224 Dallas, TX: Blow It Up

Dallas's Visitor Center was inside the Old Red Courthouse, a huge Richardsonian Romanesque building in the West End. The guy behind the counter there upon learning my hometown croaked, "I like Chicago. On Michigan Avenue, I always see people talking and touching and laughing. We don't see that in Dallas. We're afraid to make eye contact in case someone asks for you for a cigarette. There's no one in Chicago asked me for a nickel. I don't know if they're just not on Michigan Avenue or what. But here everybody was looking for a handout."

The city was named in honor of George Mifflin Dallas, a Pennsylvania democrat who was elected Vice President in 1845 on a platform favoring Texas's annexation. John Neely Bryan arrived from Tennessee and established a trading post on the bluff on the Trinity River. Land title was granted to settlers who worked at least 15 acres and built "a good and comfortable" cabin. Many who came raised cattle, and the state soon became synonymous with cattle ranchers. Pioneer Plaza featured the world's largest bronze monument in tribute: forty longhorn steers being driven through a river by three cowboys on horseback.

Now a major center for oil and gas, Downtown Dallas at first glance struck me as sleepy and soot-filled. If Texas were a country, it would rank seventh in the world in air pollutants. A tourist Web site directed me to one neighborhood "to get away from the fast pace of the downtown." I couldn't find anyone downtown to get away from. During my morning walk, the streets were deserted. When it was 11:40, there were lines longer than I'd ever seen at every chain restaurant in town. Dallas had four times more restaurants per person than New York City and more shopping centers per capita than any other major U.S. city. By 2:00, downtown was deserted again. Walking or driving, everybody here moved slowly and expected me to do the same.

I found several Hopperesque buildings downtown. The Katy Building, named for the MKT (Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway) was decorated with painted terra cotta. The old Greyhound bus station at Griffin and Young still had its art deco blue neon dog and lettering. The 1916 Greek-revival Union Terminal was still used as an Amtrak station. The original Nieman Marcus store was in Dallas, with an N and an M on their door handles. As fate would have it, I was there the day he died. A display window already bore a poster "Stanley Marcus, 1905-2002." Business at the store looked dead that day, too.

Outside of the Hopperesque ones, most buildings were modern and faceless. Many featured shiny glass facades, as if they were giant mirrors reflecting the city back to itself. Reunion Towers was formed of four slender reinforced concrete cylinders, topped by three levels of activity, all encircled by a geodesic dome that lit up its round ball of lights at top, looking like its own solar system. [Dallas Skyline]

I.M. Pei designed Fountain Place, Energy Place; and Dallas Symphony Center. A food court attached to Renaissance Tower reproduced Pei's Louvre Glass Pyramid. His City Hall was an inverted pyramid. Starting from a modest ground-floor entrance, each successive story was a concrete square larger than the one below it. The red Pegasus, lit up and spinning atop the Magnolia Building, looked down on it all, like the ghost of JFK or the one in the Hopper's painting Gas.

Modern architects might find a lot to talk about in downtown Dallas, but I sure don't find anything. One building looked like a rising green glass arrow. I asked two guys passing by, "What building is that?"

"That's Fountain Place," one pushed ahead of his friend toward me. "Why do you want to know?"

"I'm visiting from out of town and an architecture fan."

"Are you an architectural terrorist?" the other giggled. "Because we'd love to have you blow that thing up."

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