Friday, November 22, 2013

How John F. Kennedy made history out of hodgepodge

Photo by mattxb, courtesy of
Warren Commission Exhibit #876, 1964.
What makes a building, monument, site or district "historic"? 

Old age? 

Ornamental beauty?

Architectural distinction? 

Old-world craftsmanship? 

"Starchitect" stamp and status? 

Use, occupancy or visitation by a celebrity, dignitary or luminary?

Relevance to the founding, growth or expansion of its city, state or nation?

Association with a pivotal or earth-shaking event in its country's history?

We'd certainly bolt to barricade the bulldozers if a structure, park or neighborhood that clearly
fell under any of those criteria were threatened with extinction. However, the mixed bag of bureaucracy blocks in the above images would have stood a fat chance at making our most- endangered list had they not "bore witness" to an event that falls squarely into the latter category — President John F. Kennedy's assassination 50 years ago.

Thirty years after that time-freezing tragedy made a momentary war zone out of Dallas's Dealey Plaza, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the commonplace city park a National Historic Landmark. This preserves the parklands, monuments, roads and buildings that are visible (or were potential assassins' lairs) from the X that marks the spot where JFK was hit as his open convertible motorcaded down Elm Street through the plaza.

Photo by Hobbes747, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Intended to immortalize the whole scene from a diversity of witness perspectives as a unilateral moment of mourning frozen in time, this unusual act of preservation gave new meaning to the word "historic." For the first time, the boring were as eligible as the beautiful for this distinction. Hence the Dealey diorama ranges from log-cabin to Victorian to industrial to Art Deco to modern, architecturally symbolizing the broad scope of peoples, classes and generations Kennedy could touch, talk to, vouch for and earn reverence (and tears) from despite his high-end Harvard hubris.
Courtesy of Dallas Municipal Archives
It also represents the "people's park" vision that businesswoman and philanthropist Sarah Horton Cockrell had for the land when she donated it for the plaza's construction as a Works Progress Administration civic improvement project in 1936.
From the AARC Public Digital Library, Warren Commission Hearings Volume XVI
Named for George Bannerman Dealey, a Dallas Morning News publisher and advocate for downtown Dallas's rejuvenation, the plaza forged a middle-of-the-road between fast-lane and slow-pace lifestyles. Four expanses of calming greenspace, dotted with monuments, peristyles and reflecting pools as visual focal points, softened the symmetrical convergence of Elm, Main and Commerce streets at the Triple Underpass railroad bridge. 

Dealey Plaza in the 1940s.
Heading into town, the three-pronged fork-split of West Commerce Street and the curving of Elm and Commerce forced the traffic to slow down as it approached downtown Dallas — a safety measure benefiting the plaza's pedestrians, picnickers and children at play. The tri-route also gave incomers their choice of city street to go along, depending on their destination or home location...

...and outgoers smooth highway access from several city points. This greatly reduced commuter traffic congestion by channeling it in three different directions, while enabling a wider spectrum of city dwellers faster route access. Thus the road/park design combined the graceful symmetry of both a highway cloverleaf and a French garden... 

...enriched with neo- Grecian peristyles, knee- walls, footpaths and oblong reflecting pools mirroring each other at West Commerce Street's bisection of the park. This offset the clamor of motor traffic with leisurely promenades to give pedestrians their turf at a busy crossroads.

This symmetry was slightly offset by an obelisk erected in 1940 to mark the site of Dallas's first Masonic Lodge and honor Dealey as a 33rd- degree Scottish Rite Mason. Crafted in the image of the crown of Egyptian god Osiris, the obelisk is topped by a tri-flame symbolizing the light of intellect.

Photo by Brodie319, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
This inventive union of aesthetic and functional created a convenient, welcoming gateway to Dallas that accommo- dated both orderly commuter and leisurely pedestrian circulation as a safe greenspace and freeway for all. Yet this open plan also put a welcomed personage in a vulnerable spot by making ample room for multiple firing ranges from...

...the 'Grassy Knoll'...
Photo by Brodie319, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Conceived as a peaceful spot for picnics and relaxation from city/ commuter congestion, this lush green oasis allegedly became a foxhole for a "man with a badge" some claimed to be a conspirator in the Kennedy killing. The running knee-wall and the dense tree/hedge growth were certainly apt as furtive breeding ground for shady activity.

