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Welcome to Dallas!
With so much posting of travel photos to social media, who takes the time to find, write and mail a postcard these days?
Through the majority of the 20th-century postcards were a popular way to let people know about your travels and send images of the amazing places you were visiting.
Originating in Europe, postcards gained favor in the 1880s as printing processes improved and beautiful images could be easily reproduced for mailing.
In the U.S., the first commercially produced souvenir postcards were made for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The series of novelty postcards depicted the pavilions and grounds of the fair. They were a sensation and helped build the postcard industry across the country.
Postcards grew even more in popularity with the turn of the century, especially with trips becoming easier and more affordable. The inexpensive cards gave travelers a way to document their journeys and let friends and family know where they were visiting. All sorts of postcard types were created, from linen to photo chromes, and they featured a wide range of images, including individual buildings, landscapes, streetscapes, and aerial views.
In the 21st century, smartphone cameras and social media have captured postcards’ old market. Today, it is much harder to find postcards when traveling, especially in smaller, less touristy destinations. Now it’s a given that people prefer posting travel images to Facebook or Instagram, reaching a wider audience and getting the immediate gratification of counting up the “likes” from the posts.
Thankfully, with the plethora of postcards produced in the last century, many survive today — even very early ones. They provide an excellent insight into how cities developed when compared with others of the same sites from differing times.
The postcards of Dallas are no exception, and it is fascinating to look at the views of the city from the early 1900s to today to see how the city has evolved. It is especially fun to see the colorful renderings of the early linen postcards — which often took quite a bit of artistic license — and compare them to more modern, dramatic photo postcards of the city that don’t add flourishes. Here are two Dallas postcards that showcase part of the journey through time as the city grew.
There are many “Greetings from” postcards of cities from around the country, but Dallas offered its own twist with “Howdy from,” as evidenced by this fun collage postcard from the mid-1940s. Each letter features a facet of Dallas: the Mercantile Bank Building in the D, the Houston Street Viaduct in the A, the Magnolia Building with Pegasus in the first L, Dealey Plaza and Main Street in the second L, White Rock Lake in the last A, and a view of downtown in the S.
The Triple Underpass project of the 1930s was a massive Works Progress Administration undertaking to create a suitable entrance to downtown Dallas from the west. It required the removal of several blocks of buildings and the regrading and curving of Commerce and Elm streets into the underpass, originally called the Elm-Main-Commerce Subway. The project also created Dealey Plaza, which opened in 1936 as the gateway to the commercial core of the city extending east from the plaza, as depicted on this postcard from circa 1937.
It is an interesting “Art-Colortone,” colorized to make buildings look lively; some artistic license was taken as the Texas School Book Depository shows up in cream instead of the actual brick red, along with other buildings with strange colors. Dealey Plaza is prominent at the bottom of the card in green; it did not get its colonnades, pergolas, and reflecting pools until between 1938 and 1940. To the right of Dealey Plaza is the U.S. Post Office Terminal Annex, finished in 1937. At the top center of the image you can see the Adolphus Hotel, the Magnolia Building, and the now-gone Baker Hotel. Just above those buildings is the old Municipal Building from 1914, which formed the edge of business district at that time. At the bottom left of the card, the railroad lines are prominently shown going through the warehouse district, now the West End, and at the bottom they head across the triple underpass bridge to Union Station, not pictured on the card.
This wonderful postcard image was created to promote the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, which was described on the back of the card as “celebrating Texas’ 100th birthday and commemorating its glamourous past and its achievements subsequent to the birth of the Republic of Texas in 1836.” It was a wonderful way to show the massive size of the Exposition and the many attractions it had to offer. Although a wonderful depiction of the grounds, it also has some variations from what was actually built as the artist must have had earlier drawings of the site to use. This is evidenced by the State of Texas building (Hall of State) that has wings that extended towards the Esplanade on card, which was an earlier design for the building that had to be scaled back. The U.S. Government building (Tower building) which was built had a much different shape than depicted on card which also doesn’t show its signature tower, which was the tallest feature at the Exposition. Below that was the Ford Motor Company building which ended up being much larger than on the card and also of a different shape. The Cotton Bowl is at the center of the image with the Race Track to the right and at the edge of the Exposition grounds. The buildings built along the Midway, below the Cotton Bowl and Race Track, were also quite different with varying shape buildings that don’t match what was built and attractions not depicted such as the Normandy and the roller coaster ride. None the less, the postcard would have been an incredible way to visualize the Exposition in all its grandeur in an effort to attract people to attend.
