The Bankhead Highway

The Bankhead Highway

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Marcel Quimby
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Marcel Quimby
FAIA

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The Bankhead Highway: A Strip of Pavement that Changed Texas Forever

Unbeknownst to most North Texans, the precursor to the National Highway System, the Bankhead Highway, flows right through the center of downtown Dallas and across many of our neighborhoods throughout the metroplex. Its story is fascinating and its history, rich.

The Bankhead Highway's route through the city of Dallas extended from the northeast in Garland, through downtown Dallas and continued west towards Grand Prairie. That’s the local part of the first highway system, now 100 years old, that extended from Washington, DC, to San Diego, CA.

The story of the Bankhead, however, goes far beyond the laying of concrete, the paving of mostly dirt roads across the nation. The national highway transformed property use, businesses, and the economic stability everywhere it traversed. A changed Dallas metroplex is also in the rearview mirror.

Establishment of the Bankhead Highway

The Bankhead Highway was conceived as the first southern transcontinental highway in America. It traces its origins to grassroots organizations across the country with a common goal of improving roads to accommodate motorized vehicles in the early 1900s. Likewise, national groups such as the United States Good Roads Association and the American Society of State Highway Officials climbed on board. One individual stood out among the project’s supporters.

U.S. Congressmen John Hollis Bankhead (Alabama) headed the Senate Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads. He and Congressman Dorsey Shackelford (Missouri), chairman of the Committee on Roads, were strong supporters of federal legislation to fund the improvement of roads that would connect the country.

While the Lincoln Highway, connecting New York and San Francisco, was the country's first transcontinental route, it was not always accessible due to the steep routes in the western states and severe winter weather. There was no vision or federal support for additional, more reliable transcontinental routes. Some even debated whether the federal government should even be involved in such an effort.

That mood changed. The war in Europe highlighted the need for U.S. preparedness which also meant federal involvement in surface transportation initiatives for the sake of the military stationed on the home front. Bankhead and Shackelford's efforts were critical to the passage of the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916 which provided the first matching federal funds to states for a coordinated transcontinental route. President Woodrow Wilson signed the act into law July 11, 1916.

Commonly referred to as the Bankhead-Shackelford Act, it provided funds to states for construction of roads. Following its passage, the Bankhead National Highway Association was formed with a mission to create an all-weather, cross-county highway as an economic link between the Deep South States.[1] As a southern transcontinental highway route was identified and highways were funded and constructed with the organizations’ assistance, they were often named “Bankhead” highways.

The Bankhead Highway in Texas

The Federal Aid Road Act provided $4.5 million for Texas roads, but the state was without a state highway department—a requirement to utilize these funds. Texas created a Highway Commission in April 1917 and its first effort was to plan the new highway systems in Texas. Two months later, the commission issued a map showing 26 proposed highway routes in the state, including a major route that traversed the state from Texarkana to El Paso. This was the state’s section of the desired transcontinental highway which was identified as Texas Highway 1.[2]  The 850-mile route passed through Mount Vernon, Greenville, Dallas, Fort Worth, Palo Pinto, Abilene, Midland, Odessa, Pecos and Van Horn, as well as numerous smaller towns and communities. Like other states, this road in Texas was named the “Bankhead Highway.”


Credit: Dan Smith

A newspaperman from New Mexico and a good road enthusiast, T.A. Dunn, is thought to have participated in the early exploration efforts for the road throughout the Southwest. In 1921, he authored an early guide, the Authentic Road Map and Motor Tourist Guide of the Bankhead Highway which included illustrated maps of the highway route and information for tourists about the communities it passed through. State maps of Texas were also published and updated over the years; later maps in 1923, 1930, 1936, and 1960 reflected minor route changes as local conditions were altered. Since its inception, the Bankhead Highway and subsequent improved routes have been known as State Highway 1A, US 67, US 80, US 80A, US 180, I-10, 1-20, and 1-30.[3] 

Today, large sections of the original route of the Bankhead Highway remain intact and have become part of the fabric of most towns it passed through, although its name has largely been supplanted by these later highway numbers. While the highway route has evolved over the last century and its origins are not always visible, its historic significance as the basis of one of the most important transportation corridors in Texas remains.[4] The highway route continues in many forms: as historic roads in many downtowns (including Dallas), minor roads through suburbs, and as rural roads.