Simultaneously, the John Neely Bryan Memorial Pergola, crowning the crest of the knoll, became the perfect high vantage point for Abraham Zapruder to shoot his famed film of the bullet hitting Kennedy squarely in the head, providing hard evidence for the Warren Commission investigation of the assassination. The grassy knoll itself came in handy as a comforting cushion for the duck- and-cover and run-for-cover activity of spectators who feared they were in the line of fire.

Photo by stevehdc, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Erected earlier as a memorial to Dallas's founder, the Bryan Pergola was now reframed as an allusion to the curved, columned peristyles of the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, Kennedy's resting place. 

This would mislead subsequent generations into thinking the pergola had been built as a John F. Kennedy memorial in its own right. Yet it was now appropriate as one — its modern clean-lined design and concrete construction became a fitting tribute to JFK's "New Frontier" and forever-young image, in contrast to Arlington's old-hat classicism.

...the Texas School Book Depository...

Photo by James G. Howes, 1969.
This Romanesque Revival brick edifice was built in 1903 for the Southern Rock Island Plow Company on land once owned by John Neely Bryan. Texan petroleum producer and Civil Air Patrol co-founder David Harold Byrd acquired it in 1937, later leasing it for public school book storage. The slightly-above-average warehouse is forever imprinted with the memory of Lee Harvey Oswald lurking behind its rightmost window on the sixth floor, targeting his presidential prey in the shadows of the stacks.
Photo by Weatherdrew, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Now the Dallas County Administration Building, the structure has been meticulously restored to reflect its entire history, from plowman's factory to gunman's fortress. Apparently shorn of its cornice prior to the fatal event, it faithfully preserves this loss, as a memorial to the loss of a head of state with a bullet to the crown. 

Photo by Hobbes747, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Oswald's hideout is now the Sixth Floor Museum of exhibits on JFK's assassination. One must commend the building, not merely for its Roman arches, dentil brickwork and structurally expressive pilasters, but also for its adaptability to changing times and uses. It has housed plow parts, books, government offices and memorabilia (including Zapruder's film) in its 110-year lifespan.

After all, as Kennedy put it, "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future."

...the Dal-Tex Building...

Photo courtesy of the FBI, 1963.
Architects James P. Hubbell and Herbert Miller Greene certainly didn't miss the future when they designed this austerely squarish brick warehouse (right) for the Kingman Texas Implement Company. 

Built a year before the Southern Rock Island building (left), it introduced Dallas to the progressive, anticlassical, structurally expressive, vertical-emphasis styles of Louis Henri Sullivan's
From the collection of Jerome Puma
Photo by Jack Boucher, courtesy of
Historic American Buildings Survey
Chicago School (left: Wainwright Building, St. Louis, Missouri, 1891) and Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School (right: Larkin Building, Buffalo, New York, 1904-06, demolished 1950), while its next-door neighbor looked only to the past and present, doing as the Romans did and as everybody else was doing.

Photo by Mark Yearian, courtesy of Flickriver
Actually predating Wright's Larkin Building by two years (a New Frontier, indeed), Dal-Tex once contained offices and storage for its neighbor's competitor, the John Deere Plow Company, and later housed Abraham Zapruder's women's clothier, Jennifer Juniors, Inc. Which demonstrated the workplace efficiency of its Chicago style: its load-bearing steel frame — boldly expressed by prominent pilasters and recessed fenestration — yielded open floors and large, light-filling windows for maximum productivity, brighter inventory illumination ... and clearer lines of vision for possible assassins. It was one of the first buildings sealed off after Kennedy's death, due to witness reports of gunfire from its direction, and its direct alignment with the trajectory of a bullet that struck a curb and injured a bystander. A Mafia-linked criminal was detained in the building, too. 

In short, the Dal-Tex Building's sunny but susceptible corner location on the cusp of Dealey Plaza caught it in a crossfire of theories, whims and facts pertaining to JFK's assassination. 

Its accidental presence at the scene of the crime essentially thrust a new fame upon it, without which it might have been history by now.

...the Dallas County Records Building...

Too bad its nondescript 1955 annex, rather than its finely detailed 1928 Gothic progenitor (below), had to rear its face on Dealey Plaza and break Houston Street's historical continuum. But it does typify the type of modernism that was renewing urban America in JFK's time, so it bespeaks his urge to "begin anew" agreeably.

Photo courtesy of
It was also as suspect as its older cohorts in the web of intrigue behind his shooting. One story goes that the bullet that hit his skull in Zapruder's film had flown from his left rear side, thus originating from the roof of the annex (where a 30-06 shell casing was discovered during re-roofing in the early 1970s). It also serves as a reminder of what might have become of some of the older buildings had it not been for the landmark district designation (and, sadly, for its originator's death).

