How the Arts Are Transforming Dallas
Published: May 2009
By Tom Austin
It's still the urban embodiment of Lone Star swagger and style, but as Dallas entertains more and more international ambitions, will it continue to feel like Texas?
Dallas is texas at its most american, so rich in archetypes and stereotypes—oil tycoons, the grassy knoll, the Dallas Cowboys, Southfork—that it has become a psychic destination, hardwired into the national collective unconsciousness. This month Dallas embraces two of its most beloved icons. The downtown flagship store of Neiman Marcus, inviolable symbol of both the city and the American retail industry, is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a gala and a monthlong series of art-meets-fashion installations. A few miles away, everyone in the city, the fashion-aware and the fashion-oblivious, will muster in Fair Park for the 121-year-old State Fair of Texas—the biggest, of course, in the country. Three million fairgoers will gape at the 52-foot-tall mechanical cowboy Big Tex, catch a livestock show, cheer the Longhorns or the Sooners at the annual Texas vs. Oklahoma game, and eat ungodly fried food. Even the fanciest socialites in Dallas—ordinarily given to $90 tasting menus of neo-Southwestern fare amid the sleek splendors of the restaurant Stephan Pyles—rhapsodize about the abandonment to be found in fried Coke batter.
Dallas has a gift for entertaining two contradictory notions at once, such as its rowdy state fair and the delicately beautiful National Historic Landmark where it is held: Fair Park contains the largest collection of Art Deco exposition-style architecture in the country. The Dallas Opera, famed for having presented the United States debuts of Joan Sutherland and Plácido Domingo, stages its opening-night galas here in the Hall of State. A rococo riot of All-Hail-Texas iconography, with masterly WPA-era murals of happy cotton-pickers on the walls and mosaic armadillos scampering along the marble floors, the Hall of State inspires awe. It also proves that Dallas should be more like Texas, not less.
The high end of American life now being nearly as franchised as the low end, Dallas—which has the inevitable outpost of Nobu—is as threatened as any other American city whose singular character is being squashed by the careful good taste of corporate branding. On the other hand, Dallas believes in redemption through real estate: I. M. Pei's Dallas City Hall began in 1965 as a stab at civic rebirth, and Philip Johnson's John F. Kennedy Memorial is a luminous declaration of architecture's power. Design is built into Dallas's DNA, and it's once again making news. Along with the highly publicized $400 million–plus gift of art and money to the Dallas Museum of Art from an unusual consortium of local collectors, a staggering array of marquee designers is reimagining downtown. The Arts District alone, whose cornerstone is the DMA, will shortly have buildings by four Pritzker Prize–winning architects fronting one street: first was I. M. Pei's Meyerson Symphony Center; then came Renzo Piano's Nasher Sculpture Center; and 2009 will see the completion of Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster's contributions to the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. Santiago Calatrava—the ultimate architectural hired gun—is designing three epic bridges for the troubled Trinity River Corridor Project, which may finally give Dallas the kind of grand central public space that draws people to San Antonio and Austin. One span is 40 stories tall and intended to be the local equivalent of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, an outsize beacon for the reach of the New Dallas. As the city's current marketing slogan goes, Live large, think big.
For newcomers, the first glimpse of the skyline brings a jolt of the familiar, thanks to the TV brain slap of Dallas. The reproduction of the original jaunty Pegasus sign atop the Magnolia Hotel, the former headquarters of Magnolia Petroleum Company (later Mobil Oil), is ablaze in all its neon glory. And there's something wonderfully reassuring about the revolving geodesic dome crowning the 50-story Reunion Tower, a grand folly that can be seen from anywhere in the city; in the evenings, the dome is lit up like a radioactive sea anemone, a beautiful exuberance straight out of Las Vegas.
