Just Shoot Us

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

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!"

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."

Jackson's dream is for a kind of informal ambience, almost like a theme park built around the assassination but in a family-friendly fashion: "The whole plaza should be a point of destination for people. I'd like to see it be the kind of place maybe on a nice spring day after you go to the Sixth Floor, you'd go there and have a picnic."

One aspect of the heave-ho scheme doesn't seem to be getting a lot of public mention: Commissioner Jackson talked to me about the possibility of doubling the amount of underground public parking that is currently beneath the Kennedy Memorial.

That rang a certain bell.

If what we're really talking about here, even in part, is a massive public investment in parking, then the private development interests downtown probably are already pushing hard for it behind the scenes. In fact, underground parking is what earned Dallas a black eye in the first place.

Kennedy was murdered, after all, in 1963. The memorial wasn't completed until 1970. Critics of Dallas have often attributed the delay to the city's ambivalence toward the slain leader. But at least as significant was the desire of city leaders to squeeze some cash flow from the deal by putting in the underground parking that is now in place beneath the memorial. The proposed new expansion of that parking described by Jackson would extend beneath the adjacent block, where the log cabin that is not the real log cabin of the founder of the city now stands.

If the talk of moving the memorial is actually being driven by some kind of construction-related consideration involving parking, then count on it: The memorial will go. One distinct possibility is that somebody wants to kibosh Kennedy in order to build a new entrance and exit for the expanded garage.

Dallas lawyer John Schoellkopf, scion of a very old Dallas family who was a young newspaper executive back in the late 1960s, was in charge of the committee that finally got the memorial completed and dedicated in 1970. He told me a funny (now it's funny) story about the dedication ceremony:

He said civic leader Robert Cullum gave an eloquent and stirring speech about Kennedy, his murder, the city and the memorial. Then County Judge Lew Sterrett, who was pretty much a good ol' boy, got up and gave a quick little speech about what a good deal this memorial had turned out to be after all, because it provided more parking and gave the county an excuse to get rid of all the flophouses across the street.

"Boy, The New York Times the next day on the front page just gave Sterrett hell," Schoellkopf said. "They made the whole thing about his remarks, which were very short, and totally ignored everything else. The Times just killed us."

Yup. So 30 years later we want to keep our streak going?

Frank D. Welch, the revered Texas architect who is now in Dallas, published a book two years ago on Philip Johnson's work in Texas. I called him to see how he felt about the idea of sort of ooching the memorial over to one side to make way for a garage entrance and maybe some robotics. (I hate to admit that I'm such a sucker for that stuff, but I am. My only qualm would be that a picnic site with realistic robotics based on the assassination and the Ruby trial and so on might be disturbing to very young children.)

Welch was what we might call "unequivocal." He basically said the idea of messing with the memorial at all was outrageous, sacrilegious, tasteless and a whole big list of quite bad things like that. I didn't mention my ideas for the robotics to him.

He did say one thing that was sort of positive, I guess: He said it would be a real first.

"Where is there a precedent in the world for moving a memorial to a slain leader for urban design convenience?"

Long silence. I couldn't think of one. Can you?

"Where is that?" he asked. "Except in Dallas?"

Well, it's...you know...you have to think about the additional parking, and uh...no, good point, you're right, nowhere but here. We would be the centerpiece of an international debate on loutishness.  

Just put the bull's-eye on us. Dollar a shot. New York Times, first three shots free.

Do you think we could leave the memorial alone, out of respect, and just sort of have the robots running in and out of it?

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