Friday, September 29, 2023 Sep 29, 2023
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The Five City Halls
By Tom Peeler |

TRACING THE SEAT OF CITY government in early Dallas is like trying to track a floating crap game. We have had five official city halls, each with its own distinct personality:


Opened: c. 1872. Cost: $4,500. It was common practice in 1870s Texas to house city government with the public market. Our first city hall was a two-story frame building on the southwest corner of Main and Akard (that section of Akard was then called Sycamore). On the first floor, local vendors hawked fresh buffalo, venison, turkey, quail, squirrel, rabbit, and prairie chicken. On the second floor, politicians were busy civilizing the city by slapping a seven-mile-an-hour speed limit on wagons and buggies and by making it a crime to harbor “lewd, dissolute women and common strumpets.” Ben Long, mayor when the city center opened, was later murdered in a Dallas saloon.


Opened: 1881. Cost: $18,000. Following the railroad boom that began at about the same time the first city hall was being built, the city administration outgrew the Market House. A fine two-story brick edifice (shown with flag) was built at the northwest corner of Commerce and Lamar, housing the fire station on the first floor with city government above. The fire station later burned, but the equipment was saved and moved to a new location on the east end of town. This city hall was sold to a local developer for a small profit in 1887, and the city headquarters was transplanted to space rented from the Sarah Cockrell family. Local reporters lamented the move; thanks to the old building’s skylight, they had been able to eavesdrop on executive sessions.


Opened: 1889. Cost: $80,000. THIS REMARKABLE STRUCTURE AT the northwest corner of Commerce and Akard featured intricate patterns of brick, pillars of Palo Pinto sandstone, black walnut banisters, and a two-room suite for the mayor, one done in cherry, the other in oak. William Howard Taft and Bertrand Russell orated in the 1,000-seat auditorium on the third floor. Judge Philip Lindsley, the leading local political observer of the day, lamented that the town leaders inhabiting the third city hall were mostly saloonkeepers “displaced in part every two years with like material.” This building was sold at a handsome profit in 1910 to the Busch family of St. Louis as the site for the Adolphus Hotel.


Opened: 1914. Cost. $700,000. After four years in rented quarters on Commerce between Harwood and St. Paul, the city set up headquarters in the magnificent granite and limestone Beaux Arts building on Harwood be-tween Commerce and Main. In the 1930s, folk hero and mayor Waddy Tate removed the metal spikes from the building’s perime-ter so the town loafers could perch there. The top floor of the five-story building was known as ” High Five” by the local criminal element in honor of the dreaded jail, where, according to local leg-end, rubber hoses were all too common. In 1963, this structure found its place in history when, live on national television, Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the city hall basement.


Opened: 1978. Cost: $43 million.

When the city hall on Harwood reached the ripe oldageof50in 1964,Mayor Erik Jonsson called it a “chicken coop,” insisting that a city of quality “should never settle for anything humdrum.” The City Council ap-proved the site for a new city hall in 1965, but by the time it opened 13 years later, ex-mayor Jonsson was a senior statesman. Controversial from the beginning because of its radical design, exorbitant cost, and lengthy delays, the build-ing got its nickname from its famed architect I.M. Pei. Mayor Robert Folsom and ex-mayors Jonsson and Wes Wise spoke at length during the grand opening ceremony. City manager George Schrader, also on hand, said he was glad that no drunks fell in the reflecting pool during the momentous event.