Art & Architecture:
The Texas Centennial Exposition
By David Bush & Jim Parsons
Esplanade of State at night, 1936 (C.M. Cutler, lighting designer) State Fair of Texas archives.
“[The Texas centennial celebration] will be Texanic in ideals, continental in proportions and international in scope.”
Cullen F. Thomas
President, Texas Centennial Commission
June 1, 19351
Although “Texanic,” a word invented by promoters to describe Texas’ 1936 centennial celebration of its independence from Mexico, never found its way into everyday use, there’s no better way to describe the impression made by the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. The fair put its host city on the map and introduced millions of people to a larger-than-life image of the Lone Star State. Today, the exposition’s influence continues in part because 60 percent of its Art Deco structures remain standing—perhaps the most complete collection of modernistic exposition art and architecture in the world.
The story of the Texas Centennial Exposition began in economic depression. By the middle of the 1930s, Texas officials had set their sights on a great celebration to boost the economy. Dallas won the right to host the Centennial Exposition, the centennial year’s central event, by pledging nearly $10 million in bonds and the use of Fair Park, site of the Texas State Fair since 1886.
The Texanic task of remaking Fair Park as a modern exposition ground fell to 41-year-old Dallas architect George L. Dahl, who had oversight of every aspect of the exposition’s design. “From the largest towering building to the smallest hot dog or peanut stand, all physical details have been subject to [his] approval or rejection,” the Dallas Morning News noted in June 1936.2
The $25 million exposition project included remodeling and expanding a dozen existing Fair Park buildings, designing and constructing more than fifty new structures, installing utilities, and landscaping the park’s 185 acres, all in about nine and a half months. Given the scope of the work and the tight schedule, Dahl recruited a staff of 130 architects, designers, engineers, and artists, many of whom had worked at the 1933 Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago and would later help create the New York World’s Fair of 1939.
Dahl had a clear vision for the fairgrounds. “The treatment should be carried along the lines of good contemporary architecture, but still influenced by good classical design,” he instructed his director of works, Ray A. Foley, adding that he expected “a great deal of glamor [sic], but still a monumental and dignified effect.”3 Designing most of Fair Park’s buildings for future use by the State Fair of Texas, Dahl specified that they be less flashy than the temporary structures at the Chicago fair. “We have held down the experimental aspect of things more than we would have done if the structures were to be used but a season,” he told a Dallas Times Herald reporter.4
The fairground’s main axis, the Esplanade of State, looks much as it did when the exposition opened in June 1936. Exhibit halls flanking the promenade feature massive porticoes with murals by Pierre Bourdelle and Carlo Ciampaglia. In front of each portico, sculptors Raoul Josset and Lawrence Tenney Stevens created heroic statues symbolizing the six nations that have had sovereignty over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States. All four artists went on to create major works at the New York fair.
The esplanade terminates at the State of Texas Building, Fair Park’s architectural centerpiece. Its limestone colonnades front a series of richly decorated exhibit halls culminating in the 94-by-68-foot Hall of State, the building’s main interior space, with a pair of massive murals by Eugene Savage and the gilded Great Medallion of Texas by Joseph Renier. Almost immediately after opening, the entire building––which contained Texas history exhibits during the exposition and today houses the Dallas Historical Society—became known as the “Hall of State.”
Surprisingly, George Dahl did not design the exposition’s most significant landmark. A group of Dallas architects who lobbied for the job found themselves unable to agree on a design, so Houston architect Donald Barthelme was called in at the eleventh hour. The result, critic David Dillon wrote in his 1985 book Dallas Architecture, was “one of the finest, and last, architect-artisan collaborations in the country.”5
The Federal Building (now the Tower Building) is Fair Park’s other surviving government-funded exhibit hall. Dahl’s chief designer, architect Donald S. Nelson––who worked on the 1933 Chicago exposition––marked the geographic center of Fair Park with the building’s 175-foot tower, crowned with a gilded eagle sculpted by Raoul Josset. The star-spangled Reception Room, designed by Julian Garnsey of Los Angeles, retains its original Herman Miller furniture beneath a stepped, backlit ceiling.
Federal Building exterior—the 175-foot tower, marking the geographic center of Fair Park, was the tallest structure at the Texas Centennial Exposition.