I immediately felt at home in Dallas. It made sense to me. Like Miami, where I grew up and still live, it's a brash, muscular, and immodest metropolis that believes in putting on a show—and exhibits all the usual insecurities of show people. It also chafes under the yoke of its civic clichés but doesn't quite know what would be left if they were all shaken off. My earlier experience of the city included a chance meeting in a raucous New Orleans dive many years ago. For no apparent reason, a petite middle-aged woman in a cowgirl hat suddenly jumped on top of a table and announced, "I'm from Dallas, Texas, and I'll kick the ass of any damn man in this bar."
That encounter proved to be a good introduction to an afternoon with now-ex Dallas mayor Laura Miller; before, by some miracle, winning the 2002 election as a Democrat in a longtime Republican stronghold, she had worked as a tough investigative columnist for the free alternative weekly Dallas Observer. As mayor, she was a polarizing force, always up for a good scrap in the contact sport of local politics, sparring with the media—which quickly descended on one of their own—as well as with the good-ol'-boy network in Dallas. "It was always the same six rich guys getting around me," she says. "Some women at City Hall actually kissed them when they walked in." She decided not to run for a third term—making way for the election of Tom Leppert, a Republican and the former chairman and CEO of the Turner Corporation, one of the largest construction companies in the world. Miller left office last summer with an idea for a juicy novel about her tenure.
Miller's custom tour begins, as everything seems to in Dallas, at fashion Lourdes, the original Neiman Marcus on Main Street. (Miller is a product of old and new Dallas: her father, Philip Miller, left Lord & Taylor in New York to become the president of Neiman Marcus in the late 1970's.) In the store's Zodiac Room—famously presided over in the 50's and 60's by the imposing Miss Helen Corbitt, Texas's first authoritative chef and cookbook author—the ladies who lunch still savor complimentary popovers with strawberry butter. And cocktails are still served on the ground floor, near the Epicure department. "Honey, this is Neiman's," the woman behind the counter says, "of course we've got liquor. We've got everything."
The invincibly charming store launched a corporate behemoth now controlled by the privately held Texas Pacific Group and Warburg Pincus LLC. But Neiman's opulent early history and the lifelong influence on the city of the late Stanley Marcus—an unofficial mayor who died in 2002 at the age of 97, long after pioneering integrated sales staffs, fighting the John Birch Society over John F. Kennedy's fateful visit, and teaching Hubert de Givenchy to square-dance—are indivisible from the story of Dallas.
In a way, Dallas was founded on retail, when John Neely Bryan imagined a trading post on the Trinity River in 1839 and returned two years later to map out a town. Over the ensuing decades, Dallas rode successive waves of money, much of it made after the 1930 discovery of the East Texas Oilfield, then the biggest on earth. Its wealth and central location made the city a capital of banking, insurance, and regional trade. (The cattle business always belonged to Fort Worth, despite the herd of 40 full-size brass longhorn steers and cowboys on Dallas's Pioneer Plaza—the city's nod to Tourists-'R'-Us Texas.)
A century after Neiman's pioneered Main Street, the thoroughfare and a few surrounding blocks have become the Main Street Initiative, a public and private development. It's an effort in sync with the American mantra of revitalized urban cores lousy with loft lifestyles and free-spending youth. Down the block is a new Adam D. Tihany–designed boutique hotel, Elan, and some beautiful old office buildings ripe for fresh ideas, such as the apartment building DP&L Flats, housed in the august 1932 headquarters of Dallas Power & Light, also home to Fuse Restaurant & Lounge. Miller envisions a downtown for people who, as she puts it, "don't like Dallas," referring to the kind of city where 1.2 million people are sprawled out over some 343 square miles.
Dallas does have the unfortunate American knack for creating an absence of place, a blur of strip malls and freeways that could exist anywhere. But it also has true neighborhood gems. Miller's driver takes us to the Bishop Arts District, a quaint little village that includes assorted antiques shops and the down-home-clever restaurant Hattie's, then over to the Oak Cliff neighborhoods of Kessler Park and Winnetka Heights—20 square blocks of Craftsman-style bungalows. The Bishop was restored in part by gay entrepreneurs; Dallas has the country's sixth-largest population of same-sex couples. The next evening, at the beyond-glitzy Black Tie Dinner in the Adam's Mark Hotel downtown—an annual gala that raises millions for gay and lesbian support organizations—I was greeted by a hearty round of applause. Miller was on stage with Geena Davis and Alan Cumming in a showbiz moment, rhapsodizing about taking me to the Bishop and the Black Tie Dinner, and showing me the real Dallas.
