Hard to know at present if The Dallas Morning News is really going to carry through on its announced plan to move to the George-Dahl-designed building that I remember lovingly from its years as the Dallas Public Library, and less lovingly as a major beacon of rat urine on hot summer days during its subsequent decades of vagrancy.
When the Dallas Observer was still at the east end of downtown, there were several empty hulks in that neighborhood that one needed to navigate wide around on the way to lunch or forget about eating. I preferred to think of the smell as coming from rats, but there was always some evidence of an even less attractive origin.
So it’s exciting and encouraging to see the things that are going on in that area now — massive restoration, street life and a much better aroma most of the time. When walking there I still keep a sharp eye out for people with a certain hurried and unbalanced gait, mainly so that I can keep out of their way, but that may only be habit on my part.
Downtown Dallas has been through a lot. There must have been a moment back in the bleak ghost-town days of the early 2000s when nobody could even have guessed it would come back as well as it has.
Before then, in the ’80s, downtown saw its crazy boomtown days, when people from Canada were tearing stuff down and throwing stuff up just to be doing it. And then even farther back, when I did research at the old Dallas Public Library, I remember a busy bustling downtown of a more human scale, with dive bars on the streets, Greek diners in the basements and everybody and his brother up and down the sidewalks.
I mention all of that, because I want you to give me some points for being a sentimental kind of a guy. Hey, Robert Wilonsky at The Dallas Morning News, who writes often and movingly about historic preservation, is not the only guy in town with a heart. I have a heart, too. If I had no heart at all, I would be dead. Right? I rest my case.
But I would also like to make another kind of observation about the Morning News’ plans to move to the old library, if and when that venerable and sadly urine-soaked structure does get spruced up sufficiently to serve what I suspect will be the News’ very sensitive requirements. I wrote about this a year ago.
Note, please, that the Morning News generally and Wilonsky in particular have not been beating the drum for the preservation of the paper’s current quarters, opened in 1949, six years before the old public library and designed by the same architect.
I queried the Morning News about any plans to seek “historic designation” for their property. CEO Jim Moroney wrote back: “Uncertain at this time. No decision has been made one way or the other.”
I also asked David Preziosi, executive director of Preservation Dallas, a private entity that champions historic preservation. He hadn’t heard any rumblings out there about anybody wanting to save the Morning News building, least of all from the Morning News itself.
“To my knowledge there has been no formal effort to get it landmarked through the [city of Dallas] Landmark Commission,” he said, “but I don’t know what is working behind the scenes.”
I don’t believe the Morning News will be seeking historic designation any time soon. And small wonder. Historic preservation laws — local, state and federal — are not very robust, but they can provide just enough resistance to make selling a property more difficult. Historic status can make even owning an old property problematic, let alone trying to get rid of it.
If you are some unlucky devil like Time-Warner Cable and Wilonsky discovers you own an abandoned rat-reeking wreck of a house that was “built some time during Chester A. Arthur’s presidency,” then you may decide to spare the place from the wrecking ball just to spare yourself from Wilonsky, whom I admire and respect.
In other words, historic designation is probably the last thing you would want for your old factory, which is what the Morning News building is, if you are trying to unload it.
Wait. I know what you think. You think I’m going to rag on the Morning News for not seeking historic status for their own current home, a 325,000-square-foot structure designed around the idiosyncratic environmentally unfriendly manufacturing process of large-scale offset printing.
No. That’s not where I’m headed at all. Nor am I going to call them hypocrites, exactly, for ragging on everybody else in town all the time to save their old buildings. The Dallas Morning News has done great work in that regard and nobody more energetically or emphatically than Wilonsky, who has lived in Dallas all his life, unlike me and a lot of other local practitioners of news.
All I would ever ask or dare to suggest would be a tiny tad of mercy and understanding for other owners of old crappy buildings who are fighting to get out from under them as if escaping the tomb. And maybe even a hint or suggestion that battles are being chosen carefully would be nice, not chosen simply for the joy and self-gratification of the battle itself, for the delicious opportunity to wag a long finger of sanctimony at someone else. What’s not good for the goose, after all, can’t be too great for the gander.
Let’s look at the Morning News building for a moment. First of all, the fact that it was designed by George Dahl probably recommends it for immediate demolition anyway. The News’ own distinguished architecture critic, the late David Dillon, wrote that Dahl, “remained a stylistic chameleon who produced works to suit the needs and tastes of his client.”
The website of the American Institute of Architecture’s Dallas branch measures Dahl chiefly by what he failed to be: “His work was unlike his contemporaries such as O’Neil Ford and Howard Meyer who developed their own styles. Dahl’s designs ranged from Renaissance Revival to Mid-Century Modern and everything in between.”
Look, I am no architecture guy. Mark Lamster, the News’ current architecture critic, would be the first to tell you that about me. But this is America. Right? So I can have an opinion. Therefore and in that vein I would describe the architecture of The Dallas Morning News building as Boring Mid-Century Bombast.
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If I were to go on about it a bit, speaking in the language of Preservationese, I might say:
The Dallas Morning News Building at 508 Young St. is a splendid exemplar of Boring Mid-Century Bombast in its fullest and fattest expression. In a perfect evocation of American regional post-war smugness, its thick lifeless wings sweep forward to a gigantic tombstone on the façade. Etched in enormous letters on this sterile space is the motto of the newspaper, “Build the news upon the rock of truth and righteousness conduct it always (no punctuation) upon the lines of fairness” and on and on, blah-blah-blah, like that. Perhaps no other building still standing in downtown Dallas better expresses the self-satisfaction, absence of self-examination and utterly derivative lack of originality of its time.
In other words, I don’t for a minute expect the Morning News to try to save its old building, and I don’t care if they do. If they can’t get a permanent buyer for a while, I’d be happy seeing a large flea market or a go-kart track on that acreage while they wait for a deal.
But in the meantime, what about this? The next time the Morning News starts getting an itchy preservation trigger finger, starts thinking about dragging some wretch over the coals because he won’t invest a king’s ransom to restore a mountain of sawdust and rat pee, what if the Morning News looked in the mirror one time — just one time — and asked itself a question: “Oh my God. Do I live in a mid-century glass house?”