Can I walk on the Katy Trail? What day is it? Are the restrictions by first name or last name? Here’s an idea, don’t go. I haven’t walked the length of the trail in many weeks. I go elsewhere.
Even if you think you know your city – your neighborhood – you don’t. I used to walk to Empire Baking at Inwood Village by going up Preston to Lovers and over to Inwood. I’ve now walked up Lemmon to Inwood (and its paucity of sidewalks). I’ve walked to Douglas and up to Lovers. I’ve walked up Oak Lawn to Armstrong and up to Lovers. Next, I’ll walk up Lemmon to Westside Drive to Greenway and up to Inwood Village. Five different routes, five changes of scenery, good bread.
The point is that in place of the Katy Trail, there are different, equally interesting and relaxing excursions to be had in your neighborhoods.
Architectural Tour, The Long Way
Hardly a secret, I like architecture. I know a little, but mostly it’s an understanding of what I like when I see it. I give Dallas a lot (A LOT) of grief for the bland architecture it attracts. A recent walk gave me a little better appreciation of what downtown Dallas has to show. And now, when downtown is 1980s-era vacant, is the perfect time to slow down, stop, and look up. Social distance-wise, you’re very likely to be alone on a city block.
Before we begin, I suspect most of my choices will be unfamiliar to you. With one exception, they’re not the buildings of Dallas skyline pictures.
For lack of a better starting point, let’s begin at the Crescent Court. I don’t like it. Never have. It’s frilly wrought iron is more jumped-up New Orleans than Dallas. That Philip Johnson designed it is fingernails on blackboard to me. So no, you don’t have to like a building just because someone famous designed it and whose other work you like a lot more.
Plaza of the Americas
But it’s a starting off point to the Maple-Routh Connection that leads under Woodall Rodgers and into the western edge of the Arts District – keep walking. Take a right on San Jacinto and stop at Pearl. To your left is the Plaza of the Americas. It’s a black glass high-rise with an almost classical stone entry and arched doorway. There’s a second, matching doorway at Pearl and Bryan.
Take in the view. The 1980s Plaza of the Americas is just across Bryan from the original Dallas High School built decades earlier. Appreciate how far engineering has come from a building built by hand with largely hand-made materials to a steel and glass high-rise where almost everything was made by machine. In a narcissistic moment, note the statues in front of each doorway. They face the building, their own achievement, their own front door, while turning their back on the city. It is ultimately not a welcoming gesture.
Turning west onto Bryan you pass by the 1959 Sheraton building. Look up to the concrete podium and notice the filled-in trapezoidal shapes. Given the era of the building, I suspect they were filled with a riot of colors – burnt orange, turquoise, perhaps an acid green. Now it’s just a concrete wall filled with broken promises.
Olive and Live Oak
Turning south on Olive past the Sheraton, stop at Live Oak. There’s a “soft brutalist” building. What could have been a heavy façade instead plays with light, shadow and design. Brutalism didn’t include arched Palladian windows, so the architect recessed a semicircle above each window with a vertical fin at the apex. I call them fins because they too play with shadows as the sun moves. Their continuation beyond the roofline is a nod to the gargoyles (water spouts) and grotesques (any sculptural image) that adorned the tops of centuries-old buildings.
I naughtily walked up the Sheraton’s now empty parking garage to get a view this tapestry of buildings. On the left is a two-tone building from the 1940s, next to the 1980’s Comerica Bank, next to the 1960’s “blues” mid-ride, next to 1954s Republic Tower. In the background, between the high-rises you can see the blip of the 1923 Magnolia Building’s Pegasus sign. This era mashup is an interesting moment surrounding Pacific Plaza. Each one, in their own day, thought they were tall.
It’s here I’ll remind you that in architecture, every window, line and decorative ornament was thought out, planned, discussed and executed. I think sometimes we look at the whole, without appreciating the detail, the skill (and sometimes lack of skill).
Walk through Pacific Plaza to Pacific Avenue and turn left on South Ervay. This is a fascinating position. That 1960s “blues” building is on the corner begging for a renovation, on the next block is the fabulously ornate Wilson. Next to the Wilson is Neiman Marcus from 1914 and next to Neiman’s is a parking garage that was to have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rogers Lacy Hotel. On the left is the Moderne-styled Mercantile National Bank Building from 1943 that replaced an 1889 era post office and is now apartments. It was the tallest building in Dallas until Republic Tower was built.
The Wilson, at eight-stories was the tallest in the city in 1903. Oddly, it was once owned by “actress” Pia Zadora, who appropriately got her start in the 1964 movie “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” – one of the worst films ever made (you can watch the MST3K version on YouTube). The building shows how architects and builders have forever worked to a budget. Once you get past the ornate street-facing façade, you see plain brick – the greying Fruit of the Looms under the tuxedo.
