From the Comet roller coaster to the Texas Star Ferris wheel, the rides within Dallas’s Fair Park have earned legendary status over the years. But perhaps the most striking creations within this famous fairground, outside of the increasingly elaborate deep fried treats, are the buildings themselves, Art Deco masterpieces first unveiled during the Texas Centennial Celebration of 1936.
Home of the annual State Fair, a celebration befitting a place known for superlatives, the 277-acre Fair Park was founded by a cadre of local businessmen in 1886, a symbol of optimism for the growing city. It would prove prescient, as the park would play host to the state’s massive centennial birthday party, then the biggest party in Texas history. Twenty-six of the original buildings built for that headline-generating celebration remain, making the Dallas landmark one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the country.
According to National Geographic Traveler, the structures were “much more than an assemblage of buildings; it's a district telling dozens of stories from dozens of cultures.” Built with stacks of then-new concrete blocks, the massive undertaking, consisting of structures, sculptures, and an epic reflecting pool, contained all manner of seals and flourishes recounting the grand scope of Texas history.
It’s a place branded into Texas history. But the future management of this architecture masterpiece has been put into question. An old Science Building on site is slotted to be transformed into a student broadcast center for Dallas high school students, a proposal the city council will vote on later this month. And more importantly, a plan to turn the site over to an independent, nonprofit foundation—an arrangement common in many big city parks—continues to advance through city government.
The entire affair raises questions about the city properly administering and benefitting from the beautiful park and how the revenue goldmine will be managed, and dredges up old complaints from nearby neighborhoods, some of the city’s poorest, which have felt neglected and ignored for decades. As Dallas architecture critic Marc Lamster wrote, “It should be one of the city’s principal attractions, and not a neglected stepchild.”
The fair’s establishment on cotton fields east of downtown, a site described in 1886 as “the worst kind of hog wallow,” began with the construction of a handful of Victorian buildings. Over time, the park and fair would develop its reputation for over-the-top entertainment.
The grounds have been the site of just the types of oddities you’d expect from a larger-than-life state fair. The year after it opened, a replica of the Washington Monument made of human teeth graced the fairground, the first of many incredible models, including life-size battleship made of citrus fruit and a diorama of a scene from the Count of Monte Cristo made from gemstones. Which fair can claim to have hosted two goats who survived a nuclear test (Adolph and Satan) as well as a pair of actual nuclear missiles?
In 1906, George Kessler created the first landscape plan for the site, a series of fountains and plazas influenced by the City Beautiful movement. Over time, the fairgrounds expanded, adding famed venues such as the Cotton Bowl. But it didn’t become an architectural icon until the 1936 Texas Centennial Exhibition. Architect George Dahl and Paul Cret, along with hundreds of laborers and craftsmen, reshaped the standard fairground into an Art Deco icon.
Dahl’s design embraced modernism, with the aim of presenting the city as forward-thinking and progressive on the occasion of the Texas centenary. He described the scale of his sleek, streamlined buildings as “Texanic,” an apt descriptor for the central Esplanade, a 700-foot-long reflecting pool flanked by massive Art Deco buildings with spacious porticos. The centerpiece of a series of districts devoted to showcasing industry and culture, the Esplanade was ringed with a series of commissioned sculptures and murals showcasing Texas history, from its economic achievements to the various nations and state that had, at one time or another, raised their flag over Texas.
More than two million tickets were sold ahead of the opening in Junes, and the Centennial’s favorable reception during the midst of the Depression helped provide a boost to the state’s ailing economy when it needed it most. Ever since, the site has been used for the state fair, as well an numerous annual events, and remains the only extant site of its kind from the first half of the 20th century.
As the park has aged, numerous renovation efforts have restored many of Dahl’s Art Deco gems to their original shine. The city began serious restoration work in the ‘90s and cameo reliefs on the Centennial Building, a well as the main fountain, have been restored over the last few decades. The city issues a bond in 2006 to devote $72 million to repairing the park. But many, including Mayor Mike Rawlings, believe Fair Park needs better management to become a successful, year-round attraction.
Walt Humann, a wealthy Texan who formed a nonprofit company to help support Fair Park, has long been a frontrunner for assuming control of any foundation that gains control of the grounds park (though the entire process has been filled with claims of non-transparency and favoritism). The city asked for bids last month as part of a speedy process some feel limits who can participate.
Jon Cassidy, a writer with Watchdog.org, believes the bidding process favors Humann, since he’s had time to assemble a plan, and the tight timeline precludes others from being able to assemble a similarly detailed bid. Since the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Board wasn’t consulted on the move, they’ve asked the city to shelve the bidding process until they can properly weigh in. With such an incredible site at state, the debate over how to manage one of Dallas’s civic treasures is certain to continue.