Portico of Texas, Esplanade of State (statue: Texas by Lawrence Tenney Stevens, one of the six heroic statues on the Esplanade representing the “six flags” that have flown over Texas).
The area beyond the Federal Building has changed more than any other at Fair Park. Just south of the federal tower stood Albert Kahn’s sprawling Ford Motor Company building, with interiors by industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague, demolished in 1937. Also gone: the National Cash Register pavilion, a Teague-designed landmark crowned by a gigantic reproduction of an NCR Model 100 cash register; and the nearby Centennial Midway, where the Streets of Paris offered dining and risqué floor shows in and around a replica of the ocean liner SS Normandie’s bow.
Yet many notable structures remain standing. Architect William Lescaze’s Magnolia Lounge, often called the first European Modern building in Texas, now houses the offices of the nonprofit Friends of Fair Park. Modernistic museum buildings and an aquarium built by the city of Dallas still welcome visitors, as does an amphitheater––modeled on the Hollywood Bowl––designed by locals W. Scott Dunne and Christensen & Christensen. Fair Park’s art still delights, too, particularly Lawrence Tenney Stevens’s Texas Woofus, an iconic amalgam of Texas livestock.
Over the years, Fair Park demolition proposals came and went; meanwhile, aging buildings needed repairs. Officials patched, painted, and sandblasted, obscuring original details, covering murals, and nearly destroying relief sculptures. The biggest loss came in 1942, when fire destroyed its largest exhibit building, the Hall of Varied Industries. A smaller replacement hall was built on the site after World War II, but it would be forty years before the new building’s Esplanade of State façade was restored to approximate its 1936 appearance.
This is not to say that Fair Park went totally unappreciated. Longtime New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable found herself enchanted by the Exposition’s remnants. “I loved Fair Park,” she told the Dallas Morning News after touring the fairgrounds in 1976. “I see Fair Park as a quite fabulous concentration of 1936 Art Deco, Art Moderne buildings.”6
In 1986, concerned citizens formed the Friends of Fair Park to preserve the exposition’s art and architecture and encourage thoughtful planning for the park’s future. The Friends’ cooperative effort with the city of Dallas, supported by millions of dollars in municipal bonds, had amazing results: original murals uncovered and restored, sculpture recreated, and the Esplanade of State given a thorough rehabilitation. In 2017, Dallas voters approved $50 million in improvements and the city began reviewing proposals for private groups to take over Fair Park’s operation.
Today, Fair Park is an irreplaceable civic asset for Dallas and an essential destination for any fan of Art Deco. Although much work remains to be done, visitors can once again enjoy the truly Texanic experience that was the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition.
Hall of State, State of Texas Building (Adams & Adams, interior architects).
Texas Woofus (Lawrence Tenney Stevens, sculptor; 2002 recreation by David Newton)—Stevens’ tribute to Texas livestock has the body of a hog, tail of a turkey, wings of a duck, neck and mane of a horse, head of a sheep, and a pair of chromium longhorns. The original was damaged and removed in the early 1940s; it wasn’t until 2002 that the Friends of Fair Park financed a recreation of the Woofus using the original artist’s models.
About the Author:
Jim Parsons and David Bush are the co-authors and photographers of Fair Park Deco: Art and Architecture of the Texas Centennial Exposition (TCU Press, 2012). Their latest book, DFW Deco, examines the modernistic architecture of Dallas, Fort Worth and the North Texas region. Fair Park is a public park open year-round. For information: fairpark.org.
1 “Texanic in Oratory,” Austin American-Statesman, June 2, 1935.
2“Centennial’s Stunning Beauty Due to Unique Style of Architecture,” Dallas Morning News, June 7, 1936.
3 Memorandum from George L. Dahl to Ray A. Foley, October 5, 1935, Centennial Collection, Dallas Historical Society.
4 “Innovations in Architecture Get Tryout at Fairs,” Dallas Times Herald, March 8, 1936.
5 David Dillon, Dallas Architecture: 1936-1986 (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1985), 24.
6 Janet Kutner, “A Critic’s Impressions of Area Architecture,” Dallas Morning News, November 14, 1976.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Winter 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.