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Greg Brown
Hon. AIA Dallas

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The Power Brokers Who Shaped Our City

This list is likely to cause discussion, even arguments. I hope so.

Here’s what it’s not: A list of the most important architects in the city’s history. Or even an exhaustive list of the developers, clients, patrons, and philanthropists who have characterized the can-do spirit of Dallas for the last 175 years. Instead, it is a sampling of the many citizens, from both the public and private sectors, who have had a profound effect on the neighborhoods, buildings, parks, and transportation systems around us. Unfortunately, it's also not very diverse. However, rather than forcing the issue, the list is what it is. White men have been at the forefront of determining what our city has become. Hopefully, that is changing and will make for a better Dallas in the future.

Let’s start with the obvious: the guy who put us here in the first place.

When John Neely Bryan arrived in North Central Texas in 1841, his intention was simple — establish a trading post on the bank of the Trinity River. When the Native Americans already in the area (his potential customers) were relocated farther west, he founded a town instead. Persuading a few families to settle in the area, he was the postmaster and ferry operator, and his home served as the first courthouse. He was a peripatetic town founder, however, and he was often away from the area, including a brief stint prospecting for gold in California and a six-year period when he was on the run, mistakenly believing he was wanted for shooting a man who had insulted his wife. He lived long enough to see Dallas begin to thrive with the arrival of the railroads, but soon afterward was committed to the state insane asylum, where he died and, it is believed, was buried in an unmarked grave.

There were others looking to make money on the lands ripe for settlement. William Peters and his group of American and English investors were the first competitors to Bryan. The Peters Colony was a huge North Texas land grant, about the size of Maryland, that bordered Bryan’s claim; a street grid aligned to the cardinal directions was laid out, stretching away to the north and into Oak Cliff at a 45-degree angle to the “downtown” grid laid out by Bryan. Surveyor John Grigsby laid out yet another conflicting grid for Dr. John Cole and his claim; Cedar Springs was centered on what is now Oak Lawn. (It turns out the Dallas streets and their lack of a unifying grid system date back to our earliest days.)

Sarah Cockrell is the first and one of the few women on this list. Upon the death of her husband, Alexander, in 1858, Cockrell took over his various businesses, including a sawmill and gristmill. She opened a hotel and obtained permission from the Texas Legislature to build the first “permanent” bridge across the Trinity River, an iron suspension bridge from which she collected tolls. Her generosity to First Methodist Church was commemorated with a stained-glass window.

French socialist Victor Prosper Considerant created the settlement La Reunion on the south bank of the Trinity River across from the first occupants of Dallas in 1855. His disorganized, financially insolvent colony failed, but some of the settlers crossed the river to live in Dallas, bringing with them a new level of intellectualism and skills such as watchmaking, brewing, and storekeeping. Not to mention a legacy that includes the naming of one of Dallas’ most recognizable structures. More on that later …

The first several decades of Dallas’ existence were unremarkable. The coming of the railroads in the early 1870s changed all that. However, it took a certain breed of power broker to even make that happen. After the promise of cash and property for a right of way, the Houston and Texas Central Railway originated in Houston and reached Dallas in 1872. It took a sneakier approach to secure the east-west rail line that would make Dallas a commercial center as the first railroad intersection in the state. When it appeared that the Texas and Pacific Railway would not come through Dallas, John Lane, the city’s legislator in Austin, placed a little noticed amendment in the railroad’s charter that said the new tracks would cross the existing track of the Houston and Texas Central no more than one mile from Browder Springs. Of course, Lane and the rest of Dallas knew that Browder Springs was the source of the city’s drinking water — and adjacent to what is now downtown.

James Flanders was Dallas’ first architect of note. Born in Chicago, he worked there and in Minneapolis before arriving in Dallas in 1876. He designed numerous homes for the city’s most prominent residents, as well as the exhibition hall, entrance gates, administration building and coliseum at the State Fair of Texas site. He also designed courthouses throughout Texas, including Dallas’ fifth courthouse (built in 1885 as “fireproof,” but then destroyed by fire in 1890).

George Kessler’s first interaction with Dallas was as a cash boy at Sanger Harris Dry Goods. After studying civic design in Europe, he returned to the United States and developed plans for Kansas City and the St. Louis Fairgrounds. In 1904, he redesigned the grounds of Fair Park, but made his largest contribution to the city in 1909, when he provided the “Kessler Plan” to the Chamber of Commerce. It was intended to solve many of Dallas’ ongoing problems, including the flooding of the Trinity River and a maze of dangerous railroad crossings throughout downtown’s underdeveloped streets. His plan was only partially realized, the most important accomplishment being the relocation of the Trinity River between levees a couple of decades later.

