By Norman Alston, FAIA
Among the long list of important items on the ballot for November is the one known as Proposition A. This proposition, if passed, will authorize the City of Dallas to raise its hotel occupancy tax rate to match the rate that is currently charged in those cities with which Dallas most regularly competes for travel and tourism business.
While most of the money will be used for the Dallas’ Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, it is notable that this would also channel an estimated $300 million to Fair Park for essential repairs, renovations, and restoration. This is the first in a series of articles that will look at individual Fair Park buildings and what kinds of improvements might be expected.
The Band Shell
While the 1936 Texas Centennial at Fair Park is mostly known for creating the Esplanade, the Hall of State, and a large collection of exposition buildings, it also provided motivation for the City of Dallas to separately create a city bond-funded cultural center at Fair Park.
Centered on the Lagoon, this area was much more park-like with its winding paths and casual arrangement of buildings and features. It was essentially Dallas’ first Arts District, containing the new Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum, the Aquarium, and the Band Shell. Modeled after the Hollywood Bowl and other similar outdoor amphitheaters around the country, the 5,000-seat Band Shell proved to be the most popular spot in the Cultural Center.
While Fair Park’s sometimes-difficult relationship with the adjacent Black community is well documented, it is notable that the Band Shell provides the happy exception. As documented in their book, Fair Park Deco, authors Jim Parson and David Bush recount how the Band Shell hosted Cab Calloway and the Cotton Club Orchestra during the Centennial. Also, then little-known theater director Orson Welles held an all-Black production of “Macbeth” at the Band Shell. By all accounts, both productions drew sizable, simultaneous crowds of both White and Black attendees.
Despite its impressive history, the Band Shell has lagged behind the times and fallen from favor. Air conditioning was a novelty in 1936, but now, life in North Texas is conducted entirely within the confines of air-conditioned buildings and automobiles. No protection from the weather and outdated support spaces (there are no bathrooms nor concessions within the Band Shell seating area) now prevent an otherwise beautiful facility from being regularly used.
The plans that were developed in anticipation of a successful Prop A have changed that.
Design concepts developed by Overland Architects, working in conjunction with Modus Architecture, McAffee 3 Architects, and Norman Alston Architects, propose an effective compromise to the weather problem. A new, lightweight canopy structure, with a design heavily inspired by and respectful of the historic Band Shell, provides essential protection from the most severe weather conditions while also providing an opportunity for improved sound and lighting systems.
Similarly, the bathroom problem is addressed by a proposal to construct new, historically appropriate, free-standing bathrooms near the entrances next to the shell itself. Also, new concessions and premium seating areas are proposed to be incorporated within the seating area, but located at the rear.
While these are just ideas and actual designs will be developed should the funding become available, they are focused on the most pressing needs of the historic Band Shell and illustrate that restoration and modernization can be achieved without compromising one of the most important historic structures within the Fair Park National Historic Landmark.
As a postscript, I wanted to share a discovery made during recent historic research. The Lagoon was developed in 1935-36 in conjunction with the remainder of the Cultural Center. It is a critical and beautiful landscape feature around which the rest of the features are organized. The image above is an excerpt from early design drawings that are in the collections of the Dallas Historical Society. This image shows that early design concepts had the lagoon extending into the Band Shell, forming a watery transition between the audience and the performance areas. It’s a fascinating idea, but there is no evidence that there was even an attempt to build it that way.
Norman Alston, FAIA, founded Norman Alston Architects 30 years ago to allow him to focus his practice on historic preservation, the fulfillment of his architectural passion. Through his restoration designs, education and advocacy, he seeks to integrate historic buildings into the urban fabric while creating a wider culture of preservation that embraces the unique character of the community’s architectural legacy.