...the Dallas County Criminal Courts Building...

At least the white-bread blandness of the County Records Building Annex is opulently offset by the red-brick regality of the Criminal Courts Building next door. Designed by Texan architect H.A. Overbeck, it was built in 1913-15 as a combination criminal courthouse, county jail and sheriff's office, though its rich Renaissance Revival terra cotta and granite detailing elegantly masked the ominous nature of its use — possibly duping the newcomer into thinking the Ritz-Carlton Hotel had come to Dallas. 

But this masquerade couldn't cover up the building's inevitable embroilment in the Kennedy imbroglio. Many of its witnesses and detainees were interrogated here just after the assassination, and its East Courtroom was where nightclub owner Jack Ruby was tried for murdering Lee Harvey Oswald just before his planned transfer to the Criminal Courts Building on November 24. 

So much for putting on the Ritz — and finding out the truth.

...the Old Red Courthouse...

Photo by Joe Mabel, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The architectural showpiece in the square, this Pecos red sandstone castle-cluster of arches, turrets, finials, gargoyles and Texas granite columns surrounding a grand central lantern tower bespoke the fortitude of law with its fortress-like predominance of its premises when built in 1890-92 from a Richardsonian Romanesque design by Max A. Orlopp, Jr. Though detached enough from the assassination site to be exempt from conspiracy turf, its flamboyant expression of the law's supremacy was no deterrent to the dirty work. Now the Old Red Museum, it is rife with exhibits and artifacts of Dallas County history, including John Neely Bryan's original plat of Dallas, Clyde Barrow's gun, and — naturally — Lee Harvey Oswald's handcuffs.

...the John Neely Bryan Cabin...

Photo by Andreas Praefcke, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
More evocative of Abraham Lincoln's humble beginnings than John F. Kennedy's moneyed ones, this little anomaly in Dealey Plaza is a 1935 reconstruction of the original home and trading post that Bryan had built in 1841 in this North Texas region. 

Bereft of half of his customers when a treaty expunged Native Americans from the territory, he decided a permanent settlement was more viable than a trading post, hence the founding of Dallas. The cabin was rechristened Dallas's first courthouse and post office by the Republic of Texas in 1843, setting the stage for future development patterns in its area. 

(And no, an assassin's refuge this wasn't, despite the diminutive stature that makes it so easy to overlook on a dense city street.)

...the George L. Allen, Sr., Courts Building...

Photo courtesy of
Under construction
as Dallas County Government Center at the time of the assassination, Old Red's glass-and-steel antithesis missed its shot at smoking-gun suspicion by two years. 

However, some of the key witnesses to the shooting were workers on the construction site who had taken a lunch break to gaze at the President's motorcade through Dealey Plaza.

Though its purely functionalist design adds nothing to the architectural integrity of its district, it does add to the irony that a neighborhood full of courts and government offices could become a hotbed of crime targeting our highest elected official. As he'd say, "Life is unfair."

...the Memorial Plaza...

Photo by Scott Alan Hill, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
It was also unfair that this bastion of banality apparently inspired the design for the adjacent John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Plaza in 1970. What was Philip Johnson, Master of the Glass House, thinking when he conceived Dallas's shrine to its befallen hero as a rigid square of windowless precast concrete column walls? 

Photo by Jim Bowen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
According to, Johnson designed it as "a cenotaph, or 'open tomb,' that symbolizes the freedom of John F. Kennedy’s spirit," represented by the open top, the "floating" walls grounded by only eight of the 72 columns, and the row of lights that light up under the suspended columns at night to further the free- floating illusion. Johnson claimed the columns were bonded by a "magnetic force" representing the charismatic magnetism of Kennedy's personality.

"Magnetic" this is not. It's flat, dull and faceless, resembling a building under construction with its scaffolding under wrap, or an excavation site concealed from the public eye by "Post No Bills" plywood walls. Perhaps this conveys the "work in progress" Kennedy envisioned as his agenda in his inauguration speech...

Photo courtesy of
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
...or the "unfinished business" he left behind after about 1,000 days in office... but unconvincingly, and uninvitingly. Nor do the columns of "perfectly aligned" circles that "introduce the circular shape into the square architecture" help, except as frilly decoration meant to "round the corners" so the work isn't too austere. The inner sanctum for meditating on the man via the dark granite square gilded with his name makes us feel boxed-in, not free- spirited. Its symmetrical foursquare form is fixed and unmoving. This static, claustrophobic effect hardly evokes the dynamic man-on-the-move we knew JFK as, more aptly expressed by...