Anheuser-Busch co-founder Adolphus Busch resided in St. Louis, but his influence is profound in downtown Dallas. He first came to Dallas as an investor in the Oriental Hotel, located where the AT&T Building is now. Asked to expand the hotel, he persuaded the mayor to tear down City Hall and allow him to build on the site. The grande dame of Dallas architecture, the Adolphus Hotel, resulted. Simultaneously, the Busch Building (now the Kirby Building) was constructed and opened in 1912.

Mercantile Bank President R.L. Thornton, Hon. AIA Dallas exerted influence on a variety of important Dallas projects. He was founder of the Dallas Citizens Council, a group that many would argue had a profound (and usually backroom) influence on our city for decades. Touted by journalists as “Mr. Dallas,” Thornton was the driving force for Dallas becoming the location of the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. He went on to serve as the city’s mayor, adopting the motto “keep the dirt flying,” and promoted the creation of a new city hall, library, and auditorium.

Fred Florence, president and CEO of competing bank Republic National Bank (although it must be noted that he and Thornton were good friends), did not serve as mayor but left his imprint on the city. His financing instruments included speculative loans on oil wells, car installment loans and construction loans, all of which made capital available for development of a booming city.

The placement of the Trinity between the levees in the 1930s created a huge swath of developable land just north of downtown. Insurance and real estate salesman Leslie Stemmons served on the Ulrickson Committee, formed in 1927 to carry out the Kessler Plan, and, as a participant in the funding scheme for the levees, became the owner of significant tracts that were then available for building. When Stemmons died in 1939, his son John Stemmons took over the business venture and began selling parcels of property to developers, including a grain salesman named Trammell Crow. The two family legacies still dominate the Design District, with Crow’s World Trade Center and Dallas Design Center on what is now Stemmons Freeway. Crow’s children Harlan, Lucy, and Trammell Jr. still play a role in their father’s companies.

Architect George Dahl has had a lasting impact on Dallas, designing now iconic buildings throughout the city in a career that spanned from 1926 to his death in 1987. His projects included the downtown Neiman Marcus and Titche Goettinger stores, the Hillcrest Bank (the first drive-through bank), The Dallas Morning News Building, Dallas Memorial Auditorium, the Owen Fine Art Center at Southern Methodist University, and the Earle Cabell Federal Building. His most notable contribution came as the “Centennial Architect” for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, for which he supervised the art and architecture program for this Art Deco masterpiece.

Stanley Marcus, Hon. AIA and the rest of his family could be on this list simply for their impact on retail in Dallas, one of the factors that drove the development of downtown and later the suburbs. However, “Mr. Stanley” played an even more important role. Seen as the arbiter of good taste and culture for the city, he introduced Dallas to International Modernism by importing noted New York architect William Lescaze to design the Magnolia Lounge, a building stylistically distant from the rest of Dahl’s Art Deco vision. And while the project never came to fruition, Marcus had serious talks with Frank Lloyd Wright about designing his residence.

Desperate to rebrand Dallas after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and banish the “city of hate” moniker, Mayor Erik Jonsson, Hon. AIA announced his Goals for Dallas program in 1964. Designed to impact all facets of the city and involve as many constituencies as possible, the program would be a list of key policy objectives arrived at through conference and discussion and then carried out by a broad spectrum of the citizenry. Intrigued by the process, the AIA Dallas President at the time, Pat Spillman, FAIA, met with Mayor Jonsson and pointed out that the design of the city was not discussed. He was tapped to write the essay on that topic—used with others as the study materials for the initial conference. While the Goals for Dallas organization faded away after a decade or so, its impact on the city and the region was profound, prompting momentum for a modern City Hall (designed by I.M. Pei, FAIA), DFW International Airport, the branch library system, and other projects.

As one of the founders of Texas Instruments, Eugene McDermott created a catalyst for the evolution of the suburbs. TI’s O’Neil Ford-designed facilities firmly planted a flag in a first-ring suburb and would spark the growth of Telecom Corridor along Central Expressway.

The Arts District is one of the architectural highlights of downtown, drawing national and international attention. A number of powerbrokers have had a hand in its 30-year evolution, among them: Harry Parker, director of the Dallas Museum of Art, who led the way in the early 1980s when the DMA relocated to the newly-minted Arts District; Philip O’Bryan Montgomery, who served as the coordinator of the district and shepherded the original development ordinance through the process; and Annette Strauss, who, while not elected to the Dallas City Council until after the Arts District’s genesis, was a passionate supporter in her city roles, including as mayor. Left off this list, if only for space, are the urban planning consultants, architects, philanthropists, and city officials who have worked over the decades to establish the largest contiguous arts district in the country.