The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future, at Fair Park, is an institution that understands Dallas: despite all the cowboy-capitalism posturing, Dallas is a city run by women, an empire of estrogen. At the annual "Wine, Women, & Shoes" benefit auction, an I-am-woman-hear-me-roar army swarms through visual salutes to local icons Calamity Jane and think-pink cosmetics magnate Mary Kay Ash, then into the gift shop to buy T-shirts printed with well-behaved women rarely make history—a favorite item of the museum's director, Wanda Brice, a retired businesswoman who was on the powerful Citizens Council. Across town at the Latino Cultural Center, a graceful burst of color designed by the renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, Dolores Barzune, chair of the Friends of LCC, points to a series of commemorative plaques and dryly notes, "As you can see, I pretty much got money from anyone who would stand still long enough."
Women in Dallas work hard and shop hard; those from the Bubble—what the old guard call their insulated life in such North Dallas neighborhoods as Highland Park and Preston Hollow—joke that in the past the city didn't offer much else to do, so shopping came to be practiced with the ardor of devotional exercises. "These women love to shop, and they've shopped all over the world," says Brian Bolke, owner of the Uptown boutique Forty Five Ten. The fashionable go to salons that refuse to do big hair, and favor Bolke's store for doo.ri knits and Dallas designer Jan Barboglio's home furnishings. Dallas has more shopping centers per capita than any other U.S. city, including the oldest outdoor retail complex in the country—the 1931 Highland Park Village, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The most sacred mall is NorthPark Center, built in 1965 by the late Ray Nasher of the Nasher Sculpture Center in the Arts District and surely the only mall in America with a 48-foot-tall Mark di Suvero sculpture. Last fall Barneys New York relaunched here with a benefit for Big Thought, an arts education program, and Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts, cochaired by Catherine Marcus Rose, granddaughter of Stanley Marcus. ("As with all things wonderful, there are burdens that come with that," she says. To grow up as a Marcus in a town where women dress up to go to a 7-11 is to be always on display.) Catherine's sister-in-law, Lela Rose, daughter of Dallas Museum of Art patrons Deedie and Rusty Rose, took her local sensibility to New York and became a fashion designer. "In Dallas, I learned my sense of color, which has been very important to my work," she says. "Women here have their own style and never followed the fashions in the rest of the country."
Dallas apparently doesn't follow fashion in arts patronage, either, and the recent gift to the DMA of some 1,100 pieces of art is a good example of how quickly the destiny of the city is changing. Last spring saw the DMA's second installment of a two-part exhibition drawn from the donation, and many more shows are planned. The idea for the gift came when two couples—Marguerite and the late Robert Hoffman, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky—started talking on New Year's Eve 2004 and woke up in 2005 deciding to donate their art and all future purchases. They were joined by several other contemporary collectors, including Rusty and Deedie Rose, and long-time benefactor Margaret McDermott (the widow of the late Eugene McDermott, cofounder of Texas Instruments, she donated Monet's Water Lilies—The Clouds) and her daughter Mary Cook.
The breadth of art that was given—spanning work by such postwar masters as Joseph Beuys and Jasper Johns and the Rachofskys' sizable holdings in Arte Povera and Minimalist art—is remarkable, but what's really innovative is the cooperation between the museum and its benefactors. The Rachofskys even moved out of their Richard Meier–designed place and gave it to the museum as a satellite exhibition space—now called Rachofsky House and open by appointment to groups of 10 to 25.
It's not surprising that John R. Lane, the Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, would be in an expansive mood. Even when compared with the much-publicized gifts other American museums are enjoying lately, the DMA is on a roll. "The Dallas story is truly special and, in contemporary art, very significantly bigger and more institutionally transforming than any of the others."