Photo by Eric Baetscher, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Free Documentation License
...his Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, I.M. Pei's masterpiece of clashing contrasts — solid/void, light/dark, acute/obtuse, sharp/ blunt, angle/curve — extolling Kennedy's courage to think outside the box, push change and progress, travel hither and yon, not sit still the way Johnson's prefab packing-crate does.

...the U.S. Post Office Terminal Annex...

A fitting name for this mail-sorting facility built in 1937-39 through the WPA, it solemnly anchors the southern edge of Dealey Plaza as the "terminal" of the park's space-framing panorama of the city's evolution from Log Cabin humility to Art Deco magnanimity — showing how far the post office had come in that time span. Designed by Lang & Witchell, this is Art Deco at its humblest, expressing the streamlined efficiency of America's then most advanced mail-processing system and the collective effort to get the job done, but with just enough ornament to give civic pride to its workers and its public. Especially inside, where murals by New Mexico artist Peter Hurd depicting pioneers erecting a log cabin (how appropriate for the area!) and an air-mail plane soaring over a West Texas farm ranch still grace the walls as homage to the artists put to work under FDR's New Deal.

Photo courtesy of the Dallas Morning News
On its site stood the home of Alexander Cockrell, who bought the land from John Neely Bryan in the 1850s. The house became a base for Confederate guerrilla leader William Quantrill, who led up to 450 men (including Jesse James) in an 1863 raid on antislavery stronghold Lawrence, Kansas — an omen of the conspiracy that was to subdue a civil rights advocate 100 years later...
Photo courtesy of the U.S. General Services Administration
...and, yes, the Terminal Annex was inevitably entangled in the assassination. Postmaster Harry D. Holmes observed it from his fifth-floor office there through a pair of binoculars, thus became a key witness in the Warren Commission's investigation. Which demonstrated the advantage of siting the building in full view of Dealey Plaza. To add to the intrigue, Lee Harvey Oswald rented a P.O. box in there. (For more information on the Terminal Annex, read Noah Jeppson's article "Terminal Annex and its Murals" in Unvisited Dallas.)

...the Obelisk...

Yes, that, too, took on new meaning after the assassination. A marble knee-wall behind the monument now bears a plaque that reads as follows:
On November 22, 1963, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States, visited Dallas. A presidential parade traveled north on Houston Street to Elm Street and west on Elm Street. As the parade continued on Elm Street at 12:30 p.m., rifle shots wounded the President and Texas Governor John Connally.
Findings of the Warren Commission indicated that the rifle shots were fired from a sixth floor window near the southeast corner of the Texas School Book Depository, Elm and Houston, a block north of this marker.
President Kennedy expired at Parkland Hospital at 1:00 p.m. The John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial Plaza is nearby, bounded by Main, Record, Market, and Commerce streets.
Now the obelisk is the next thing after the Bryan Pergola to make the Dallas newcomer or greenhorn tourist think it was erected as the city's official memorial to President Kennedy, despite the plaque's clarification of the real memorial's location. And no wonder. The obelisk form recalls the Washington Monument, a familiar presidential shrine. The crowning flame brings JFK's Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery to mind. The rustication of the main shaft could represent the building blocks by which Kennedy attempted to build a better future for his country.

...the Limo...

Penn Jones Photographs. Baylor University Collections of Political Materials, Waco, Texas
Yes, there's even a theory that JFK's motorcade limousine driver fired the final shot. But, whether or not they were bullet-sources, all structures and spaces in and around Dealey Plaza have cried out, "Kennedy!" ever since that fateful day of November 22, 1963, as if it was meant to happen there. They now have a clearer, sharper architectural distinction, whether magnificent or mediocre.

Archival photo by Mary Moorman
They bespeak the whereabouts of assassins, the presence of witnesses, and the absence of government officials that should have been the President's protectors, since many of their vessels were built to uphold the law. Dealey's architectural variety is unified and preserved in a frozen tableau of a history-making event that united diverse people to mourn their leader's loss in unison.

...the Plaza.

Dealey Plaza from the air, c. 1967.
Thus Dealey Plaza exemplifies the vision JFK expressed in his Amherst College speech of Oct. 26, 1963: "I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for the future."
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