In 1972, a group of citizens gathered to discuss how to protect Dallas’ historical properties; it led to the founding of the Historic Preservation League (now Preservation Dallas). Virginia McAlester, Hon. AIA was one of those founders and has been a tireless preservationist in the almost 50 years since. Critical to the process of protecting Fair Park, Swiss Avenue and countless other historic properties, McAlester also wrote the book on American home styles, A Field Guide to American Homes.

Mention of Park Cities residents who championed and had homes designed by some of Dallas’ most important residential architects (O’Neil Ford, Howard Meyer, David Williams) is a must: James and Carolyn Clark, the Ben Lipshys, Jack and Nancy Penson, and University Park Mayor Elbert Williams. Unfortunately, without those original champions still protecting them, a disappointing number of these homes have been demolished.

David Dillon, Hon. TxA, writing for The Dallas Morning News for 25 years, was the first architecture critic the city had. He brought Dallas architecture to the attention of the world and, in turn, kept local audiences informed about architectural developments in other cities. Dillon didn’t just review individual buildings, but also encouraged a conversation on larger issues, from the evolution of the Arts District to sprawl and McMansions. While quick with a pointed comment, he also praised what he saw as quality design and encouraged architects to do their best work.

Dallas does not have a stellar history of urban planners working at the civic government level, but Weiming Lu, Hon. TxA was a notable exception. As director of urban design, Lu took part in the development of the Arts District and in the establishment of the Swiss Avenue Historic District and the West End Historic District (which also finally accomplished the preservation the historic Texas School Book Depository).

There have been scores of influencers in Dallas’ urban planning and architectural history. Unfortunately, for brevity’s sake, the remainder of this small sample must be reduced to a brief list in no particular order:

While the architecture firm led by Otto Lang and Frank Witchell, Lang and Witchell, is not a marquee name for us today, they dominated Dallas design from the early 1900s to the late 1930s. Their oeuvre includes the Magnolia Building, the Cotton Exchange Building, the Hilton Hotel, the Sears warehouse, the Lone Star Gas Building, the Dallas Power & Light Building, the Music Hall at Fair Park, and several residences and schools.

Raymond Nasher, Hon. AIA developed NorthPark Center, a one-of-a-kind architecturally important shopping center, and the Nasher Sculpture Center, a Renzo Piano-designed museum with a Peter Walker-designed garden, for his collection of modern and contemporary sculpture.

Ray Hunt and John Scovell resurrected the cursed name of “Reunion” for their development of Reunion Tower and the Hyatt Regency Hotel, as well as Reunion Arena. The tower was the harbinger of a post-modern building boom in the late 1970s and 1980s and remains an icon on the Dallas skyline.

The power of the press cannot be ignored. George Bannerman Dealey, publisher of The Dallas Morning News, was instrumental in the adoption of the Kessler Plan and the establishment of Southern Methodist University. He is immortalized in Dealey Plaza, a location linked to one of the city’s darkest events.

During Dallas City Manager George Schrader’s tenure, he handled significant projects including DFW International Airport, the Dallas Public Library, Reunion Arena, the Dallas Arboretum, and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.

Called “the Father of DART,” Walter Humann, Hon. AIA led efforts to revitalize Central Expressway and to create region’s light rail system.

The Dallas Citizens Council, seen by some as the puppet masters of Dallas business and government and by others as exemplars of the city’s can-do spirit, endures today. Through its legacy, it claims influence in securing the Texas Centennial Exposition and realizing construction projects such as Central Expressway, Love Field, the Statler Hilton, LBJ Freeway, DART, the Arts District, and the new Parkland Hospital.

Gail Thomas, Hon. AIA as founding director of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture and creator of its Center for the City, has fostered a civic conversation about making Dallas a better place, especially through her work on behalf of Trinity River developments.

The brevity of these entries belies their importance in making Dallas what it is today. And the list regrettably excludes many individuals, organizations, and governmental entities that shaped our physical environment. Space (and political considerations) force me to end the list about the time of the 1980s postmodern boom that redrew our skyline but questions remain. Who are our powerbrokers since then? Who is currently working on behalf of architecture and planning to define Dallas’ future? Who should be on this list in 30 years?

Let us know who you would add to the list in the comments.

Greg Brown, Hon. AIA Dallas is program director at the Architecture and Design Foundation.