Reinventing Dealey Plaza by Mark Lamster, Stoss, and MPdL Studio in The Architect's Newspaper

Reinventing Dealey Plaza: Mark Lamster, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and MPdL Studio offer a new public terrain for downtown Dallas that addresses its violent past. The Architect's Newspaper, Jun. 28, 2023.

Settled in 1841 by Tennessee-born trader John Neely Bryan, who opened a general store, post office, and ferry on the banks of the Trinity River, Dallas is now a major destination within Texas and the country at large. Yet like many cities, traces of a violent past remain underacknowledged in its terrain.

In July 1860, a fire destroyed the city’s business district. At the time Dallas was a town of fewer than 700 people, including 97 African Americans. The fire, occurring not long before the outbreak of the Civil War, sparked accusations of arson against abolitionist and Black leaders, culminating in the lynching of three Black men.

A widely circulated 1910 postcard picturing a massive crowd of whites lynching a Black man at the center of Dallas offers another window into its hidden history of racial terror. In 1963, the city dedicated Martyrs Park to the victims, but the site remains isolated from pedestrian access beneath the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad yards—the so-called Triple Underpass—with an uncomfortably narrow and dark walkway before Elm Street emerges and descends to the river.

This history is overshadowed by another incident of violence: Dealey Plaza is just on the other side of the Triple Underpass. Many Americans know it as the site of one of the country’s most shocking and calamitous events: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—a figure of enormous hope and aspiration for a generation of young people—as his motorcade drove through Dallas on November 22, 1963, the streets lined by throngs of supporters. The event, captured on film by an amateur photographer, was followed by an uncanny series of improbable incidents, among them the killing of the oddball assassin by an equally oddball nightclub owner—also photographed in the act. The graphic and incongruous official account of events spawned innumerable government investigations, conspiracy theories, Hollywood movies, and deathbed confessions.

Dealey Plaza became a place of shame and embarrassment for Dallas’s elected officials, who tried to ignore it, placing only an informational plaque at the site until, in 1970, the city commissioned Philip Johnson to design a memorial several blocks away. The unfortunate result is a grim, Brutalist artifact. Work proceeded slowly to fully and properly tell the story of the event. In 1989, the Dallas County Historical Foundation dedicated a museum to commemorate the assassination, the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, located inside the Texas School Book Depository building from which the assassin fired the fatal shots.

In the meantime, Dealey Plaza attracted hucksters and conspiracy theorists, who regularly marked the locations where bullets were found with spray-painted x’s on the pavement. Rather than taking the situation as an excuse for grandstanding and the reprimand of city leaders, Mark Lamster, architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News, decried the sad state of this part of downtown. “It is a deplorable state of affairs,” he wrote last October, “but also a great opportunity; a chance to transform this site into a space of civic memory and understanding that embraces the past and points to the future.”

As Lamster wrote in his article last year presenting the concept, Dealey Plaza has become “perilous to navigate, marked by tawdry vandalism and utterly inadequate to both its historical gravity and to the functional demands of the city.” Its pedestrianization would be a fitting way to honor the place, an imperative for the safety of visitors, and an opportunity for Dallas, he argued.

“I think our first and most significant move was to shut down Elm Street, one of the three roads that are moving through [Dealey Plaza],” Lamster told AN. “That’s the road that Kennedy was shot on. And just to say, we will no longer have traffic on this road, that having moving vehicles going quite fast over the site was not appropriate. Shutting that down, making it a pedestrian space—making it a safe space—was really important.”

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