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Why Thanks-Giving Square’s ‘Beacon of Hope’ has Gone Dark

As downtown's street life disappeared, so did the grand expectations for Dallas' first deck park.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

As a downtown resident without a yard, I generally embrace any green space I can find. And on walks with my dog, I’m careful to bring enough plastic bags to ensure that the streets are left slightly cleaner than I found them. Armed thusly on a recent meander through Thanks-Giving Square, I stooped to pick up after my dog  and spotted a lone maintenance man toiling away.

“If everybody did that,” he said, “it’d save me several hours a day.”

“I bet,” I told him. The angular, sloping landscaped wedges of Thanks-Giving Square can feel like a mine field. Each step is perilous. To help matters, Doggy-Do stations were installed recently, with bag dispensers and waste bins. But Thanks-Giving Square has problems that conscientious pet owners will never be able to solve.

The square was Dallas’ first deck park, designed by famed architect Philip Johnson (Comerica Bank Tower, the Crescent, the John F. Kennedy Memorial) and built over the vast Bullington Truck Terminal as part of Vincent Ponte’s tunnel plan to relieve the then teeming streets of downtown Dallas. Before the square’s dedication in 1976, religious leaders behind the project called it “a beacon of hope for generations.” The Dallas Morning News told its readers: “Though serene, it will be coursing with life and movement.” And a visiting official from London’s park department compared it to great squares in his city, saying that he was “convinced that the square can be important—communally, aesthetically, and spiritually—not only to Dallas but also to the nation and world.”

To this dog owner, it seems the square has fallen somewhat short of expectations. But that is not entirely Philip Johnson’s fault. When Thanks-Giving Square was built, life in downtown Dallas spilled off the streets and onto the newly laid patch of green grass. Then came the high-rise office towers. They were developed adjacent to the square to capitalize on its promise and the perceived momentum of downtown Dallas. But the buildings, especially Thanksgiving Tower, brought an unforeseen problem: shade. A study in 1982 (“using a computer,” the Morning News pointed out) found that during the fall and winter Thanks-Giving Square sat in shadows 90 percent of the daylight hours, compared to 50 percent in 1977.

The excessive shade prevents drying of the highly sloped soil in the square. During spells of rain when the sun is at its lowest and TGS its shadiest, the soil becomes viscous and slumps and slides downward, often spilling over retaining walls onto the sidewalks and even clogging the fountains. The solitary maintenance man, like Sisyphus, not only fights to clean up the always multiplying piles of poo, but he must do his best to shove the wet earth back up the hill.

Worse still, many of those adjacent towers are now either struggling or, like 211 North Ervay, stand almost entirely vacant. Developers maximized the supply of space by building upward, but the demand for that space was systematically undercut as people moved outward. Each new freeway leading to cheaper land in the suburbs and speculative office parks sucked that street life out of Dallas. As downtown emptied like a bucket with a leak, so did Thanks-Giving Square.

There are other challenges inherent in the design of Thanks-Giving Square itself, particularly the many pebble-finished concrete walls that line the triangular “square” and hold up the harsh slopes of the plaza. The walls limit visual and physical porosity, connectedness. We like to see where we’re going and who is there. William Holly Whyte, in his analytical study The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, warns against the inevitable sunken nature of the square linking tunnels to street level, creating a fishbowl effect. We prefer to be the watchers than the watched.

Though we can’t fix all its ailments, given Thanks-Giving Square’s multipurpose nature (a cover for a terminal with 43 spaces for trucks, an entry point for the underground pedestrian tunnels, a religious site), perhaps we can kill two birds with one stone. There are plans to work on the landscaping, but if we could selectively remove and/or lower some of the exterior walls, it would open more access points, more people space, create more seating, gathering, and dining areas, while softening the steep, muddy banks. It may not make it “world class,” but it will be more neighborhood-friendly, and that’s really what we need.

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