Courtesy Dallas Heritage Village

Buildings that once lined it are often hidden in plain sight. The Bankhead's role as a linear highway across Texas, or strip, played a major role in the state's physical and economic development.

The Bankhead Highway in Dallas

The actual route of the Bankhead Highway was largely unchanged during its history, but the adjacent development and limits of the City of Dallas have since seen huge changes. In the early 1920s much of the route beyond White Rock Lake on the east and Hampton Road on the west was unincorporated, with little development. Both areas are very different today. As the Bankhead Highway's route through Dallas passed through distinct areas of Dallas, its route is described as follows:


Courtesy Dallas Heritage Village

Garland Road/East Grand Avenue

The Bankhead Highway's original 1921 route from the east led to northeast of Dallas on what is now known as Garland Road. Like many such roads to smaller communities, the businesses along the highway supported both tourist and transportation traffic with gas stations, auto repair shops, and tourist courts. The tourist courts were small, one-room lodgings, separated from each other by the width of an automobile and later by garages for the visitors’ automobiles. Many of the gas stations and auto repair shops remain in place and now house other businesses. By the 1940s, development had expanded to the Casa Linda area including the Spanish Colonial-style Casa Linda Shopping Center.

Adjacent residential and retail followed the road north, and this type of development was referred to as “strip development” with the retail buildings known as “strip shopping centers” or “strip centers.”  Lochwood Shopping Center and other small retail buildings from the 1950s and ‘60s still line Garland Road. One of the more interesting buildings from this era is the Firestone store at 16502 Garland Road, although its original angled canopy is now partially obscured by a rectangular sign. The one-story building with a tall Colonial-style porch at 10103 Garland Road is all that remains of a 1960’s motel; the two side wings with guest rooms have been removed. This is one of the few reminders of the tourist courts and motels that lined roads leading into Dallas from the northeast.

Garland Road's name changes to East Grand Ave at the south end of White Rock Creek and the areas surrounding the highway change to residential and park uses. The only remaining Bankhead Highway-era motel in this section is the Tampico Motel at 7201 Grand Ave. Several small, rustic stone buildings that date from the 1940s are in the portion of Tennison Park that lies between the divided East Grand Avenue. The Bankhead Highway route continues along East Grand to Parry Avenue and past Fair Park, with early 20th-century commercial development along the route as it continues to Commerce Street.

Deep Ellum

Although the Bankhead Highway's route through Deep Ellum is not long, this is one of the more historic sections in Dallas. Urban in character, most buildings are one- and two-story masonry construction and date from the 1920s and ’30s. Several earlier buildings retain their original cast iron storefronts. Many housed auto repair and other small industrial shops including the Gulf Station at 3400 Commerce Street, which retains its original porcelain panel cladding. While not considered strip development by today's standards, these buildings were precursors to the later post-World War II strip developments found further away from downtown. In its survey of historic resources of the Bankhead Highway, the Texas Historical Commission identified this area as a potential Deep Ellum National Register historic district.

Downtown Dallas

The Bankhead Highway route continued on Commerce Street through downtown Dallas, one of the most historic and well-known sites along the highway. While Deep Ellum was a dense but low-scale urban area, the transition to downtown Dallas in the 1920s and ’30s would have been remarkable. Dallas was a true downtown with tall commercial buildings (skyscrapers), several of which were the tallest west of the Mississippi when constructed. The Magnolia Building's famous flying red horse (Pegasus) could be seen from East Dallas and Oak Cliff.

Buildings fronting Commerce Street included the Adolphus Hotel (1912), the Baker Hotel (demolished), and the Greyhound station (205. S. Lamar St., c. 1940), which reminds us the Bankhead Highway was also utilized by bus traffic. The impressive Old Red Courthouse (1892), Dallas County Records Buildings (500 block of Commerce, 1915-1955) and Dallas Municipal Building (at Harwood Street, 1914) reflected the importance of both city and county governments. The Bankhead Highway route turned at Houston Street (Union Station, 1916) and traversed across the historic Houston Street Viaduct (1911) towards Oak Cliff.

