Downtown Dallas at the Crossroads
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.
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.
"The significance of any building is what we put into it," says Michael Taft, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where the 1961 letter confirming 508 Park Ave.'s legacy resides. "A building is just bricks and mortar. 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. I think the significance is in the event that took place there, every bit as much as the site at Gettysburg is as important as the battle that took place there."
Yet, as countless historians and observers have written since forever, Dallas is a city more proud of its potential than its achievements. It's a city without time for nostalgia. Lon Tinkle put it best in his 1965 kiddie primer The Key to Dallas: "One streak runs like a common thread through all the people of Dallas: a love of brand-new things." Or, as Billy Porterfield wrote in an essay published in 1982 by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, "It is spitting in the wind to think that Dallas will preserve the buildings of its past...The idea of preservation is anathema to our expansive character."
And what was it Robert Johnson once sang? Oh, yes—"I'm standin' at the crossroad, babe, I believe I'm sinkin' down." Downtown Dallas is at the crossroad.
Exactly 20 years ago this month, Corgan Associates Architects initiated what would become known as "Downtown Dallas: 2010, Toward a Visual Master Plan to Guide Development." It was stashed and ignored long ago: Longtime Corgan veterans have forgotten all about the document; so too has DowntownDallas president John Crawford, among Mayor Tom Leppert's most trusted advisors when it comes to the state and fate of the city's center. It is Crawford who has brought into downtown a safety patrol and 24 extra police officers to enact its zero-tolerance policy concerning panhandlers and those who give them money. Enforcement goes hand-in-hand with enhancement, says Crawford. "That is the key."
Twenty years ago, he was among the bold-faced, high-priced names who worked on the 2010 plan during his tenure as chairman of the Greater Dallas Planning Council. Back then, downtown had begun its decline toward "visual chaos and unsightly signs, wires, and debris," as the study states. Grand old buildings were being toppled and replaced with parking lots, the downtown Foley's department store had just closed, the tunnels beneath downtown were sucking pedestrians off the streets and developers were greedily eyeing the northern suburbs—the promised land of "new potential," said the report.
Private and public landowners downtown and "a random selection of citizens" interviewed for the report all said the same thing: They wanted downtown "to become a place where people not only worked and attended sporting and cultural events, but a place where people lived, shopped and had fun. However, it is the current consensus that this kind of 'living city' will not develop by the year 2010 given the current trend of events."
But downtown has in fact become a living city in recent years; hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investments course through its veins. A ghost town not so long ago, it has its ever-increasing share of hotspots and highlights, among them the Hotel Joule (whose opening was feted by the likes of Martin Scorsese and the Jonas Brothers), Charlie Palmer's steakhouse, Hamilton Properties' handful of renovated residential properties and Forest City's recently opened Mercantile, into which the city has poured $63.5 million in tax abatements and incentives. DowntownDallas estimated in 2007 that more than 6,000 people lived in the central business district alone; it guesstimated that number will double come next year.
From 1971 to 1988, said the Corgan study, $9 billion in public and private money had gone into downtown—much of it in the form of office space, Crawford says. Neither he nor city officials can say precisely how much money's gone into downtown's rehab since then—suffice it to say, plenty, including the more than $17 million being planted in the Main Street Garden just across from the Mercantile and the Statler on downtown's east end.
Those enormous expenditures are precisely why the mayor and his downtown task force took up the issue of vacant buildings over the spring. By June 25, the council approved amending the City Code to deal with "unoccupied and unmonitored" vacant buildings in the city's central business district that have fallen "into a state of disrepair" to the point of becoming a "haven for criminal activity" and "a blight on the area." The point of amendment: "to protect the health, safety, morals, and welfare of the citizens of Dallas."
The amendment went into effect September 1, with heavy fines and penalties attached for those who did not comply by bringing their buildings up to code.
"It's not that magically, all of the sudden, someone looked up and saw an issue," says Mayor Leppert. "Burying our head in the sand wasn't and isn't the right way to deal with this issue...When cities allow decay to take place, it continues to spiral. The further the city goes downhill, the harder it is to bring it back."