Akard and Pacific
Walking west on Main Street there are a number of oft written about historic buildings. Turning north on Akard you see this parking garage just off Akard spanning between Elm and Pacific. It shows that something as a typically fugly as an aboveground parking garage can be interesting too. Lord knows Dallas is filled with poorly designed aboveground parking.
First National Bank Tower
On the west side of Akard and Elm is 1964’s First National Bank Tower, designed in the International Style by George Dahl and Thomas Stanley. It’s currently undergoing an enormous restoration that hasn’t been without its bumps. The 52-story tower was originally planned to be 96-feet taller but shrunk because of Love Field air traffic – something that’s been fixed as it’s now the 10th tallest in Dallas. Design-wise, it’s an elongated hexagon sitting off-centered on an eight-story podium. I usually hate podiums, but this huge, white-marbled colonnade is impressive – especially now that it’s been cleaned and repaired.
Originally, the top of the podium was an extensive outdoor garden space for bank executives that will be again used as outdoor green space. Behind the columns will be restaurants and shops when it reopens later this year. The lower floors of the tower will house a 200-room hotel and above that, 318 apartments all the way up to the 48th floor – making them the highest residential homes in Dallas. The top floors that used to house the Petroleum Club and an observatory will return to similar uses.
1505 Elm Garage
And right across the street from that impressive restoration we have this. The unkempt, rusty parking garage for the 1505 Elm condos. See what I mean about there being interesting garages right next to – this. The other three corners are well-maintained buildings.
Further up Akard we see this fun little bump-out at The Mayflower building that now houses Salsa Limon. I know nothing about the restaurant, but I want to try it just to go inside.
511 North Akard
Inside the 511 North Akard building, opened in 1958, there’s mixed-use with commercial, apartments and condos. It’s a little gem across from the 1980s (yawn) Ross Tower. I can only imagine what an exterior facelift would do for this 1950s swanky pad. Oh, and see what I mean about color inserts (back to the Sheraton picture)?
How cool is this building? This is the 1,754-square-foot penthouse’s terrace “borrowed” from its 2015 listing. Sure, I’d want to do some renovation to the inside (I always do) but for most, it would be move-in ready.
Before heading back to the Crescent Court, there’s Fountain Place to visit. Designed by I.M. Pei and completed in 1986 it’s the one building on this walk that’s an integral part of the Dallas skyline. But ignore the height and pay attention to the ground levels. It’s a masterclass in mixing the natural and machine-made worlds. Sure, it’s a big, glass skyscraper, but it’s also an urban woodland connected by water. It’s a place you can sit for lunch under the trees that are themselves under a 720-foot tall manmade prism.
Rest here. Sit. Experience it as you will never again – devoid of people. There’s the peace of the forest, of the outdoors – all while being a block from a highway. It you don’t spend at least 15 minutes wandering around this beauty, you’re just not doing it right.
From Fountain Place, walk the Woodall Rodgers frontage road to Harwood. Turn left through Klyde Warren Park and on to McKinney which takes you back to the Crescent Court. Sure, pause and look at the oft written-about McKinney and Olive building by Cesar Pelli or the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences designed by Robert A. M. Stern. They’re worth a look, but you’ve likely seen them before and this walk is about new experiences.
A Good Walk For Street-Level Views
All in all, it was a surprisingly good walk that uncovered decades of interesting architecture to pause and enjoy. I will definitely meander again. There’s a certain solemnity existing in a landscape devoid of the vibrancy it was designed for – that you’ll never experience again.
But Where’s The Height?
Finally, in a world with a 3,300-foot tower under construction, Dallas’ current tallest building, Bank of America Plaza, opened 35 YEARS AGO.
For reference, when the Wilson building opened in 1903, it kept that crown for five years. When the Magnolia Building was built in 1923 it was tallest for 20 years. When the Mercantile Bank Building was built in 1943, it kept the crown until 1954’s Republic Tower I – 11 years. Just five years later it was bested by 1959’s Sheraton which was itself bested five more years later by the Republic Center Tower II in 1964. The First National Bank building snatched the crown a year later in 1965. Nine years later in 1974, it was Renaissance Tower’s turn to be tallest until the reining champ took the honors in 1985.
In the past 120 years, Dallas has never rested on its skyscraper laurels for so long. The world of the last 50 years has been about denser cities with higher and higher buildings. Dallas has fallen behind as its architectural waistline has spread. There’s nothing in the pipeline that comes close to changing that.
But when it does happen (before I die?), make sure it’s downtown.