The LATimes‘ architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, you may recall, ripped the Perot Museum (“a thoroughly cynical piece of work”) and was, as many were, unimpressed by the Bush Library (“a building meant to honor a particularly blunt and plain-spoken kind of political power”).
Now he tackles Dealey Plaza — but as much in sympathy as in dismissal.
Hawthorne reviews what amounts to a traffic interchange gussied up with classic columns and flooded by tragic meaning. He doesn’t really address the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of Dallas’ other attempts to memorialize the assassination. He refers to the Sixth Floor, naturally, as well as the Kennedy Memorial a few blocks away, but his focus remains on how the Plaza came to be what it is (it’s less like a ‘real’ city plaza and more like the old version of London’s Trafalgar Square, the kind of place one could linger and contemplate history while getting hit by cars).
If Kennedy had been killed in a building, Hawthorne speculates, Dallas probably would have torn it down long ago. That’s actually one of the early fates proposed for the Texas School Book Depository — and, of course, it was successfully avoided. As Stephen Fagin notes in Assassination and Commemoration, one of the reasons the city struggled so long over what to do with the Book Depository is that there simply wasn’t a model at the time for using historical preservation to memorialize a presidential assassination (as opposed to the memory of the president himself). Ford’s Theater in Washington — the big previous example — was allowed to deteriorate, got gutted and converted into an office building. More than a century after Lincoln was shot there and just while Dallas was struggling with the same idea, an effort began to restore it and turn it into a museum.
After all, why preserve the site of a horrific, successful political murder — especially when the Lincoln Memorial is nearby? It’s much more uplifting and well, less blood-splattered.
With the benefit of hindsight, of course, it’s clear Dallas should have done something to mark the event — but what? It’s only after the impressive and moving success of the Sixth Floor as a museum exhibition that we now have this instinctive response and expectation: We must preserve and mark such calamities. Since Dallas stumbled through (and got lucky with) the long process that lead to the Sixth Floor, other cities have preserved the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis where Martin Luther King died, and we’ve figured out very different ways to enshrine the memory of the dead at the sites of our two worst terrorist attacks, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center in New York — so far, the one more successfully than the other.
But as Hawthorne admits, LA didn’t muster anything like the same response for Robert Kennedy’s assassination: The Ambassador Hotel was allowed to be demolished in 2005.
He makes a very persuasive point, though: It’s precisely because Dealey Plaza is such an unwieldy location that it has survived (Dallas’ all-important traffic flow must be preserved). And it’s precisely because Kennedy was shot while riding through it that Dealey Plaza disappoints. Visiting it can be a little like trying to be emotionally moved by a freeway entrance ramp.
And so — as much as all the controversies involving conspiracy theories or Dallas’ ‘City of Hate’ label — Dealey Plaza persists in frustrating the many attempts, like the official ceremony scheduled for November 22, to paper over the historic wound.
… after the stages and bleachers come down, Elm Street will be opened up again to cars. And Dealey Plaza will go back to being what it’s been for 50 years: an unlovely, architecturally unresolved prick on the city’s conscience….
So maybe, for the sake of national memory and historic preservation, it’s a stroke of macabre luck that the assassination happened in this ordinary and seemingly forgettable location.
You can’t raze a spot in the air above a stretch of pavement [the] way you can raze a building. You can ignore it or be vexed by it, both of which Dallas has done over the years. But a wrecking ball swinging through empty space doesn’t accomplish much.