Dallas has a rich music history, and one of its hubs was 508 Park, where Mississippi Delta blues legend Robert Johnson recorded nearly half his songs, as well as his final work, over two weeks in 1937.
In fact, 843 blues, jazz, western swing and Mexican recordings occurred at 508 Park by Johnson and other legends such as Gene Autry, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Light Crust Doughboys, and Lolo Cavasos.
Located in downtown Dallas near the Dallas Farmers Market, 508 Park, built in 1929 for Warner Brothers as a film exchange and distribution hub, stood vacant and vandalized for two decades. In 2011, The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church purchased and renovated it, and built an amphitheater, to create the new Encore Park.
Encore Park is a multiphased, multivenue campus that aims to bring all cultures together to experience and appreciate history, art, music and community gardening.
Pat Bywaters is executive director of Encore Park Dallas and grandson of influential Texas artist and Dallas Nine member Jerry Bywaters. He's been spearheading the research into 508's history, visiting archives in California, Louisiana and New York.
"I love doing research, and I've always loved history. As soon as we looked into 508, the music history came flooding," he says. "The Encore Park project preserves not only the architectural relic, but a special place and time in Dallas' history."
The first phase debuted in October 2014, with the amphitheater and a sculpture wall by Brad Oldham and Christy Coltrin. This lost-wax bronze sculpture, called The Birth of a City, tells iconic and lesser-known visual stories unique to Dallas across 10 six-by-four-foot panels.
"They were inspired by a particular image of the building the Houston Viaduct over the Trinity River, which was an engineering marvel when it was built, and they did the sculpture in the 1930s style," Bywaters says.
Fundraising phases two and three are ongoing, hoping to restore and finish out the interior of 508 Park, which will include the Museum of Street Culture, art galleries and studios (including The Stewpot artists), a recording studio, event space, a rooftop terrace, and coffee shop. Nearly half of the $13 million capital campaign has been raised.
On August 15, catch Robert Johnson Blues Revue, featuring Robert Johnson's grandson Steven Johnson and the Dallas Street Choir, at 508 Amphitheater. Tickets are $10 for general admission, $40 for preferred seating and $75 for VIP tickets, which includes a reception and short show with Steven Johnson and his band on August 14. (Buy tickets here.)
Starting September 6, Encore Park will show Warner Brothers movies from the 1930s, '40s and '50s every other Sunday in collaboration with the historic Texas Theatre. The events are free, and each screening includes a 16mm short, then a feature-length film.
To celebrate Stewpot's 40th anniversary in October, activities include the following:
- October 4: A blessing of the animals at 508 Amphitheater (St. Francis of Assisi's birthday) at 2 pm
- October 7: Special monthly worship service of The Stewpot, featuring KM Williams at 508 Amphitheater
- October 22: Special showing of Serving Second Chances at 508 Amphitheater
- October 24: 40th anniversary celebration, including a Stewpot Talent Show and Dallas Street Choir, a street fair of art from The Stewpot Open Art Program and an evening performance
The final event of the year is a fiddle competition November 7.