Fair Park’s landmark Hall of State is crumbling, but Dallas architects’ plan to save it just might work
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles by critic Mark Lamster as the city of Dallas wrestles with the architectural, financial and bureaucratic hurdles of restoring Fair Park’s Hall of State. The intention is to provide a window into the complex factors driving this critical project, and to demonstrate that works of architecture, which can seem like static objects, are in fact always evolving.
Paint is peeling, once-pristine surfaces are chipped and broken, the facades are blackened with decades of accumulated dirt and grime, one of its exquisite exhibition wings has been requisitioned for storage, and the whole thing leaks like a rusty submarine. So begins, and just begins, a catalog of the ills and indignities facing the Hall of State, the crown jewel of Fair Park, a building of such exceptional quality that even in its decrepitude it retains a unique majesty.
There is no architectural experience quite like the entry into the magnificent Great Hall of Texas, with its floors of marble, mosaics of local flora and fauna, vault-like steel doors opening to a shaded (but now shuttered) terrace, murals depicting the state’s history, and pillars bundled into massive shafts, all culminated at its far end by an immense Lone Star of Texas in shining gold.
So awe-inspiring was the building when it first opened that this paper reported visitors instinctively removing their hats and lowering their voices upon entering, “as if they are within the walls of a great cathedral.”
They still do.
Along with the Alamo in San Antonio and the Capitol in Austin, the Hall of State must be counted as one of the three defining symbolic works of Texas architecture — four if you want to count Houston’s Astrodome.
Yet even as the building, the centerpiece of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, is a monument to the entire state, it is the sole responsibility of the city of Dallas to maintain it. To that end, the city’s most recent bond measure dedicated $14.41 million to the repair and restoration of the hall.
It is a considerable sum, but it is far from enough, barely half the amount necessary to repair the building and restore it to its full and resounding glory. This has left a restoration team, already facing the daunting challenge of fixing a leaky, aging monument, with a dizzying series of Sophie’s Choice decisions as to what can and should be prioritized.
To suggest that the city has completely neglected the Hall of State is not entirely accurate. Periodic attention has been paid to its travails, most recently in 2006, when it was recipient of $5.6 million in bond funding for emergency repairs.
That money was spent principally on fire protection, in particular the installation of an early warning system that senses smoke ionization before traditional detectors. This was urgent, but it didn’t have much impact on the building’s general deterioration or appearance. “No one has seen the result of any of this work,” says Willis Winters, the director of the city’s Park and Recreation department.
A 1970 view of the Hall of State at Fair Park in Dallas, from the State Fair of Texas archive, with the Texas flag flying. Originally called the State of Texas building, the Hall of State debuted in 1936.(State Fair of Texas)
It is his department that is driving the restoration, but management of the building is divided. The Office of Cultural Affairs is responsible for the artworks — the murals and sculptures — that are an essential part of the building. The Historical Society, the building’s long-term tenant, has its own needs and prerogatives. Preservation groups are also engaged in the process.
Willis Winters, director of Dallas Parks and Recreation, and Marcel Quimby of Gensler architecture firm talk about the original polish on a door inside the historic Hall of State building on March 1, 2019.(Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
That is a good number of interested parties, and the job of negotiating them belongs to Brian Nicodemus, project manager for the architecture firm Gensler, which has been contracted by the city to lead the restoration. “Everyone cares about this building, and when you get that, opinions are strong, and you have to get a solution that everyone can be comfortable with,” he says.
Veletta Lill, the Historical Society’s straight-shooting new president, made the essential point at a recent meeting of the restoration team: “We’re all the owners. We’re all citizens of Dallas.”
‘Breathing the Spirit of Texas’
The building’s sorry condition is a product of its decidedly strange history, dating all the way back to its inception in 1934. That’s when Dallas secured the right to host the fair, beating out bids from Houston and San Antonio. In the Depression’s grip, the economic boost the fair promised was a significant prize. Dallas won in a slick backroom maneuver, promising third-place San Antonio it would back an Alamo-themed exposition in exchange for its support.
As the centerpiece of the fair, the hall was given a substantial budget: $1 million for the building and an additional $200,000 for furnishings, art and exhibits.
