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Fair Park

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1936, Texas Centennial Architects, with Paul P. Cret consulting architect. Parry Ave. at Exposition Ave.

In 1886, the Texas State Fair and Exposition, an agricultural fair, was chartered and held just north of downtown, the same year that the Dallas State Fair and Exposition was held on eighty acres of swampy East Dallas cotton fields, with a massive Exposition Building (1886) designed by James Edward Flanders and a racetrack/polo grounds. The city acquired the enterprise in 1902, gradually filling the site with structures for exhibitions (Machinery Hall, 1887) and entertainment (Music Hall, 1890), both by Flanders. George E. Kessler prepared a master plan in 1906. The Cotton Bowl stadium (1930, Mark Lemmon; 1936, George Dahl) was built on the partially depressed site of the early racetrack; upper seating decks were added in 1949 and 2008.

In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, a state commission announced a competition to select a city to host the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition, the one-hundredth anniversary of Texas independence. The fair was planned as an economic and civic stimulus to whichever city was chosen. Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas were among the cities in the running. After an acrimonious campaign, Dallas, which did not even exist in 1836 when Texas gained independence, won the award based on its high bid of $7.8 million, along with the old fair grounds site, and a city bond package, all put together by Dallas businessmen led by banker and civic promoter Robert L. Thornton. Promotional efforts included conjectural drawings prepared by architect George Dahl.

The 1906 Kessler plan, with its central axial lawn and promenade, formed the basis for the layout of the Centennial Exposition, and numerous existing buildings were incorporated. The design and construction of 77 new buildings for the enlarged 178-acre fair site was accomplished in 15 months. Executive architect George L. Dahl and chief architect Donald S. Nelson assembled a team of more than 130 architects, engineers, and artists. Nelson (1907–1992) had designed several buildings at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, while working with Bennett, Parsons and Frost. Dahl brought him to Dallas in 1935 to work on the Texas State Fair.

The opening day parade through downtown on June 6, 1936, attracted a crowd of 250,000 spectators. President Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt visited a week later to a crowd of 500,000. Although an estimated 6.3 million attended the fair in its six-month run (Texas’s population in 1936 was 6.2 million, Dallas’s about 275,000), it failed to recoup its cost of nearly $25 million. Nevertheless, instead of financial gain, Dallas received national recognition along with secondary income spent elsewhere in the city by visitors.

After decades of intermittent use, the deterioration of the fairgrounds was evident by the 1986 state sesquicentennial. In the early 1990s, under the direction of Assistant Director (now Director) Willis Winters, the Dallas Park and Recreation Department began a comprehensive program of restoration of Fair Park, the largest ensemble of Art Deco buildings in the country. In 2014, with the fair buildings again in need of repairs, the city prepared a report for the rejuvenation of Fair Park. Negotiations for a public-private partnership and scope of work are ongoing.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.


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Gerald Moorhead et al., "Fair Park", [Dallas, Texas], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Texas

Buildings of Texas: East, North Central, Panhandle and South Plains, and West, Gerald Moorhead and contributors. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019, 178-178.

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