Downtown Dallas at the Crossroads

The city's effort to clean up downtown could cost us important parts of history.

It stands at the end of a short, out-of-the-way dead-end street a few blocks from City Hall: 508 Park Ave., where a man and a guitar more or less invented rock and roll 72 years ago. The building is vacant and decaying, but not alone. On a recent Saturday afternoon, the small block upon which it sits was lined with the homeless, who surrounded an idling car parked in front of the building where in the summer of 1937 Mississippi-born bluesman Robert Johnson recorded 13 of the most important pieces of the American songbook. The homeless gathered around the car with their hands out, and it drove away—it was like something out of a zombie movie, a sad and familiar sight in downtown Dallas.

The building was carved out of marble in the 1920s, when it was constructed as the home of the Warner Bros. Pictures storage facility. Marble, builders believed, would contain a conflagration should the highly flammable nitrate film stock ever catch fire. Historians also believe the marble created the marvelous acoustics that led Brunswick Records to use the building as its branch office and makeshift recording studio.

Evidence of that sound clarity exists on the handful of recordings producer Don Law made there with Johnson in 1937. Decades old, they still resonate like a thunderstorm that's only just passed.

The former Statler Hilton Hotel sits in the midst of substantial downtown renovation, which is why, preservationists think, cityofficials would like to see it torn down. Mayor Leppert disagrees.
The former Statler Hilton Hotel sits in the midst of substantial downtown renovation, which is why, preservationists think, cityofficials would like to see it torn down. Mayor Leppert disagrees.
On October 14, Mayor Tom Leppert and other city officials held a press conferencedowntown to single out as threats to public health and safety such addresses as211 N. Ervay (at left), 1902 Commerce (at top) and 1604 Main (at bottom).
On October 14, Mayor Tom Leppert and other city officials held a press conferencedowntown to single out as threats to public health and safety such addresses as211 N. Ervay (at left), 1902 Commerce (at top) and 1604 Main (at bottom).

It wasn't until 2006 that historians had definitive proof that Johnson recorded such immortal, oft-covered songs as "Hellhound on My Trail," "Love in Vain" and "Traveling Riverside Blues" at 508 Park Ave. (Among those who've re-recorded such titles: The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton, who in 2004 shot a sequence for his DVD Sessions for Robert J in the former studio.) Till then, there had only been theories and best guesses. But three years ago, a blues collector from San Diego turned over to the Library of Congress an April 11, 1961, Columbia Records memo in which Frank Driggs, then assembling a Robert Johnson collection for the label, asked Law for some clarification concerning those Dallas sessions. (In November 1936 Johnson recorded in a San Antonio hotel.)

Wrote Driggs to Law: "You recorded him on three separate days in late November 1936 and either you or someone else again in Dallas in July, 1937. Where were the Dallas masters cut?" To which Law responded with some scribbling in the margins: "In a makeshift studio in our own branch office." The date was slightly off–Johnson had been here in June–but that clinched it: Johnson's recordings had been released on Vocalion, owned by Brunswick and later acquired by Columbia, which, in 1990, released the best-selling blues boxed set of all time, the double-disc Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, consisting of every last scrap of music Johnson ever recorded.

But those were thousands of yesterdays ago, when 508 Park Ave. ushered in and out of its doors the legendary and the forgotten, among them Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, the Hi-Flyers and Clifford Gross. It is even said that in April 1941 saxophone colossus Charlie Parker, to jazz what Johnson was to blues, recorded there as one of band leader Jay McShann's sidemen.

Those are merely ghost stories now, tales in danger of being reduced to rubble along with the building that houses them. Only days ago, the owners of 508 Park Ave.—Glazer's Distributors, which purchased the building in 1958—filed with the city a certificate of demolition. Glazer's has tired of messing with the building, which the city claims "is in violation of numerous city ordinances, many of which may create health and safety problems to the neighbors and the general public." In a letter sent to owner Bennett Glazer on October 13 assistant city attorney Jennifer DeCurtis cited 15 violations of the Dallas City Code and 11 violations of the Dallas Fire Code, including everything from a lack of a working toilet to high weeds filled with trash to a cracked sidewalk to the lack of a working fire alarm.

Glazer was warned: Get the building up to code within 30 days or "a suit may be filed in District Court requesting injunctive relief." And "We may seek civil penalties of up to $1,000 a day for each violation."

Glazer was not the only downtown Dallas property owner sent such a letter in October. Among the recipients: representatives of Hamsher International, the Hong Kong-based consortium that owns the former Statler Hilton Hotel on Commerce Street; and Westmount Realty Capital, which had long ago abandoned its promise to develop 1604 Main St. In all, seven buildings were cited—though the city has a list of 36 vacant downtown buildings it would like to see developed (preferable) or demolished (possible).

Because, you shall see, this is a story about something Dallas is very good at—tearing down its history—and something Dallas is starting to figure out—how to turn a moribund downtown into "a living city." Everyone in this story wants the same thing: a safe haven with green spaces both literal and figurative, the old and new as twin beacons of prosperity, streets paved with gold. But should-be allies have become would-be adversaries, another age-old tale in this town. And so a small war scattered across a handful of city blocks is waged, with the city's residents among the collateral damage as lawsuits are threatened and buildings are razed.

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