Big Tex Says, Look Up, Folks

When you recover from your fried-food coma, revel in the art and architecture of Fair Park

When you recover from your fried-food coma, revel in the art and architecture of Fair Park

Editor's note: Fair Park lands in the spotlight every year during the State Fair of Texas, but it's more than just a backdrop for corny dog binges, midway rides and the Texas Star Ferris wheel; it deserves year-round attention and appreciation.

That's why we asked two UT Arlington architecture professors to explain what makes Fair Park such a Dallas icon. Watch the video above — full screen, if you can — to listen to professors Kate Holliday and Douglas Klahr explain the splendor of the art deco art and architecture of Fair Park. Below is a companion essay by Holliday.   

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Fair Park is an amazing display of art deco design, from the grandeur of the main Esplanade to the dignity of the Hall of State. The New York World’s Fair of 1939, with its iconic (but demolished) Trylon & Perisphere, may be better known, but the dramatic style of the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition is better preserved — and it’s right in our backyard.

Keep in mind, if you get to the fair the way most people do — by car — and park in the lots at the rear of the fairgrounds, you’re experiencing Fair Park backward. For the full effect, you need to start at the Parry Avenue gates and walk southeast down the central promenade. The DART stop makes that easy.

 If you park in the lots at the rear of the fairgrounds, you’re experiencing Fair Park backward. For the full effect, start at the Parry Avenue gates and walk southeast down the central promenade.

Dallas architect George Dahl supervised the planning and construction of the 1936 exposition grounds. The team worked together to create a collection of buildings that would showcase Texas on its 100th anniversary as “An Empire on Parade,” as a 1936 guide to the fair put it.

Fair Park had been around since 1886, when the first Dallas State Fair was held there, but for the 1936 Exposition, the city went all out. Dahl worked with a team of architects, artists and planners to completely rework the site. They created new buildings, like the Tower Building, Hall of State (now home to the Dallas Historical Society) and the Magnolia Lounge, and renovated old ones, like the Centennial Building (1905) and the Administration Building (originally 1910).

Collaboration between artists and architects was the key to art deco architecture. The designers aimed for “modern simplicity and classic severity,” with clean, angular forms made possible by the use of smooth stucco surfaces punctuated by enormous murals and monumental sculpture that celebrated the heritage of the Lone Star State.

Dahl brought in Italian-American muralist Carlo Ciampaglia and Franco-American sculptors Raoul Josset and Jose Martin to finish the centerpiece of the Administration Building. Together they created one of the most iconic images from the Fair: the sculpture of the Spirit of the Centennial, a nude female figure floating on a cactus, framed by an image of the state of Texas, flowering yucca, longhorn cattle and a shining lone star.

You can find their work everywhere along the Esplanade, happily restored and preserved during the past decade.

Want to know more? Pick up Willis Winters’s terrific guide to the history of the grounds, Fair Park (Arcadia, 2010). Winters, as assistant director in the city’s Park and Recreation Department, has spent years working with planners and preservationists to plan for the future of this local gem.

Fair Park Hall of State
Fair Park's art deco architecture is among the best preserved representation and collection of the style in America.  Photo by Conner Howell
Fair Park
Parry Avenue gate at Fair Park. Photo courtesy of Dallas Parks & Recreation
Fair Park Hall of State
Detail of the Hall of State. Photo by Conner Howell
Fair Park Women's Museum
The now-shuttered Women's Museum, originally the Administration Building. Photo by Conner Howell
Fair Park Hall of State
Fair Park
Fair Park Hall of State
Fair Park Women's Museum