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Don’t forget to be thankful for Fair Park

Fair Park is a microcosm of Dallas. It encapsulates the city’s relatively brief but colorful history within its glorious grounds and buildings. It reflects the myth and spirit of Dallas more than any other place or idea. Fair Park represents the ambition of a city on the prairie — with little reason for being — to be something more, something illustrious.

When Dallas was carved from the vast cotton fields that stretched eastward to the rising sun in 1886, few could comprehend what this place would mean for a neophyte community of 25,000, still rough around the edges, with a rowdy, pioneer-town mentality. Its founding as the site for the State Fair of Texas was an audacious undertaking by the city’s business elite that launched an entrepreneurial spirit still thriving almost a century and a half later. The annual fair brought visitors, commerce and prestige to this undistinguished town, fostering its gradual emergence as the principal city of North Texas and nurturing it to assert its economic dominion over an entire region.

Then, 50 years later, Fair Park reaffirmed its vital importance in Dallas history when it was selected to host the Texas Centennial Exposition. The fairgrounds were transformed into a glittering national showplace that single-handedly lifted the city out of the throes of the Great Depression; 1936 was the year America discovered Dallas. It was the first world’s fair to provide air conditioning within its gleaming, modernistic exhibition halls. Eighty-five years after the exposition, Fair Park is recognized as the last remaining intact site of exposition architecture from the 1930s and acclaimed as one of the greatest collections of art deco architecture and public art in the world. It is truly one of the great public spaces in America.

I feel very fortunate to have grown up in a city with a place like Fair Park, and to have had the opportunity each year over the past half-century to attend the State Fair of Texas. George Dahl’s compelling art deco buildings — which he described in 1936 as “Texanic” in proportions, and as “exemplifying the color, romance and grandeur that had marked the development of Texas” — no doubt played a significant role in propelling me to first become an architect and, later in my career, to become a park professional (with the singular privilege of caring for Fair Park’s buildings and legacy). It has played a big role in defining my life.

Willis Winters is an architect and director emeritus of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department. He is the author or co-author of seven books on the history of architecture and planning in Dallas and Texas. This column is taken from a collection of essays from local leaders that form a coffee table book, “Dallas: A Texas Star,” due to be released by TCU Press this fall.

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