You probably never noticed the boarded-up tan brick building near Park and Young streets in downtown Dallas. It sat abandoned for two decades, its sidewalks littered with trash and walls vandalized with graffiti.
But behind the grime and neglect, there was a story of intersecting histories waiting to be told.
This Art Deco structure, called 508 Park, was once the hub of the local music scene. Mississippi Delta blues legend Robert Johnson recorded nearly half his songs, as well as his final work, in 1937. In fact, over 800 blues, jazz, western swing, and Mexican recordings occurred at 508 Park by Johnson and other legends such as Gene Autry, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Light Crust Doughboys, and Lolo Cavasos.
The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church across the street purchased 508 Park in 2011. Thanks to their efforts, as well as dedicated preservationists, historians, architects, and volunteers, this architecturally significant building is singing again.
The campus, known as Encore Park, is a multi-phased, multi-venue campus that aims to bring all cultures together to experience and appreciate history, art, music, and community gardening.
Pat Bywaters is executive director of Encore Park Dallas and grandson of influential Texas artist and “Dallas Nine” member Jerry Bywaters. He’s been spearheading the research into 508’s history, visiting archives in California, Louisiana, and New York.
“I love doing research, and I’ve always loved history. As soon as we looked into 508, the music history came flooding,” Bywaters said. “The Encore Park project preserves not only the architectural relic, but a special place and time in Dallas’ history.”
Warner Brothers built 508 Park in 1929 as a film exchange and distribution hub. A few years later, while they were adding sound to their films inside its walls, local music scouts were on the lookout for new talent. Many of their records were made on the third floor during the 1930s.
The building was later used as a liquor distribution warehouse, its glory days past, and then sat abandoned for 20 years. But its history as a storage place for Warner Brothers’ cellulose nitrate film reels actually is part of what has saved it: cellulose nitrate is not only a film base, but also an explosive. This highly flammable film coating required special construction of 508 Park without much timber.
“The building was a mess more than a wreck—it was built very sturdy and there was not a lot of rot,” said Bywaters. “We’ve done a 95 percent restoration of the exterior, not changing anything, but bringing it back to its 1930s condition.”
Those restorations include a new roof, masonry work, cleaning and polishing the marble, as well applying a mineral coating to the cast stone on the front. They will also be restoring the Art Deco elevator in a future phase of development. The front door used to be flanked by large sconces that disappeared sometime in years past. As part of The Stewpot’s 40th anniversary in October, Encore Park commissioned Potter Art Metal to recreate them.
As for the interior, it’s been a careful demo to remove everything inside from the 1960s or later (the last interior renovation was in 1963).
“We wanted to preserve evidence of what had gone on in building in its past,” Bywaters said.
An example of the painstaking research they’ve done to maintain historic accuracy: the faded paint on the windowsills was not identifiable. Enter art conservator Michael van Enter, of van Enter Studio, to do a microscopic paint analysis. That inquiry determined the newel posts, balusters, and many of the walls, columns, interior windows, and doors were originally a color called “Burma Jade.” Walk by today, and you’ll see the sills repainted that exact color.
The first phase of Encore Park debuted in October 2014, with the 508 Amphitheater and a sculpture wall by Brad Oldham and Christy Coltrin. This lost-wax bronze sculpture, called The Birth of a City, tells iconic and lesser-known visual stories unique to Dallas across 10 six-by-four-foot panels.
“They were inspired by a particular image of the building the Houston Viaduct over the Trinity River, which was an engineering marvel when it was built, and they did the sculpture in the 1930’s style,” Bywaters said.
Fundraising for phases two and three are ongoing to restore and finish-out the interior of 508 Park. One of the most exciting things arriving soon is the Museum of Street Culture at The Stewpot. It will offer exhibitions and programs that connect the film history of the building with the music recorded there. The museum will also shine a spotlight on the homeless and their art, as well as current street culture, including performance, installation, and emerging art forms. This is an innovative form of outreach by The Stewpot, which works collaboratively within the community to help alleviate homelessness and suffering.
Nearly half of the $13-million capital campaign has been raised to complete these renovations, which will also include art galleries and studios, a recording studio, event space, a rooftop terrace, and coffee shop. It will also include the historic renovation of 515 Park, which will further revitalize the area by providing space for several existing and future Stewpot partners.
For now, Encore Park has thrown its doors wide open to the public. From Sept. 6 through Oct. 4, they will show Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s every other Sunday in collaboration with the historic Texas Theatre. The events are free, and each screening includes a 16mm short, then a feature-length film.
To celebrate Stewpot’s 40th anniversary in October, they’re envisioning a big community meal with “crazy entertainment—this group has no lack of creativity,” said Bywaters.
- October 4: A blessing of the animals at 508 Amphitheater (St. Francis of Assisi’s birthday) at 2 pm
- October 7: Special monthly worship service of The Stewpot, featuring KM Williams at 508 Amphitheater
- October 24: 40th anniversary celebration, including a Stewpot Talent Show and Dallas Street Choir, a street fair of art from The Stewpot Open Art Program and an evening performance
The final event of the year is a fiddle competition November 7.
The restoration of 508 Park has garnered national attention, and seems destined to become a hub of music and culture once again for Dallas.
“The significance of any building is what we put into it. A building is just bricks and mortar,” Michael Taft, former director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, said in the Dallas Observer. “But 508 Park Avenue is one of two buildings that has a connection with and is part of the story of two of the most important recording sessions in American history.”