Council member Angela Hunt, whose District 14 encompasses downtown, agrees with the mayor here—a rare thing. And, sure, she acknowledges now may not be the best time to go after building owners and demand they develop—not like they have the spare money to tune up their properties.
"We aren't asking them to create a Taj Mahal," she says. "We are just saying, 'Come on, guys, get them up to code.' I think safety-wise and health-wise it's perfectly reasonable."
Over the course of the summer, city staff identified the 36 buildings vacant and in need of caretaking. Of those, seven were singled out as the worst offenders. City attorney Tom Perkins says warning letters were sent to the owners; several of the owners say they never received them. On October 14, Leppert and Perkins and other Dallas officials stood before a makeshift podium set up in front of 1604 Main St. and spoke in stern tones of threats to the public's health and safety. Perkins said the city would use "every tool at our disposal" to deal with the buildings' owners, including litigation. Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief Eddie Burns warned that many of the buildings were so far gone that should they catch fire, his folks wouldn't risk life or limb to save them.
Today, the mayor says, "The further we got into those buildings, their problems were even more severe than I had anticipated."
Perkins and assistant city attorney Chris Bowers, who's leading the charge against code violators, will not say how many of the property owners have responded to the letters. They will acknowledge that not all were pleased with the warnings, and they also hint that litigation is imminent in more than one instance.
"Some have said, 'My building sat here for years without the city doing anything,'" Perkins says. "But the very fact you violated the law for years doesn't give you a pass on complying with the code. There are a lot of businesses that have invested heavily in downtown, and we are beginning to see the benefits of that investment. It's fair to those businesses and property owners who have invested in their buildings and in downtown to make everyone responsible for the health and safety of the citizens."
On the day the letters went out, Glazer's spokesman Pat O'Shea was furious with the city, claiming that two months earlier he received, out of nowhere, a call from a code enforcement officer who said he had a search warrant for the property.
"It was crazy," O'Shea said three months before being hospitalized, where he remains today, unable to speak further. "They swore before a judge they made every effort to contact us, and they hadn't. They said they sent a certified letter, and they most certainly did not. Then they called the office a day later to say they had a search warrant and that they could kick down the door if they had to. So I went down to let them in. And we're very much in compliance."
He said in October that the company had already spent $6,000 trying to bring the building up to code. Last week, Realtor Candace Rubin, who's been trying to sell the building for decades, insisted that number was closer to "a million dollars," which city officials don't believe, as the building's on the tax rolls for about one-third that amount. Rubin confirms the owners' desire to tear down the building, for which she's been unable to find a buyer because of the homeless camped on its doorstep. And because 508 Park Ave. sits inside a part of downtown with historic protection, she said last fall, buyers seeking to develop or demolish have stayed away. "The rights of the owner go to hell," she insists.
Not that there haven't been parties interested in the building. Six years ago, Larry Taylor seriously considered the space for his Texas! Music Center; newspaper stories were written proclaiming him the building's savior. But one of Taylor's partners in the museum venture says the Glazers wanted $20 million for 508 Park Ave., which is why Taylor took his project to Fair Park, where it also stalled. The old Brunswick building, says a colleague of Taylor's, "is useless." Why? "Location, location, location. It's literally and figuratively a dead end."
So, after 50 years of letting the building sit and wait and beg for attention, the Glazers now want to tear it down—because they consider it a dead end. Till June 2008, the city never once cited the building for code violations; now, after sinking thousands into a building that may never be occupied again, the Glazers are likely days away from being sued by the city. So, enough already.
"I think it's disgusting they want to tear it down, because I think Dallas needs to hang on to some aspect of its historic past as it relates to music of this period," says Dallas historian and author Alan Govenar, whose book Texas Blues was just published. "This was so critically important to the growth of Dallas culturally and so important to the growth of African-American music and the way it influenced American popular music."
