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Author Writes About – and Tours – Dallas' Lost Buildings

by Jerome Weeks 6 Jul 2012 7:44 AM

Mark Doty is a new author on tour – but it’s a walking tour of downtown. The author of Lost Dallas, Doty talks about what Dallas has lost in the way of our cityscape and what is still here.


The cover image for Lost Dallas shows a young man in 1925 on the roof of the now-lost Baker Hotel looking west to Old Main (without the current clock tower). The Trinity River is also in its original position, roughly where the Triple Underpass is now.

Mark Doty has written a book about buildings in Dallas that no longer exist. Like many new authors, he’s about to go on tour. But it’s a walking tour. KERA’s Jerome Weeks explains.

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Three years ago, Mark Doty got to inspect downtown’s empty Statler Hilton; in the ’60s, it had been the flagship of the Hilton Hotel chain. He climbed to the roof and took a picture, facing east. Mostly, what Doty saw were parking lots. Doty is the historic preservation officer for the city of Dallas. He helps building owners deal with the regulations and process of historic preservation. So he’s interested in vanished buildings. But this time, that interest led to a public lecture and then, to a paperback book. It’s called Lost Dallas, part of Images of America, Arcadia Publishing’s extensive series of localized photo-history books.

Tomorrow, sponsored by the Dallas Center for Architecture, Doty will lead a ‘lost Dallas’ walking tour downtown. (The Center is also hosting a small exhibition on his book.’)

Doty: “We start the tour here at Main Street Garden because obviously the tour highlights those buildings that are lost, but then we also like to give people a little hope of what we still have here in Dallas.”

That’s because Main Street Garden – on the east side of downtown – is surrounded by what Doty calls a perfect time capsule of the city’s architecture. Chronologically, the time capsule starts with the Dallas Municipal Building, a solemn, Beaux Arts temple designed in 1911. It ends with the Statler Hilton — which four years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared one of the country’s most endangered sites. Recently cleaned as part of a slow re-habbing process, the Hilton’s sleek, 1950s design makes it seem like it’s straight out of the Mad Men TV series.

The Cokesbury Bookstore (left) and what ultimately replaced it: Main Street Garden

Still standing, all of the older buildings around the garden are in various states of renovation or re-use. On the other hand, Main Street Garden itself is one of the city’s newer efforts to add some greenery and pedestrian-friendly spaces. But the garden also marks a major loss for downtown.

Doty: “The Cokesbury Bookstore actually stood on this site. It was built by Mark Lemmon, who was a very famous architect. It became one of the largest bookstores in the country.”

With the decline of downtown retail in the ‘60s, the Cokesbury closed and was finally torn down in 1993.

Doty notes a repeated pattern in the death of such buildings. A number have been demolished despite public outcries. Some have even been torn down secretly – so the owner could avoid preservation restrictions. But any public outrage hasn’t lead to real change. It soon fades – only to return a few years later when yet another building bites the dust: The Baker Hotel, the Kress Building, the Dallas Cotton Exchange, the Dr. Pepper Plant.

The once-fabulous Baker Hotel, across from the Adolphus, and its replacement,  AT & T headquarters.

When asked which of these was Dallas’ greatest loss, Doty doesn’t choose any of them. No architectural wonder, no historic landmark.

Doty: “I think the greatest loss actually is those two-to-three-story commercial buildings that lined the streets of downtown Dallas. The problem with downtown Dallas is that we have so many districts. You have the West End, you have the museum district, you have the Main Street district. But you have nothing that connects them — but two-to-three blocks of asphalt parking lot.”

Those little stores and restaurants encouraged people to stay, to linger or wander. Doty points to some of the last remaining ones along a strip of Elm Street. Most are empty. A handful of others a few blocks east are currently in the way of plans to expand Cesar Chavez Boulevard and Pearl Expressway.

Doty is well aware that ‘creative destruction’ is how American cities thrive. New buildings and neighborhoods replace older ones. His problem is when the destruction doesn’t lead to anything truly creative. He cites an art deco palace in Oak Lawn that was destroyed more than 25 years ago.

Doty: “Time after time after time, things are taken down for a parking lot. Like the Esquire Theater – it’s still a parking lot today.”

Reading Doty’s book, Lost Dallas, can be an exercise in simple nostalgia. Or, he admits, it can be a little depressing, reading about fires and demolitions that mean we’ll never see these buildings in person. So Doty has been surprised by the strong response his little picture book has prompted.

Doty: “What’s really interesting about it is how emotional people are about buildings that we’ve lost. And what I’d like to figure out is how to parlay that excitement into preserving our existing buildings.”

Elm Street’s Theater Row in the 1930s (above) and today: As Doty says, it’s not just the loss of buildings, it’s the loss of vitality. One reason that vitality gets sapped: Theaters and storefronts are open-faced, they’re  aimed at the pedestrians on the street. The modern office towers that replaced the theaters are typically closed-off.  At street level, they present a blank-faced response.

Stone Street: A scene of restoration and demolition. One of the few new signs of life on Main Street, Stone Street is across from the beautifully renovated Joule Hotel (in center background, it’s the former SPG Building from 1924). On the right in the first picture are older buildings that are still in use as restaurants, including one of the oldest extant buildings in downtown Dallas (from the 1890s), currently the Mexican chop house, Sor Irlandes. On the left in the first picture are what remains of the Praetorian Building (1909), which was once the tallest building in town but is soon to be imploded to make way for the Joule’s expansion plans, whatever they may be.

The second picture on the right shows one of the things we lose when buildings are torn down: a piece of a detailed iron facade, long covered up by the low brick building on the left in the first photo. The building is being demolished along with the Praetorian.

  • Tom-hendricks

    There are innovative ways to not only save the past but use it to prosper in the future. Here’s one. Make Main a pedestrian walkway from Downtown through Deep Ellum to Fair Park. That would give Dallas it’s own San Antonio like ‘waterway’. Add cops walking on patrol, some lunch wagons, and electric carts to move people and you’ve got a new Downtown Dallas. Get traffic out of downtown, and people in. Soon it would revitalize Downtown, Fair Park and Deep Ellum. Then carry the pedestrian walkway over a bridge (that people can walk across the river on) into South Dallas, and watch the real estate build up along the river (no river road needed).