Beyond the world of Dallas's high rollers—who are also raising millions for a controversial George W. Bush library and think tank at Southern Methodist University—there is another Dallas, the city that exists nowhere else in America, created by average citizens who've made their accommodations with the tricky semiotic scenery of their hometown. At the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff, a low-key crowd is framed by the 1940's genius of Charles Dilbeck's architecture, Spanish Mission–meets–Art Deco, with a fireplace in the lounge and a distant view of the skyline of Babylon. This is ground zero for Dallas cool, home to artists, musicians, and ordinary people who simply want to flee Dallas flash, such as the Belmont's owner, local developer Monte Anderson: "The Belmont was an old motor-court motel, perfect for a hangout that wasn't big and pretentious—Dallas already has plenty of those kinds of places."
In Deep Ellum, near Fair Park, funky little lounges play Tom Waits rather than the usual house music, and the club Double Wide toys with the trailer-trash dialectic, with rockabilly spinning inside and a cyclone-shaped sign installed on the roof—a blissful reprieve from America's homogenous hip. Brooklyn Jazz Café, in the Southside-on-Lamar area, is a popping bar and restaurant, much more ethnically mixed than the rest of Dallas, and a total delight. In the industrial goes loft-crazy environs of the Cedars area, Lee Harvey's—its name is the only reference to Lee Harvey Oswald—can be counted on for bourgeois bohemians and a jukebox that jumps from Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys to the Sex Pistols. Alycen Cuellar, a Dallas native, is the philosopher of the last-call gang: "The city has become so fake and fast, but this place and the Belmont are for down-to-earth, working people who remember the old Dallas."
The namesake of Lee Harvey's was critical to Dallas's most enduring historical event, and after a few days in town, it's easy to see why the city has inspired such dark literature from the likes of James Ellroy and Don DeLillo—Dallas feels wired up by the powerful, as if the fix were in and all bets were off. An average afternoon on the haunted grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza resembles what might have happened had the two novelists collaborated on a reality TV series: a motley trio of boys in Davy Crockett coonskin caps take in a conspiracy-theory nutcase, who is endlessly rewinding the Zapruder footage on a laptop screen ("See the entry points of the bullets?") and selling DVD versions of his own there-had-to-be-two-shooters documentary. Across the way, a street evangelist harangues tourists with "I was a sinner" as they gather around Big E, an Elvis impersonator thumping along with his band who takes the long view of life between numbers: "I'm just trying to make a living, hustling like everyone else in this town."
Next door, in the old Book Depository building, where Oswald was deemed by the Warren Commission to have crouched in a window and murdered the president, is the city's best museum. Since it opened in 1989, four million visitors have filed through the Sixth Floor Museum to witness the national legacies of the permanent collection, including the Zapruder camera and the FBI model of Dealey Plaza used by the commission. The museum also mounts exhibitions like "Warhol and Jackie," and the gift store carries paper dolls of Mrs. Kennedy in her pillbox-hat prime. Almost 44 years after the national tragedy that exposed the American underbelly, the Sixth Floor Museum is also a backdrop for white wine and conversation with the likes of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and ExxonMobil.
I left Dallas with the strong feeling that the city embodies the sheer appetite of America. That appetite is evident even in the spiritual realm. The Sunday morning service at the Potter's House, a 191,000-square-foot, 30,000-member-strong nondenominational church presided over by Bishop T. D. Jakes—who, though barely 50, has already made the cover of Time as one of "The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America"—is an experience that grants the benediction of hope. Dallas, like just about every big city in the United States, has had a rocky history with race relations, but the sermons of Bishop Jakes—which encompass tough love, self-help homilies, imitations of his friend Oprah Winfrey, and great oratorical riffs on God's infinite blessings played out on enormous video screens—attract a stupendously diverse crowd ranging from old African American church ladies in complicated hats to white working-class families to bewildered European students looking for the real America. A sense of the infinite, of the American faith in life's possibilities, infuses every moment at Potter's church. The congregation suggests yet another Dallas story, still unfolding. And, if you believe the bishop, "The bigger the story, the better the story."