Several interviewed for this story—including Bowers and downtown developer Larry Hamilton—acknowledge the "unintended consequences" that could result from the city's efforts to clean up downtown and remove what Leppert calls "the roadblocks of development." By that they mean the potential destruction of historic buildings—chief among them the Statler Hilton and 508 Park Ave. The Glazers will likely plead their case before the Landmark Commission in the spring if they continue to seek demolition.
But Bowers hopes it doesn't get that far. And he, perhaps as much as anyone, personifies Dallas' split personality. At the beginning of the 21st century, it was Bowers who kept the wrecking ball from so much as grazing Crozier Tech, whose California owners sued for the right to demolish Dallas' first high school while it was being considered for historic landmark designation (which it got in 2000, shortly before the suit was filed).
Bowers even secured a permanent injunction that allows for the city to inspect the building—which sits vacant despite being across the street from the DART station at Bryan and Pearl streets—but calls for the owners, 2218 Bryan Street, Ltd., to fix every reported violation within days. Bowers says he's made "roughly 40 calls" to the owners in the past six years, and each time the company has addressed his complaint. He refers to the injunction as a kind of "prototype" of the current vacant-building code—zero tolerance.
Bowers is also representing the city in its ongoing legal battle with TCI West End, which razed the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad depot in the West End Historic District in April 2006 without, the city maintains, a permit approved by the Landmark Commission, necessary for demolition of buildings in historic districts. The city wants either compensation or a new building, same as the old one; TCI claims it had the correct paperwork. Bowers just wants the thing to go to trial, which it was supposed to do in the summer of '07.
"But that's an example of where the city's gone to bat over a vacant historic structure," Bowers says. "The city's not anti-preservation."
So, why, then, does it appear that way to some preservationists and historians? No doubt, some of that has to do with cynicism born of decades' worth of watching history reduced to rubble, from the Gaston Building on Commerce and South Lamar streets (torn down in 1969; replaced by parking lot) to the Sanger Brothers Block (demolished in 1977) to the towering Southwestern Life Building at Main and Akard streets (demolished in 1972, turned into a parking lot).
Even now, every few months another Old Building by a Famous Dead Architect is being razed, often while no one's looking. The city has a way of making things disappear. And, after some brief bouts of outrage, the rubble is hauled off and the troubles buried beneath a parking lot. The preservationists are simply outnumbered in a city run by a newcomer mayor who recently ran one of the country's largest construction companies. Build, baby. Build.
"If we lose 508 Park Avenue, we're put in the position, once again, of having one more piece of the puzzle missing," says Govenar. "Cities that have thriving downtowns are able to strike the right balance between the public good and private interest. And that's where Dallas is having a problem."
Perhaps no building is more emblematic of that problem than the Statler Hilton Hotel on Commerce Street—or, as it was known till its closing a decade ago, the Grand, a name for which it barely qualified by the end. But upon its completion 53 years ago, architect William Tabler's sprawling structure was a swingin', shiny, fancy-schmancy state-of-the-art masterpiece—the prototype for every convention-center complex to follow for decades. Said the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year, "Its sheer size, bold form and innovative architectural features soon made it an icon of mid-20th-century design."
In May, the trust named the Statler as one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the country. Three months earlier, the Landmark Commission began proceedings to designate the hotel as a historic landmark with all of its attendant protections.
Come October, the city singled it out for a far more dubious honor—as one of the nastiest places in all of downtown. At the news conference, the mayor's chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, handed out CDs full of photos from inside the Statler—images in which baby pigeons were fouling sinks and bird-shit splatters decorated faded bedroom walls and loose wires dangled from damaged ceilings and mysterious stains fouled the tattered carpets. City officials spoke of human waste found in abandoned rooms, lower floors sinking because of collected water and of miles' worth of asbestos. Chief Burns said his firefighters wouldn't even go in the Statler, should it ever catch fire, without hazmat suits—if then.
The building sits smack between the Mercantile, the old Municipal Building that could one day serve as the University of North Texas law school, Main Street Garden and the former Atmos Complex, which Hamilton is planning to transform into a mixed-use residential-retail project in coming years. (The developer was recently given the property by Forest City, which eventually figured the mammoth Mercantile was all it could handle.) Hamilton says he'd like to see the Statler rehabbed; Leppert would too.
