Ten Things to See in Downtown Dallas

Downtown Dallas

Dallas has been criticized for not having much of a downtown. I’m not sure that was ever entirely true, but these days it’s clear that Downtown Dallas is getting better, and fast. Large office towers are being converted to apartments and condominiums, galleries are filling empty storefronts and there’s both a grocery store and a farmer’s market. For the purposes of this article, please don’t write and say “but that’s not technically in downtown.” We’re looking at downtown as a place to live and the choices here are accessible to downtown residents.

Thanksgiving Square
Planned as the first of several traffic-relieving complexes in downtown Dallas, this small urban park and chapel opened in 1976 and represented the first public-private partnership (Thanks-Giving Foundation) of its kind in Dallas. It was designed by architect Philip Johnson to promote the concept of giving thanks as a universal human value. Amidst lawn and waterfalls, the most prominent feature is the chapel, which has spiraling, horizontally mounted colored glass windows designed by Gabriel Loire. The square covers up a series of pedestrian tunnels and a truck terminal. By placing truck traffic below-grade, it was estimated that 350 trucks per day would be removed from ground-level streets. Many dog owners in downtown high-rises seem to use the patch of lawn for canine necessities.

Arts District
The theater district has been criticized for its lack of “third-places.” This criticism is justifiable (and there may be opportunity for improvement), but when you understand the concept, it becomes somewhat apparent “why.” Imagine yourself in a museum with a collection of buildings by the great architects of the world. That’s what the theater district in Dallas aims to be. The buildings include the Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, the the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center by I.M. Pei, the Dallas Museum of Art by Edward Larrabee Barnes, The Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House by Spencer de Grey and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre by Rem Koolhaas. We still think there’s room for a coffee shop and additional restaurants. The food trucks often present on the site help.

Dallas City Hall
While we’re on the subject of famous architects, here’s another building in downtown Dallas by I.M. Pei. It’s not the most pedestrian-friendly building in Dallas. The large swath of concrete at the approach traps Dallas heat and makes the trip to the building feel daunting and the city government unapproachable. Completed in 1978, the building is the city’s fifth city hall. It also stands as the symbol of a top-heavy municipal structure. The inverted pyramid design is a result of space requirements of city government, which minimize areas for citizen services and maximize administrative offices. The building and the plaza are still something to see, and there is some modernist charm in the design and sculpture surrounding the building.

Klyde Warren Park, DallasKlyde Warren Park
Back to the Arts District…. The Park makes use of a space above a highway that divides the Arts District from Uptown. Still under construction, the five-acre park sits at the base of a new residential complex known as Museum Tower. The Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation Board announced recently that this new public green space in downtown Dallas will officially become Klyde Warren Park, named after the nine-year-old son of Kelcy Warren, a Dallas-based energy executive. The park is expected to be complete in fall 2012.

Dallas Farmer’s Market
Downtown residents have access to fresh produce, as well as an array of prepared food and a garden center, all just outside the city center. The market has been in operation for six decades and has a mission of providing the organization and facilities that connect communities to local farmers, producers, artisans, and other vendors. It is one of the largest public markets of its type in the country and open seven days a week, 362 days a year. Farmers travel from as many as 150 miles to sell at the market, providing downtown residents a genuine opportunity to buy locally.

McKinney Avenue Streetcar
It’s one thing that Dallas can boast the oldest operating streetcar in the United States, but it’s also comforting to know the system is being expanded, and rather aggressively. Just a few months ago a new turnabout opened in Uptown, providing a connection for DART light-rail commuters and an opportunity to use single-ended cars on the system of historic vehicles. More recently I noticed construction had begun on a loop downtown that will take the cars into the theater district. It would be great to see these cars come back to Cedar Springs Road, into Deep Ellum and other neighborhoods that have gonetoo long without the clang and convenience streetcars provide.

Adolphus Hotel
It’s one of the country’s great hotels, and one that still retains the cachet it had back in the day. I recently noticed a vinyl record on eBay of Joe Reichman and his Hotel Adolphus Orchestra (it’s a great album with an unfortunate name). Have you seen the new ABC show CGB? I expect to see an episode featuring the hotel at some point. The Adolphus was opened on 5 October 1912, built by the founder of the Anheuser-Busch company, Adolphus Busch. In the 1930s, the Adolphus played host to many other big band musicians, including Glenn Miller, and has hosted presidents including Warren G. Harding, who died at one of the country’s other great hotels. It was the tallest building in Dallas from 1912-1923.

Union Station
Dallas is one of the fortunate cities in the United States that still has a grand train station. Although there isn’t a grand space inside used for travelers, today the station provides connections for light-rail, the TRE and Amtrak. The second floor contains the restored Grand Hall and several meeting rooms named after railroads that previously serviced Dallas.

The Sixth Floor Museum/Texas School Book Depository
This is what most people want to see when they visit Dallas. I am not sure there is much to see other than “where it happened.” Most people comment the “grassy Knoll” is smaller than they imagined. The spot where the presidential limousine was located at the time of the shooting is approximately marked with an X on the street.

Dallas is known as a city of business, and Texas for its oil, and so it is somehow appropriate that Pegasus, the Mobile Oil logo (Magnolia Petroleum Company) is the symbol most recognized as representing Dallas. Today the hotel serves as the Magnolia Hotel. The sign is not original. It was re-created in 1999. The original is stored at the Dallas Farmer’s Market.

Text and photos by Eric Miller

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me