These two postcard images side by side are quite striking as they show the changes in Dallas in only fifty years from basically the same perspective. The Houston Street Viaduct opened in 1911 and was an incredible way to enter into Dallas from Oak Cliff over the Trinity River. It was celebrated as one of the longest bridges with reinforced concrete arches. The historic postcard image from the mid-1930s clearly shows the tallest building in Dallas at the time, the 29-story Magnolia Building with its “Flying Red Horse” as the postcard described it, which was visible at night from many miles away with its glowing red neon. The modern card is from 1986 from the same bridge with a dramatically different view of downtown showing shinny glass skyscrapers which replaced masonry buildings. The Magnolia building ceded its title as the tallest building in Dallas in the 1940s and now it belongs to the Bank of America building which was completed, along with Fountain Place, in 1986 when the modern postcard was published.
Here is another depiction of the Houston Street Viaduct, albeit there was great deal of artistic license taken with this image from the 1940s. The bridge is not at the correct angle, as it should be heading towards the left of the Magnolia Building in the center top of the image. The middle ground of the card is a depiction of the Trinity River levee. The tallest building in the image is the 31-story Mercantile Building built in 1942. Several of the buildings in the image have been replaced with modern towers; however, surviving buildings include the Adolphus to the left of the Magnolia Building, the Dallas Power and Light building and the Butler Building before its reskin, to the right of the Mercantile.
Theater Row along Elm Street was a major attraction in downtown Dallas, especially at night as the neon signs lit up calling people to movies, restuarants, and shops. The back of the card from the 1930s says “The metropolitan atmosphere previaling here is remincent of New York-Skyscrapers, a business bustle and volumne of traffic.” It cleraly shows the variety of movie houses and business in the stretch of Elm Street from Akard Street to Harwood Street. The photo postcard from the 1950s decribed Elm Street as “the “Great White Way” of the southwest.” Approximately twenty years bewteen the cards shows that several of the movie theaters are gone, inclcudling the Rialto and Capitol, and the street went from two-way to one-way. The Tower Petroelum building is the tall building in the background and had its own theater at one time. The only theater from Theater Row to survive today is the Majestic, which is the furthest block of Elm Street pictured on the cards. By the 1950s, Theater Row started to loose its lusture in favor of suburban theaters and many of the theaters closed and were replaced by other businesses. Eventually those buildings gave way to skscrapers such as Thanksgiving Tower, LTV, and 1700 Pacifc.
Unlike the colorful Art-Colortone postcards of earlier years, this photo postcard from 1953 shows the “ever-growing big “D” skyline” as proclaimed on the card in its true, and very red and brown, coloration. The white building towards the top center is the Mercantile. Below that to the right is another tall white building, the Rio Grande National Life Insurance building which was built around 1950 and demolished not much later to make way for the Renaissance Tower completed in 1973. The tower under construction to the left of the Mercantile is the 36-story Republic Bank tower, which opened in 1955. The other prominent tall white building below that is the 21-story Fidelity Union Life Insurance building which opened in 1952. It received a 31-story addition in 1959-1960 and is now the Mosaic Apartments.
According to the back of this postcard from the mid-1960s it shows “A panoramic view towards the Trinity River taken after the lights go on in the skyscrapers of a typical downtown section of the big metropolis.” Once again the Mercantile figures prominently in the image with its neon sign, clock, and spire lit up, which told people of the changing weather with the different colors that lit up. To the left of the Mercantile is the Continental Building and to the left of that is of course the Statler Hilton. Also visible at the bottom left corner of the image is the 1925 White-Plaza Hotel, which was the first Hilton Hotel built in Dallas. To the right of that the large red brick wall is the back of the Titche-Goettinger Department Store. Below Titche-Goettinger is the Tower Petroleum building and its Corrigan Tower addition. Above the Mercantile, the round dome building is the 1957 City Auditorium before the Convention Center and its City Hall neighbor were built.
This postcard from the 1990s shows downtown with its multitude of shiny glass skyscrapers in contrast with the low masonry buildings of the West End. It also prominently showcases the highways at the bottom of the card, the vast Trinity River and levee system with the Cedars, Deep Ellum, and south Dallas in the background fading off into the distance. The back of the postcard sums up the image Dallas wanted to proclaim to visitors from the early postcards of 1930s to those of the 1990s:
“Rising dramatically from the vast Texas plains, modern Dallas proclaims its beauty and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Sparkling in the warm friendly Texas sunshine, Dallas is a city of beauty, progress and charm.”
Who knows how much longer postcards will be around and if people will still take the time to buy, write, and mail them in, especially in an age of instant posting of images of your travels on social media. Thank goodness for the popularity of early postcards. They give us a great snapshot of the different eras of time especially for Dallas showing how far it has come and what has been lost to get where it is today.
Have a favorite postcard image of Dallas? Share it with us on Instagram. #ColumnsPostcards
David Preziosi, FAICP is executive director at Preservation Dallas.
All postcard images courtesy of Preservation Dallas