Design of the hall, and oversight of the rest of the fair buildings, was placed under the auspices of a dedicated 12-man architectural staff led by George Dahl, who had been a consultant to the organizers during the bid process. Dahl was young for an architect, just 40, but he had proven himself with a pair of major downtown commissions, the Neiman Marcus and Titche-Goettinger department stores. He would be assisted in developing a master plan by Paul Cret, the distinguished Philadelphia architect who had planned the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
Dahl’s initial impulse was not, in fact, toward the moderne or art deco style that would define the hall and the other principal buildings on the Esplanade of State. Nor would it favor the grand beaux-arts style of Chicago’s 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition, the so-called White City. Instead, the Dallas fair would be defined by a combination of “early American and Spanish” style buildings “breathing the spirit of Texas.”
That direction was quickly reversed, and on June 16, Dahl presented the plan for the Hall of State, now in the moderne style. It was to be a hemispherical building fronted by 50-foot columns, with a pair of L-shaped wings projecting forward at its sides, the whole thing stretching for some 450 feet.
The plan was approved by the fair’s steering committee and also by the State Board of Control, the final authority on the matter.
But one group was decidedly not pleased, and it was composed of nearly every other prominent architect in Dallas. Their issue was not so much with the design itself, although they claimed it would exceed the budget, but with being shut out of the design process by Dahl and his in-house team. In a letter of protest, they wrote that they “were entitled to share in the responsibilities and honor of contributing” and that their participation was “necessary as a means of accomplishing the planning in a very limited time.”
That last bit was dubious; a redesign with a new team would be a setback to a schedule that was already unrealistic. But it didn’t matter. The group, incorporated as Texas Centennial Architects, had enough political clout to force Dahl’s hand.
Architectural plan and elevation views of what we now call the Hall of State, labeled here as the State of Texas Building, dated 1935. The building was erected for the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. In the floorplan view, the Hall of 1936 is at far right, the Hall of 1836 is at far left, and the Great Hall of Texas is at top.(State of Texas)
But this didn’t quite solve the problem of design authorship. The protesting architects were stuck with the job of designing the building themselves, and that was a political nightmare of its own. By November of 1935, they still didn’t have an acceptable plan. The solution: bring in a capable but junior outsider to take command of the design team. They landed on Donald Barthelme, a rising Houston architect who had studied with Cret at the University of Pennsylvania.
He was only 29, but he was a gifted designer, and perhaps more importantly, a disciplined man with a manner that brooked zero fools.
His first order of business was to remake Dahl’s design. Keeping its essential character, he compressed the hemispherical front into a U, and pulled out Dahl’s two L-shaped wings into long, straight lines. He then added another wing to extend back directly behind the entry to accommodate the Hall of Texas and, beneath it, an auditorium. When seen from above, the whole formed the shape of a T, which seemed appropriate.
Even as Barthelme and his team were completing the design, contractors were laying the foundation and putting up the building’s steel frame. With the fair scheduled to open on June 6, 1936, contractors began working round-the-clock on eight-hour shifts, but even still it was hopeless.
The State of Texas building, now known as the Hall of State building, under construction for the Texas Centennial Exposition at Fair Park. The photographer is J. Elmore Hudson, who was a draftsman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and helped build/survey the Fair Park between 1935-1937 for the Centennial celebration. (J. Elmore Hudson)
The Centennial opened to the public on time, but the Hall of State, its crowning glory, was still under construction, and would be for another three months. And just when it was coming down the home stretch, an overworked and underpaid workforce went on a weeklong strike.
It was not until Sept. 4, 1936 that the first visitor, a 79-year-old banker from San Antonio, walked under sculptor Allie Tennant’s Tejas Warrior and through its doors, with their bronze screens of sculpted longhorns, horse heads, snakes, oil derricks, saw blades and other Texas-themed details.
For all the delays, the building, bright white in the hot Texas sun, was immediately celebrated as a masterstroke. “This is a superb architectural monument to the past and present greatness of Texas,” The Dallas Morning News proclaimed on its front page. So impressed was the paper that it held a contest among its writers as to who could best extol the building’s virtues — its exquisite Texas materials, its stirring scale, its majestic design — and then ran the winners in the paper, one a day, for a week after the opening.
A coded message
There was another group that was pleased: The Texas Centennial Architects, the group of Dallas architecture power brokers who had commandeered the commission. With the job done, they were very pleased to take credit for the work. “Every member of the association feels that the completed building is the fulfillment of his aims,” said their representative, Walter C. Sharp, partner of Hal Thomson, the city’s pre-eminent residential architect.
The Centennial Architects were happy to divide credit among themselves for their singular achievement, with one significant exception: Barthelme, the architect who had actually supervised the work. Nowhere did the Centennial Architects mention his name. He was an out-of-towner and a subordinate late to the party, and with no political clout. But Barthelme was savvy enough to read this writing on the wall.
