landmark commission. Dal-Mac said it would appeal the decision to City Council. It also stated that it would consider selling the property. Meanwhile, the City Council vote to determine landmark status was pending as D went to press.

Visions of what they see as yet another Dallas strip shopping center have elicited more than gasps from preservationists. Why not, they ask, create something more like Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco or Faneuil Hall in Boston?

“There are plenty of strip shopping centers,” says Patsy Camp, another member of the Dr Pepper fan club. “It would be a drawing point for the city to have something of historical value. In this disposable society it’s nice to have an interesting old building. Anything that brings back those nostalgic memories is nice.”

Others admit that their own nostalgic memories may not be a measure of historic importance. Patsy’s husband, Dr. Roger Camp, also a member of the fan club, notes that while it would benice if Dal-Mac were able to preserve the building, he’s not convinced of the structure’s architectural significance. Charles Brizius, a collector of Dr Pepper memorabilia for 20 years, agrees, especially since Dal-Mac has promised to retain the entrance and the clock tower. “If that’s the best they can do that’s the best they can do,” Brizius says, resignedly.

Whatever the outcome of the continuing debate over the building’s historic significance, Dr Pepper fans can rest assured that the spirit of nostalgia will continue to reside on the site at East Mockingbird. Last month, Kroger Company opened its mammoth 75,000-square foot flagship store on the site, combining nostalgia and modern supermarket marketing to create a delirious mix of Rockwellian kitsch and lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-time-crunched.

From the outdoor sign to the frozen food aisle, the theme here is what the doctor ordered.

The old Dr Pepper clock at the corner of Mockingbird and Greenville has been reworked, naming the site the “Dr Pepper Station” in anticipation of DART’s future light rail station. Beside the Kroger logo in the familiar oval sign grins “Doc” Pepper with his old top hat, looking new for the ’90s in red neon.

Once inside, shoppers are greeted by a service center that promises to up the ante considerably in the grocery store wars that have raged in Dallas for the last decade. In addition to the floral shop, gourmet deli, and bakery that are now de rigueur at most stores, there’s a Chinese kitchen, where shoppers can dine in or dine out. There’s a Colter’s Barbecue, a travel agency, and a full-service branch of Bank of America. And there’s a mini Campisi’s Pizza.

The presence of Dr Pepper looms large. Huge, richly colored reproductions of Dr Pepper posters from the 1890s to the mid-1950s hang at the front over the checkout stands. A glass kiosk houses memorabilia-antique soft-drink bottles, photographs, posters, and premiums-from the museum in Waco and the company’s archives. A Dr Pepper soda fountain is set up in the service center, and old advertisements are displayed throughout the store, bringing hack memories for those of us who grew up in Texas drinking Dr Pepper with our moon pies. “Frosty, man-frosty!” says a cowboy reaching for a cold DP near the frozen food section. Ads with buxom, beautiful women serve as remiders that modern campaigns for jeans and perfumes have deep, if unexpected, roots.

Shopping at the new Kroger may be enough of a Dr Pepper experience to satisfy most people. Kroger’s Dr Pepper store is indeed a celebration of the meeting of commerce and pop culture-and one might argue that the setting is fitting. These are, after all, the same forces that ed Dr Pepper to icon status.

But for Sue Sterling and others, it’s nore than a question of commercialism. She hasn’t given up on saving the Dr Pepper building and continues to encour-ige Dal-Mac to create an eclectic new etail space using the existing structure. ’What I’d like to do is get everyone that’s nterested to go out there and join hands and circle the building,” Sterling says. “I want to give it a great big hug.”

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