Just Shoot Us

How else to explain the idea for messing with the Kennedy Memorial?

Architecture, I don't know. Good taste, not my department. But I think I am capable of recognizing a really bad media butt-kicking when I see it coming, and this idea of messing with the Kennedy Memorial would be A-number-one on my list.

The idea is to move the assassination memorial from its present location at the back of the Old Red Courthouse downtown to a less conspicuous spot, in order to make room for a water feature. My idea would be this: Why doesn't Dallas just draw a bull's-eye on its forehead and say, "New Yorker writers, please aim here."

I don't know if this is an example of karma, fate or people just living up to their stereotypes, or if those are all basically the same thing anyway, but talk about begging for it! This idea was first floated in The Dallas Morning News in a kind of loony/tentative way: A couple of weeks ago, the News published a big front-page graphic of a concept for new plazas downtown. After you stared at the drawing for a while, you realized there was a major fountain where the Kennedy Memorial used to be. If this were San Antonio, it would be like, "Golly, Bill, that water slide is on top of the durned Alamo!"

Let's say Dallas deep-sixes the Kennedy Memorial in order to build a new parking garage entrance. How bad will the city look, on a scale of 10 to 10?
Mark Graham
Let's say Dallas deep-sixes the Kennedy Memorial in order to build a new parking garage entrance. How bad will the city look, on a scale of 10 to 10?

Now, I would have to admit that the memorial is not a spot that pulls me in by the heartstrings. Designed by Philip Johnson, it's sort of typical in some ways of good ideas from the North that don't really translate to this climate--a concrete enclosure open to the sky and surrounded by downtown traffic. Last time I tried to take relatives there during the summer months, we all felt like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace. We thought it would be a good place to put people who were actually involved in the assassination. Of course, it might not be big enough.

Darwin Payne, author and Dallas historian, made both points: that messing with it is asking for it, but that there have always been people who haven't liked it, especially among those who were close to and reverent of JFK. Payne is working on a biography of the late Judge Sarah T. Hughes, whom Kennedy appointed to the federal bench and who later administered the oath of office to LBJ aboard Air Force One. Payne read me a passage from his manuscript quoting a letter Hughes wrote shortly after Philip Johnson's drawings were unveiled:

She said the design was "too abstract for us ordinary human beings who loved and admired him so extravagantly. John F. Kennedy was a man of courage, youthful vitality, vision and warmth, characteristics that people throughout the world admired." She said the memorial should reflect those qualities. "The late president's warmth has escaped him [Johnson]."

Payne's manuscript also quotes Gershon Canaan, a Dallas architect and cultural leader of the time, who was more caustic: "This ruin-like open square box without any content, constructed of a rough and crude material, is completely out of line and without the qualities so characteristic of the late president."

Cannan said the Johnson design lacked a "spiritual idea" and created "climactic problems within the box from sun radiation" (no kidding). Canaan called it "a fort-like pillbox, physically hot and spiritually cold."

But no matter what controversy may have been inspired by the design itself, Payne agreed with me that Dallas cannot say or do squat about it without looking awful. "If we move it, that looks terribly insensitive, doesn't it?"

The memorial is on county land, and County Judge Margaret Keliher confirmed that the idea of moving it has been raised, but she said the idea probably is headed nowhere: "I think it's fair to say that people have tried to be open-minded about what would happen with the memorial in an effort to try to organize a really spectacular, meaningful plaza in downtown Dallas. But I don't think anybody has realistically thought about moving the memorial."

But County Commissioner Jim Jackson told me his major qualms about moving it have to do with cost, and not the spiritual kind. He said the idea of moving it is, in his opinion, "contingent upon where do we have to move it, and how we feel that would play into a bigger role, and how much it would cost. And until I have the answer to those two things, I'm not sure I can say yes, it ought to be done.

"If it can be done within some reasonable costs and we can find a place that the Sixth Floor [Museum] people and everybody can buy into to attract the people, then I think yes, we can move it."

Jackson has been giving serious thought to the success of the Sixth Floor assassination museum in the School Book Depository Building. He is especially excited about talk of restoring the courtroom, just around the corner from the memorial, where the Jack Ruby trial was held.

"I have in my mind a vision of having robotics where you actually have the characters in the courtroom play out their parts," he said. He suggested a robot could play the part of the late Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, for example, "sitting in his chair and standing up and giving his speeches."

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