From Hard Rock to Rubble, Most Likely

Well, you'd best get ready to say your goodbyes to the old Hard Rock Cafe, because it's most likely coming down after all. Just two hours ago, the Landmark Commission voted during its monthly City Hall meeting 7-4 against initiating proceedings that might have granted the building landmark designation, which severely curtails any changes an owner can make to a structure. In the end, seven commissioners believed that so many alterations had been made to the building, which was originally constructed some 97 years ago as the McKinney Avenue Baptist Church, that it lacked whatever importance it might have had decades ago. That means Brett Landes, a former principal in Staubach Capital Partners, which Landes co-founded, will indeed buy the property from the Hard Rock. The sale's expected to close some time next week -- and, after that, it appears he will indeed tear it down.

That news, which contradicts what Landes' representatives said earlier, comes courtesy Michael Pumphrey, Dallas' chief planner for preservation. During his presentation to the commission, Pumphrey said that he had talked to Landes, who told him that the building, as it stands now, "does not meet his business plan" and that Landes would "most probably be taking down this building." Hard Rock's attorney, Eric Moye, tells UnfairPark he doesn't know what Landes' plans are for the building, only that he's "delighted" with the commission's decision not to designate the property. Neighborhood residents who wanted to protect the building don't share Moye's enthusiasm.

Speaking of contradictions, it was revealed during the Landmark Commission's meeting this afternoon that the city staff had actually changed its opinion about the building's historical worth. Just last week, city staffers had recommended designation because the building met at least five of the 10 criteria for designation, including "History, heritage and culture"; "Architect or master builder"; "Unique visual feature"; "Historic education"; and "Significant persons." But Pumphrey told the commission that the staff is now "only comfortable with one criteria -- the visual presence in the neighborhood." Unfair Park learned that sometime between Friday and this morning, staff decided not to recommend designation. Indeed, the change was made so recently that the printed agenda for today's meeting said the designation committee recommended landmark designation. In the end, though, staff decided against it.

Interestingly, no one on the Landmark Commission pressed Pumphrey for a reason as to why city staff changed its mind. The closest anyone came was when Michael Northrup, Angela Hunt's appointee to the commission, said he believed that "a political decision is being made and imposed on this body." He was among the four who wanted to initiate designation proceedings, if only to give the commission more time to find out if the building did indeed have any real historic value. (Hunt's been very vocal about her desire to see the building designated.) Pumphrey didn't take kindly to the charge: "Staff is not a political body," he said, shortly before the vote was taken.

During the proceedings, there was some mention of the man who oversaw construction of the church: the Reverend J. Frank Norris, who, as we described here last week, had close ties to the Ku Klux Klan and was an avowed anti-Catholic, among his many intolerant beliefs. And supporters of designation tried to distance from the church's connection to Norris by mentioning several other sort-of prominent locals who had ties to the McKinney Avenue Baptist church, among them Jude L. H. Fitzhugh (for whom the street is named), Homer Fisher (Dallas' first Fire Marshall) and others.

But in the end, their having belonged to the church didn't sway the seven members, who believed too much had been done to the church in the last several decades for it to be classified as a historic icon. After all, it stopped being a church decades ago, and its best known feature -- a gold dome -- was removed in the 1930s and destroyed in a fire decades after that. And the thing is covered in several layers of stucco -- three, it's been said -- and it's unlikely the outer layer could even be removed at this late date. More likely, it would have to be covered again -- further burying the building's historical skeleton beneath layers of modern-day muck.

Perhaps in the end, this wasn't a good building over which to wage a preservationists' war: For every good case to be made for designating the building (its architect, say, or its mere presence on McKinney Avenue) there was an equally compelling case made for its not being designated (chief among them, it barely resembles the old McKinney Avenue Baptist Church). Even folks in the neighborhood who pushed for designation are resigned to its fate: "What can you do?" says Friend of Unfair Park John McKee, who instigated these proceedings and has always made the case that "you cannot build history." No, but you can tear it down. --Robert Wilonsky