He answered with actual writing on the wall. On the decorative frieze that ran along the façade of the building were the names of Texas heroes: Burleson, Archer, Rusk, Travis, Hogg, Ellis, Lamar, Milam, and so on. When you put the first letters of that first group of names together they spelled BARTHELM.
He ran out of appropriately named Texas legends before he could get the last E, but it was close enough. Barthelme, anyway, passed on a taste for wordplay to his three sons, Donald Jr., Frederick, and Stephen, all of whom became noted writers.
A 1952 view of the front facade of the Hall of State at Fair Park in Dallas, from the State Fair of Texas archive, highlights the names of the notable Texans along the top of the building.(State Fair of Texas)
Those names are still up there, though the façade no longer gleams as it did when it was new. To a large extent, the building’s deterioration is the inevitable product of its longevity. Anything left out in the harsh Texas elements for 80-odd years is going to show some wear and tear.
But there are problems for which the weather is not to blame. A good example: the pair of fountains that sit on either side of the entry plaza. In the rush of construction, they were built without any accommodation for drainage, meaning water would just sit there getting rank until it was pumped or bailed out by hand. That being an inconvenience, the fountains have become planters.
Around back, on the southern wing of the building, there is another sign of the past, although it is unmarked: a nondescript rusted door down a few crumbling steps. Today it is inoperable, and behind it is office space of the building’s tenant, the Dallas Historical Society. But when the fair opened, it was the “colored” bathroom. Blacks and whites had separate facilities in the building, as they did throughout the fair.
The process of deciding what will and will not be a part of the restoration plan is guided by an Excel spreadsheet that lists every possible option, along with its estimated cost. This is known as the Priority Matrix.
But even the top priorities are going to be tough. According to Stefan Kesler, the City of Dallas architect who is the keeper of the matrix, the Priority 1 items alone are $1.5 million beyond the budget, with Priority 2 items $4.5 million more.
The most significant challenge facing the restoration is keeping water out of the building. The hall is at one of the lowest points on the entire Fair Park campus, which is plagued by poor drainage. When storm sewers fill up, the park floods, and when the park floods, the water ends up in the auditorium of the Hall of State. At times it’s as much as a foot deep. This problem is exacerbated by the extent of concrete across the park, another reason to cut back the vast amount of surface parking.
But removing parking is beyond the purview of the restoration. Instead, the landscape engineering firm Pacheco Koch has developed a three-part plan to keep water out of the building. This entails replacing the on-site drainage system with one designed for a higher capacity; creating a retention swale to the rear of the building, a kind of artificial bathtub that will store water at a lower elevation than the hall, so it doesn’t all run into the auditorium; and creating a separate storage system with sump pumps in case of emergency.
Refurbished theater seats sit in the Margaret & Al Hill Lecture Hall at the historic Hall of State building. (Ashley Landis / Staff Photographer)
One danger is that the priority matrix might easily turn this three-part plan into a one-part plan. That would be a problem. “They’re all essential because they act in unison,” says Pacheco Koch’s Kevin Minkler. “Each solution plays its part in a comprehensive plan for the site. We know there’s a budget, but if you take out one piece, you’re limiting what the other pieces can do.”
Just as water comes in from the ground, it also falls from overhead. Leaky and humid heating and air-conditioning ducts above the Hall of Heroes have left visible damage in the plaster ceiling. Repairing that is a Priority 1 item.
So is the cleaning of the façade, but just how much of it, and how clean it can be, is yet to be determined. A full face-lift could cost upward of $10 million alone.
One non-negotiable imperative is to improve the building’s compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Right now, access is through a rear door, which is not acceptable. But running a ramp right up the central plaza is a nonstarter; that would require a dangerously steep rake, and it would disrupt the symmetrical design.
That problem was left to Marcel Quimby, a preservation architect at Gensler, and the default guardian of the building’s integrity. The solution, which must be approved by the State Historical Commission, cleverly places the ramp along the front of the northern wing of the building, where it will be tucked behind a newly built retaining wall fronted by hedges. To the observer, it will be hard to detect any change at all.
No matter how Nicodemus and his team fill out the matrix, their choices are still far from certain: they face a series of bureaucratic hurdles, and only then will be put out to contract, where the marketplace will decide whether the cost estimates the team has projected are overly ambitious or leave room for lower priority items.
“I’m hoping that people want this work and we get competitive bids,” says Nicodemus.
It is an uncomfortable reality. The magnificent hall, once and still the pride of Texas, now depends on the kindness of strangers.
Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of The Dallas Morning News, a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture.