Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

Since we started writing about some of Dallas' fugliest buildings (the AT&T building, Dallas WTC, Turley Law Center, and Irving Convention Center, so far), one building was mentioned in the Mixmaster and Facebook comments more than any other -- Dallas City Hall. Readers insisted that if any building needed our evil eye, it was this one.

Opened in 1978, it's the fifth city hall building for Dallas, and its plans started all the way back in 1944 with city planning consultants Harland Bartholomew & Associates. They wanted to nix the Dallas Municipal Building and move city and federal offices, a convention center and cultural facilities into a centralized complex. But when the astronomical cost estimates hit the light of day, city leaders were shocked and plans halted.

Unfortunately, it took the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to get those plans moving again. Desperate to recover from Dallas' blasted image following the national tragedy (Dallas was known then as the City of Hate), Dallas Mayor Erik Jonsson launched the Goals for Dallas program. One of those goals? Design of the City, which included building the new city complex, including the now controversial Dallas City Hall building.

From the plethora of pictures online, I couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about. Designed by I.M. Pei, a Chinese-born American architect, who is often called the master of modern architecture, some Dallasites in the 70s worried that the design might be too avant-garde. But design plans went ahead anyway, and the building was completed in less than six years.

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I.M. Pei's goal was to honor the people of Dallas with his design. "The people I met ... were all very proud of their city," he said. "They felt that Dallas was the greatest city there was, and I could not disappoint them."

So I set out on a blistery December morning to find out why our readers objected so fiercely to the Dallas City Hall building.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

As per usual with many Dallas buildings, my first thought when I walked up was, Oh, how lovely. An Ode to Concrete. Dallas does love its concrete blocks. So I could understand why some residents might initially balk at their city hall. The buff-colored concrete was chosen to resemble local earth tones, and great care went into the mixing and placement, but I can certainly understand the desire to see another building material.

However, City Hall is saved by its design.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

Giant oval columns support an inverted pyramid of concrete and glass, a design chosen as a result of the space requirements of city government. Citizen service areas require much less space than is needed for employee offices. So I.M. Pei gave the city just that -- spacious upper floors of offices and more conservative lower levels for citizen services.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

Plus, the design provides natural shaded areas outside, something desperately needed in Dallas summer months. But something else desperately needed is some greenery.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

Oh, dear. Something is going on with the perimeter of this plant bed. I don't know if the city forgot to plant winter-friendly plants here or if they all died from the misery of decorating a government building, but something needs to be done. The middle of the plant bed looks better by comparison, but not much.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

With a complex so overwhelmingly concrete and glass, some artful, living adornment would go a long way. At least I.M. Pei had the forethought to design a retreat of sorts in front of the building.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

At two blocks long, the Park Plaza features a round, 180-foot diameter fountain pool, three 84-foot tall flagpoles and several benches. Floating, and usually spinning, in the water, are two bright red sculptures by artist Marta Pan. I could see this spot being a pleasant place to take a break from work in the spring and summer months.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
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Next to the fountain is a large sculpture by Henry Moore called The Dallas Piece. It was designed especially for the plaza and is supposed to resemble vertebrae.

So while the outside of City Hall lacks greenery, I give it props for art and design.

Inside is much the same -- lots of art pieces and infographics highlighting the city and its history, plus some light wood panels and carpet to break up the concrete and glass.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

When I first walked in, I was greeted by wide slats of light pouring in from windows and a large, bronze-colored statue of J. Erik Jonsson -- entrepreneur, philanthropist and former Dallas mayor (1964-1971).

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

A wide, stone staircase with brass handrails led me upstairs to the second floor, where citizens waited in lines and government employees practically jogged down a seemingly endless hallway.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

The second floor, known as the Great Court, is one of the coolest parts of the building, namely because of its 250-foot length stretch and uninterrupted view to the vaulted ceiling 100 feet above. Crane your head back and you can see every floor above you.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

I traveled up and down the elevators to check out the first few floors and found different Dallas landmarks and symbols painted in blue on the walls separating the elevators. I like the concept of this, but I wish the style didn't clash so much with the rest of the interior. These silhouette paintings just aren't classy enough for such a grand building. But most of the art was quite distinguished.

Is Dallas City Hall a Fugly Building?
Jane R. LeBlanc

On a wall all by itself, and lit with lights from below, is a painting by Texas portrait artist Victor Lallier. Known as the premiere portrait artist of the 20th century, his grand piece at Dallas City Hall features many prominent Dallas figures, including several whose namesake highways are sure to produce collective groans from Dallas commuters.

But this building didn't get many groans from me. Beyond the lack of outside greenery and the odd elevator art, I liked the modern, inverted pyramid design and history-rich interior. From the inside, the views of the city are spectacular thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows, and I loved the wide, grand staircase to the second floor and the artistic touches throughout, all in ode to the city of Dallas.

I'm curious why people seem to hate this building. While the comments were plenty, details were not. Readers, what do you have against Dallas City Hall? Where is the dislike coming from? Why do you want to break I.M. Pei's heart?


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