Tom Austin is a T+L contributing editor.
When To Go With warm days and mild nights, October sees some of the city's best weather and the revving up of the cultural season.
Where To Stay
Great Value: Belmont Hotel 901 N. Fort Worth Ave.; 214/393-2300; belmontdallas.com; doubles from $139.
Hotel ZaZa An uptown boutique hotel with a groovy vibe, thanks to beanbag chairs and shag carpeting. 2332 Leonard St.; 214/468-8399; hotelzaza.com; doubles from $349.
Kimpton Palomar Hotel Opened last year in North Dallas, it has the colorful whimsy typical of Kimpton hotels. 5300 Mockingbird Lane; 214/520-7969; kimptonhotels.com; doubles from $319.
Mansion on Turtle Creek Dallas's grande dame is now getting a $20 million redo. It's also where society has lunch. 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd.; 888/767-3966 or 214/559-2100; mansiononturtlecreek.com; doubles from $550; lunch for two $80.
Ritz-Carlton Robert Stern designed this brand-new 218-room hotel. Don't miss Southwestern-cuisine guru Dean Fearing's restaurant. 2121 McKinney Ave.; 800/241-3333; ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $329; dinner for two $110.
W Dallas-Victory Has a lobby anchored by a huge mobile of dangling toy cowboys, and its very own Ghostbar. 2440 Victory Park Lane; 877/946-8357 or 214/397-4100; starwoodhotels.com; doubles from $309.
Where To Eat and Drink
Brooklyn Jazz Café 1701 S. Lamar; 214/428-0025; dinner for two $60.
Double Wide 3510 Commerce St.; 214/887-6510.
Fuse Restaurant & Lounge 1512 Commerce St.; 214/742-3873; dinner for two $88.
Hattie's 418 N. Bishop Ave.; 214/942-7400; dinner for two $65.
Lee Harvey's 1807 Gould St.; 214/428-1555; dinner for two $25.
Local Try the panko-encrusted sea bass at this sophisticated local favorite in Deep Ellum. 2936 Elm St.; 214/752-7500; dinner for two $100.
Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse The 1958 mother ship of the barbecue chain, with old school desks for seating. 2202 Inwood Rd.; 214/357-7120; lunch for two $16.
Stephan Pyles 1807 Ross Ave.; 214/580-7000; dinner for two $100.
What To Do
Dallas Museum of Art 1717 N. Harwood; 214/922-1200; dallas museumofart.org.
Dallas Opera The 50th season opens in November with a concert and gala featuring Renée Fleming. 214/443-1000; dallasopera.org.
Latino Cultural Center 2600 Live Oak; 214/671-0049; dallasculture.org/latinocc.
Nasher Sculpture Center A cathedral of light with a garden full of live oaks, art, and order. 2001 Flora St.; 214/242-5100; nashersculpturecenter.org.
Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza 411 Elm St.; 214/747-6660; jfk.org.
State Fair of Texas Fair Park; 214/670-8400; bigtex.com.
Women's Museum 3800 Parry Ave., Fair Park; 214/915-0860; thewomensmuseum.org.
Where To Shop
Forty Five Ten 4510 McKinney Ave.; 214/559-4510; fortyfiveten.com.
Highland Park Village 5300 Preston Rd.; 214/559-2740.
Neiman Marcus 1618 Main St., 214/741-6911; 400 NorthPark Center, 8687 N. Central Expwy., 214/363-8311; neimanmarcus.com.
NorthPark Center November brings Fashion at the Park, a four-day event of 18 runway shows. Tickets from $25. 8687 N. Central Expwy.; 214/363-7441; northparkcenter.com.
Stanley Korshak One of the chicest boutiques in Dallas. 500 Crescent Court; 214/871-3610.