Fair Park

As time approached for Texas to celebrate the centennial of its independence, several cities vied for the honor of hosting a world’s fair to commemorate the event. Although San Antonio, Austin, and Houston all offered greater historical claim to the occasion, Dallas offered more money and was designated the home of the Centennial Exposition a scant two years prior to the proposed opening date of summer 1936.

Dallas proposed to use the expanded site of the forty-eight-year-old Texas State Fair as grounds for the new exposition, but a completely new set of buildings were required. The city’s typically ingenious financing scheme for the project, which combined municipal, state, federal, and private funds, was designed to produce not only temporary exhibition facilities but also a permanent cultural center for the city and expanded grounds for the continuing State Fair. The project was also seen as an economic stimulus to help pull Dallas out of its Depression doldrums.

Dallasite George Dahl was selected executive architect for the ambitious project with design assistance from the well-known Philadelphia architect Paul Cret. Cret had served, along with Raymond Hood, in a similar consulting capacity to the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition in Chicago-aiding in site planning, coordination of design, architect selection, and the actual design of the Science Hall. Cret had also been, since 1930, consulting architect to the University of Texas at Austin, where his master plan and numerous buildings were already well under way.

George Dahl, with the firm of Greene, La Roche, and Dahl, had also been heavily involved in work on the Austin campus. Dahl, a 1922 Harvard graduate, had come to Dallas from Los Angeles in 1926 and was already well respected in the city as an energetic young “go-getter.” His vitality, motivational capability, and good humor were all to be tested to the limit in the tightly scheduled Fair Park project.

The design of the buildings at Fair Park reflects heavily the design trends of its era. It was, for Texas at the time, strikingly “Modern.” The clean, planar architectural character is similar to that of several fair projects of the same period, notably the Stockholm Exposition of 1930 by Gunnar Asplund and the aforementioned Century of Progress of 1933 in Chicago. Its dramatic and much-touted floodlighting at night certainly had its origins in Albert Speer’s blockbuster use of light in the German Pavilion at the Paris Exposition in 1925. But the site planning of the fairgrounds is notably un-modern for the era. Some parts of the plan reach back to the “White City” vision of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with its romantic lagoons and dazzling fountains. In other parts it is a rigorously Beaux-Arts scheme, injecting a powerful order and discipline into the large complex of buildings – characteristics that had been lacking in Chicago’s more modern Century of Progress site plan.

The heart of Fair Park is the 1,500-foot-long Esplanade of State, which features an immense reflecting pool down its axis and is flanked by six monumental pavilions. The four courts established for the Centennial Exposition along the sides of the esplanade were elaborately landscaped to represent different sections of the state. The buildings to the north of the esplanade housed transportation exhibits while those to the south featured various other industries.

The focus of the esplanade is the grand Hall of State, a T-shaped building whose central concave feature, called the “Niche of Heroes,” became a kind of logo for the original fair. Radiating from the niche are three wings. The front two originally housed regional halls, each devoted to one of the major sections of the state and terminated by the “Halls of the Centuries.” At one end of the building the Hall of 1836 was decorated in early mission style, while the decorations of the Hall of 1936 at the other end were modern. A third wing, extending to the rear of the Niche of Heroes, housed the 200-foot-long Great Hall of Texas in which each of the six bays was devoted to one of the national flags that had flown over the state.

The Hall of State is still said to be the most expensive structure per square foot ever built in Dallas. Its exterior and many of its interior walls are handsomely worked fossiliferous Texas limestone. Its floors are largely marble of a wide variety of colors and grains. The building took full advantage of the abundance and low expense of craftsmanship in the Depression era. Bas-reliefs, delicate metalwork, stenciling, and murals grace almost every surface of the building. Their themes are all stories of Texas, with an inventive panoply of regional motifs ranging from Lone Stars to cacti to oil wells. The names of Texas heroes are prominently featured along with high-minded words deemed to be descriptive of Texas history such as “Romance,” “Fortune,” “Adventure,” and “Honor.”

The architectural style of the Fair Park buildings, which George Dahl called “Modern, flavored with the condiments of Egypt and Archaic Greece, and finally seasoned with the warmth and sunshine of the Southwest,” has gone in and out of favor over the years since 1936 ( Dahl quoted by Priscilla Smith in an article in Art Digest, June 1, 1936). This factor, along with the dilapidation of the park’s neighborhood and uneven use of its massive spaces, has contributed to an undervaluing of this important and cohesive period work. Fortunately, the recent revival of interest in Art Deco and Early Modern art, craft, and architecture seems to have assured the complex a safe immediate future and, it is to be hoped, a long life in commemoration of the state’s first centennial celebration.