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Dealey Plaza: A place Dallas has long tried to avoid and forget

Critic's Notebook: Dealey Plaza, the site of JFK's assassination, is a curious hybrid of intersection and accidental monument, an unlovely, architecturally unresolved prick on the Texas city's conscience.

October 25, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

DALLAS — I hadn't been standing in Dealey Plaza more than five minutes when I watched a man dash out into the street to pose for a picture. He was heading straight for a white X in the pavement that marks the location of John F. Kennedy's limousine when the 35th president was fatally shot on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963.

The man stopped on the X, adjusted his feet and smiled. Then he looked nervously in the direction of oncoming traffic before running back to the safety of the sidewalk.

Apparently, this happens all the time. The late Dallas architecture critic David Dillon was right to describe Dealey Plaza as "one of the most photographed and scrutinized public spaces in America." But the site of the assassination is not, as you might imagine if you've never been to Dallas, an open square where conspiracy theorists and Warren Commission devotees can stroll together in animated argument.

PHOTOS: Dealey Plaza

It is not a place where you can quietly lay a bunch of flowers at the foot of a Kennedy statue, since there is no Kennedy statue here. The city's official JFK Memorial, designed by architect Philip Johnson and completed in 1970, isn't in Dealey Plaza itself but in a separate public square about 200 feet to the east, behind the old red-brick county courthouse.

Dealey Plaza is instead a curious mixture: part high-traffic intersection, part gateway to the city, part flood-control project, and part accidental historical monument.

Although a modest two-phase project to restore the plaza's New Deal landscape and pergolas is nearly complete, the upgrades won't give the space any real sense of coherence. When crowds gather next month to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination, they'll be occupying a part of the city that was designed more for cars than pedestrians — and that many Dallas residents have tried their best to avoid and forget.

Dealey Plaza is named for George Bannerman Dealey, longtime publisher of the Dallas Morning News. It was created when the Trinity River, which once flowed near this part of Dallas and often flooded, was moved behind a series of levees. That decision, part of a broader planning project begun after an especially severe flood in 1908, opened the western edge of downtown Dallas for new construction.

VIDEO: Remembering JFK

The wedge-shaped plaza itself, designed in the 1930s, was a hybrid from the beginning. Sloping downhill from the edge of downtown, it has always been dominated by the three streets that slice through it: Elm, Main and Commerce. The streets flow together at the bottom of the hill, where they run under a railroad bridge and form what locals (and Kennedy assassination buffs) know as the "triple underpass."

In the open space between these roadways, some of which is planted with grass, stand white concrete pergolas and two small fountains. Those features were designed with muted Art Moderne elegance by the firm Hare & Hare in a project overseen by the Works Projects Administration. The plaza was dedicated and named for Dealey in 1935 and completed in 1940.

When the president was shot, his motorcade was driving along Elm, the northernmost of the three streets in the plaza, just where it begins to dip downhill. The Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald was waiting on the sixth floor with an Italian rifle, rises along Elm and overlooks the plaza.

What happened in the wake of the assassination was that a spot on the edge of Dealey Plaza became its focal point — just as the shooting turned a peripheral site in Dallas into a place of intense scrutiny.

Awkwardly enough, that new focal point happened to be in the middle of a busy three-lane road that officials had no interest in closing to cars. In part their reasoning was practical: It's a key roadway. It was also connected to the reluctance of many Dallas residents to fully face Kennedy's killing and its implications for their city's reputation.

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As the president toured Texas in 1963, anger over his agenda and the reach of the federal government was building throughout the state. The shooting seemed to confirm that there was a deep reservoir of anger below the placid and prosperous surface of Dallas society. Residents quickly got tired of hearing about Dallas as a "city of hate."

Over the years, Dealey Plaza languished. Somehow keeping the cars moving along Elm suggested that the city could keep moving along too. The Book Depository was nearly torn down before a group of Dallas residents rallied to save it.

An institution dedicated to Kennedy and the assassination, the Sixth Floor Museum, opened inside the Book Depository in 1989. But at street level little was done. The pergolas cracked and chipped over time.

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