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R e v i e w B o o k

Bygone Big D Photos and facts recall a time when everything happened downtown B y J a m e s P r a t t , F AIA

Mark Rice is as fascinated with downtown Dallas history as I am. As a boy of four, I first saw big downtown buildings when I was brought across the Houston Street bridge, then Highway 80, from Fort Worth. A couple of years later, I saw the new winged red horse installed on the top of the Magnolia Petroleum Company headquarters. It was the highest building I had ever seen. In his book, Downtown Dallas: Romantic Past, Modern Renaissance, Rice documents that bygone era when everything happened downtown. This book is about Dallas’ growth between 1874 and 1970, and is a good companion to A.C. Greene’s 1973 book The Deciding Years. To chart the evolution of the city, Mr. Rice has set out a series of short essays that focus on some three dozen buildings. The essays chronicle the progression in architectural styles – rendered with columns, domes, porticos, entablatures, and Corinthian facades – that held sway before modernism. He provides appropriate dates and relates subsequent modifications and additions. The author also includes a section on the architects, developers, and owners of his chosen buildings to explain where they came from and what they did to build these buildings, and where they went. Mr. Rice’s book is also about change. Before architectural preservation became fashionable, the area between Lamar and Field, from Commerce to Main, was cleared of early structures for Main Place One, Two, and Three. Like numerous such grand projects, only Main Place One was built, for years leaving a desert between the old west end and the later center city. Mr. Rice recounts these vanished structures on 74 parcels of land. Though it does not claim to be, this book could be a good background for a social history of downtown Dallas. It paints a portrait of a white man’s city, with barely a mention of the prevailing racist attitudes that locked most African-Americans in subservient roles (but devotes a few words to the Dallas News’ principled stand against the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s). Mr. Rice is a historian, so architects of recent generations may find the focus of his


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prose irrelevant. However, if you are a layman of a generation close to the protagonists discussed in this book, you may be fascinated with the data dug up about these protean characters born in the nineteenth century who demanded marble on the prairie and got amazingly good responses from their architects. Don’t be put off by his uninformed descriptions of “enameled” brick or “Paladium” (sic) windows. The preponderance of the examples he highlights are arched Romanesque, Second Empire, Classical, or Deco, and he overemphasizes their exterior form in his illustrations, leaving most of their insides to text descriptions and lists of materials. He does not address space per se within these structures, though he includes interesting tales about shoot’em-ups within them. However, street scenes abound. He has overlooked other aspects important to architects. I learned what the Medical Arts

building was like when I was eight. From the top floor, an octagonal balconied hole in the middle of the original building opened all the way down eighteenth flights to the ground-floor lobby. Looking down over the balcony edge, I was both fascinated and repelled while I waited for an elevator. Mr. Rice doesn’t mention that dramatic fact of the building (designed before air conditioning), nor does he emphasize that it was the first major structure to have a frame constructed of reinforced concrete, rather than steel, which was unique in Dallas at that time. I enjoyed the book because, like Mr. Rice, I grew up amid all these structures and people, as did my immediate ancestors. It offered me a great way to remember, and will do so for many readers. Mr. Rice gives us images of that longlost community gathering place where nearly “Bygone Big D” continued on 70

Downtown Dallas: Romantic Past, Modern Renaissance by Mark Rice (Dallas, Brown Books Publishing Group, 2007)

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Texas Architect March/April 2008: The Walkable City  

Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...

Texas Architect March/April 2008: The Walkable City  

Texas Architect is the official publication of the Texas Society of Architects, each edition features recently completed projects and other...