But the owners of the building claim it ain't that simple.
Hong Kong-based Hamsher International, which bought the building in the early 1990s, said in its 2000 financials sent to shareholders that it planned to spruce up the joint: "We have decided to undertake a complete and major renovation programme which will commence early next year. As the convention market in Dallas is expanding, we are confident the hotel will do well once renovated." Nine years later, though, and nothing.
Tom Keen, the Plano-based attorney representing Hamsher, says the owners would prefer to sell—absolutely, good riddance. He even claims it was under contract in October, when he too received the clean-yer-mess-up letter from an assistant city attorney. But the buyer backed off, he says, and a deal that was supposed to close by year's end disappeared. As a last resort, Keen says, Hamsher might let one of its "sister companies" develop it as a hotel. "But," he adds, "I don't even know if they want that. Our preference is to sell."
Rinse, lather, repeat: Interested developers, including Larry Hamilton, say Hamsher simply wants too much for the building, which is on the notoriously unreliable tax rolls for $3.5 million and needs at least that much to cover environmental remediation, developers and city officials say. (Oddly, the Dallas Central Appraisal District said in 2003 the building was worth almost twice its current valuation—and that was when downtown's east end was little more than an open-air toilet.) Some insist it's not only too far gone to merit redemption, but also too impractical to redo thanks to low ceilings made of concrete too thick to easily rip out without doing serious structural damage. And there's the fact that many folks just think the thing's a giant heap of antiquated ugly clogging up progress in that end of downtown.
Conspiracy theories abound that Leppert's been gunning for the Statler all along, that this whole clean-up effort is aimed at demolishing the building once and for all. He vehemently denies this, saying demolition's a "last resort," but something he'd rather not even address just yet.
Preservation Dallas executive director Katherine Seale just wants the building properly mothballed according to government standards till someone can do something with the behemoth. She too was at the October press conference, merely as a spectator, and says now she was "pretty surprised at the number of times the Statler was called out" by city officials. She agrees with Leppert: The building can't be allowed to fester any longer. But she agrees with Keen as well: The city needs to pony up some significant financial incentives. And Seale isn't above a little conspiracy theorizing herself. Maybe, just maybe, City Hall would like to see it gone, no longer a nuisance worshipped by those in awe of its faded mid-century splendor.
"There is a long-held misbelief that an empty lot is more desirable than a building in disrepair," Seale says. "It's clear the Statler is the No. 1 priority for the city on this list. They're not preservationists. The city [attorneys] are not used to seeing buildings in deplorable shape. But we've seen buildings in far worse shape in the city that have been revitalized, including the Dallas Power & Light building," which Larry Hamilton turned into apartments. "People treat historic buildings like they're so fragile. Trust me, they're not."
Keen says he's had no contact with anyone at the city outside of code enforcement and city attorneys; he insists folks from economic development don't return his calls, perhaps because they have nothing to offer him, since the Mercantile is first and last in line for revenues generated in the tax increment financing district in that part of downtown. As for historic-renovation tax incentives, it is a non-issue: The Statler sits inside the Downtown Connector TIF depleted by the Mercantile, and TIF-eligible projects can't get such tax breaks anyway.
So he and the city are playing a game of chicken. Keen says he's hired a contractor to begin the process of turning on the lights, but only so he can properly inspect the building and see what repairs it needs. "We're not necessarily taking the path the city is laying out for us," he says. Whether or not it's enough to stave off litigation remains to be seen, but Keen doubts it.
"The city has a heavy investment in the Mercantile and the park, and both of those things are good for downtown Dallas," he says. "But they gave all the money away. Now, they are holding a gun to our heads."
Soon enough, he—and the rest of the owners of downtown's vacant buildings—will find out whether the thing's actually loaded.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast
- Oak Lawn Protesters Pick Fight With Philip Kingston