Jefferson Boulevard

Bankhead Highway followed Jefferson Boulevard, a curving street that skirted adjacent residential neighborhoods, most of which were later removed to accommodate freeways in the 1960s. This eastern section of the highway contains several buildings that reflect what the highway once was. These include El Fenix Restaurant (120 E. Colorado Blvd.), the unique (but in desperate need of repair) Polar Bear Ice Cream shop across from Lake Cliff Park (1207 N. Zang Blvd., 1932), historic Lancaster Avenue commercial buildings (500 and 600 E. Jefferson, c. 1920s) and an Art Deco restaurant (123 E. Jefferson, 1938). Newer strip centers have been constructed in this area, reflecting small scale development prevalent in the area.

Prior to WWII, north Oak Cliff was a thriving residential area of Dallas with its own downtown center along West Jefferson. It was called the largest “second downtown” commercial area in Texas. This area is largely intact and vibrant, and relatively unchanged from its appearance prior to WWII. Several of its iconic buildings include the Texas Theater (231 W. Jefferson, 1931), Jefferson Tower (351 W. Jefferson, 1928), and the original Red Bryan's Smokehouse (610 W. Jefferson, now Ranchito's restaurant, designed by Charles Dilbeck, 1947).

On the western edge of downtown Oak Cliff, the Bankhead Highway route was directed to the north (through Winnetka Heights Historic District) to West Davis Street. In their survey of historic resources of the Bankhead Highway, the Texas Historical Commission identified the center section as a potential Oak Cliff Bankhead historic district.

West Davis Street

The selection of West Davis Street as the Bankhead Highway's route west was a natural choice as West Davis had been a major road to the west since the late 19th century. A tourist camp was located on it in the 1920s, but was soon lost as residential development moved west. Like Garland Road, the businesses along the highway supported not only tourist, but transportation traffic. Remaining older auto-related and other businesses alternate with early post-WWII residential neighborhoods just behind this strip of commercial uses.


Courtesy Dallas Heritage Village

Fort Worth Avenue (which offered a more direct route to downtown Dallas) merges into West Davis Street, and the character of the highway changes to a wider, six-lane divided road with commercial uses on both sides. Near this intersection there are several remaining tourist courts from the 1940s: Shangri-La (3712 W. Davis, 1950), Texas Motel (3816 W. Davis, c. 1945, thought to have been designed by Dallas architect Charles Dilbeck)[5], Ritz Motel (3842 W. Davis, c. 1945, closed), and the most unique being the Palace Courts with its Tudor-styled rustic units with adjoining carports (4054 W. Davis, c. 1930s).  


Tourist courts like the Texas Motel (above) and the Palace Motel (below) were common along the Bankhead Highway in Dallas. Credit: Marcel Quimby, FAIA

As the highway approaches Loop 12 (South Walton Walker Boulevard), it passes through Arcadia Park—a community dating from the early 20th century—the last commercial area before Grand Prairie’s city limit at Mountain Creek. These Arcadia Park businesses supported not only tourist but transportation traffic, likely due to the proximity of industrial development near Helmsley Field and Grand Prairie. Many of these auto-related shops remain in place with some reflecting changes over time as the Bankhead Highway continues west towards Grand Prairie.

A Roadworthy Legacy

The Bankhead Highway remains as an important transportation corridor, although with different highway numbers or name along the way. It continues to act as a linear highway across Texas a thin, concrete strip that serves locals and an increasing number of tourists. The buildings that line the highway have also changed. Some still serve their original purposes while others have been abandoned, adapted for a new use, or demolished. The Bankhead Highway and its remaining buildings offer a rich legacy in the history of Texas.
 

Marcel Quimby, FAIA is historic preservation specialist at Gensler.

Author’s note: For additional information on the history of the county's early highway system and the federal governments' role, and history of the Bankhead Highway in Texas, two sources are recommended as a place to start: Texas Highway No. 1, The Bankhead Highway in Texas by Dan Smith and Texas Historical Commission's story of the Bankhead Highway History at www.thc.texas.gov/content/bankhead-highway.

Resources

[1]  Smith, Dan. Texas Highway No. 1, The Bankhead Highway in Texas. 2013. p. 2.

[2]  Smith, Dan. ibid.

[3]  Texas Historical Commission, Bankhead Highway, www.thc.texas.gov/content/bankhead-highway. Retrieved October 15, 2017.

[4]  The nearest remaining section of the Bankhead Highway that still bears its original name can be found at the west side of Weatherford, TX, in Parker County.

[5] Jones, Dwayne. Belmont Hotel, National Park Service ITC Part 1 application, 2004.