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Restoration of a Dallas Landmark: Old Red

Written by Randy Mallory.

As I maneuver through southbound traffic along I-35E, I’m keeping one eye on the Dallas skyline. Just ahead, the 50-story Reunion Tower marks the western edge of downtown like a giant, gleaming pushpin. As I zip on the elevated freeway past the American Airlines Center sports arena and its posh neighbor, the W Dallas-Victory Hotel, I take in a fine view of Dealey Plaza, hands-down the city’s most famous historical spot.

There’s the former School Book Depository (now the Sixth Floor Museum), where Lee Harvey Oswald lurked on that fateful day in 1963. And the triple underpass of Commerce, Main, and Elm streets, the route of President Kennedy’s motorcade. I also spy the 1915 Dallas Criminal Courts Building, where Jack Ruby was tried in 1964 for shooting Oswald.

Amid that panorama of familiar landmarks, something new rises from the plaza—an ornate clock tower crowning the castle-like 1893 Dallas County courthouse. The tower is back in view after a 90-year absence. I ease off the freeway for a closer look at the majestic, fairy-book building borne anew following a $40 million renovation. The red building that once housed the county offices is now home to the new Old Red Museum of Dallas County History and Culture.

Old Red is the fifth courthouse (and sixth public building) to occupy this site on a bluff overlooking the Trinity River. The building dominates a block of land originally donated by John Neely Bryan, who founded Dallas in the 1840s. Unlike most 19th-Century Texas courthouses, the first Dallas County courthouse was built on the corner of two crossing streets (Main and Houston), rather than in the center of an adjacent block of land. This move was not to avoid creating a town square, but to preserve the town founder’s cornfield.

Over the decades, four courthouses were built, and each disappeared into flames. The 1893 courthouse incarnation that we see today is a four-story, brick-and-stone edifice adorned by round turrets, arches, and windows. The building’s designer, Arkansas architect M.A. Orlopp, employed the Richardsonian Romanesque style to symbolize the ambitions of Dallas, at the time the state’s largest town, poised for growth on the edge of the frontier.

Blocks of rusticated blue-gray granite comprise the first-floor and window trim. Red sandstone forms upper floors and the massive clock tower, hence the nickname “Old Red.” Interior embellishments—an ornate cast-iron staircase, granite wainscoting, two elevators, and six courtrooms—are rare for early Texas courthouses.

The 20th Century was not kind to Old Red. In 1919, amid fears of structural weakness, the landmark tower was taken down and the intricate clockworks dismantled. As county offices expanded, interior renovations and new walls accommodated air conditioning as they masked the original interior’s opulent charm. The county built a new courthouse on another site in the 1960s, and by the mid-1980s, all government offices had relocated. The noble building—once proclaimed as the “grandest temple of justice in the Southwest”—stood vacant.

Beginning in 2001, Dallas County officials tapped public and private funds to restore the grand building inside and out. Lacking original plans or drawings, project architect James Pratt of Dallas relied on early photographs to get him started, and watched for telltale signs of original features and colors as crews peeled away layers of material added over the years.

Now that the building is restored, Old Red is the perfect place to tell the sweeping story of Dallas County. As Pratt explains, “This was a public project in 1893 that showed Dallas at its best, when courthouses and law and justice were very important. In size and intent, Old Red ranks second only to the State Capitol in its attempt to be an important building.”

From a vantage point a half block away, I take in a full view of the restoration’s literal and figurative crowning accomplishment: the clock tower. Old Red’s clock tower once more rises nine stories, replete with period clockworks and a 4,500-pound bell—just as it was first constructed. Heraldic, reptilian sculptures called wyverns are positioned around the base of the tower like dragons standing guard.

These days, Old Red’s first floor houses the museum, which not only summarizes Dallas County history, but also documents the story of the courthouse’s construction and restoration. You will also find a museum gift shop and a Dallas Tourist Information Center—the perfect starting point for a walking tour of the nearby landmarks.

Dominating the first-floor hallway is a huge, winged Pegasus near the grand staircase. Built as a sign for the Magnolia Petroleum Company’s exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the glowing red-neon horse later topped a service station at Buckner and Garland.

I admire the craftsmanship of the ornate staircase—each tread engraved with a Lone Star—then catch the daily 2 p.m. building tour. Everywhere you look, original colors revive the eccentricities of the Victorian Age in pastels such as avocado green, sky blue, and salmon pink. The fourth floor houses a ceremonial courtroom and meeting spaces, and the third floor has offices. The second floor boasts a Children’s Learning Center where youngsters model vintage clothing, play old-fashioned games, and explore history and culture in flip books and computer stations.

The second floor also houses four former courtrooms transformed into the museum’s primary chronological galleries. A short video introduces each of the four eras-titled Early Years (prehistory-1873), Trading Center (1874-1917), Big “D” (1918-1945), and World Crossroads (1946-present). Concise information panels and captioned vintage photographs hit the historical highlights: how settlers survived the frontier; how railroads, automobiles, and airplanes accelerated commerce; how cotton, oil, banking, and technology made Dallas an economic powerhouse; and how a diverse population coped with more than a century of constant change.

Interactive displays liven up the historical record with both audio and video. One display describes the wild celebration (and barbecue dinner for 7,000) that met the arrival in July 16, 1872, of the first train to Dallas. Another discusses the creation of a “Little Mexico” on McKinney Avenue by immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Yet another recalls the music of Deep Ellum, an African-American district of the 1920s where early blues legends such as Blind Lemon Jefferson gained fame.

Throughout the museum, period artifacts (on loan from a number of sources, including the Dallas Historical Society) make historic events seem even more personal. Here is a ceremonial pipe of Texas’ last Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, and there is the family Bible of town founder John Neely Bryan. Here is a rolling pin used by slaves, and there is a note hand-written by Texas Governor Francis Lubbock calling for more troops to serve the Confederacy. Here is a sod-busting plow that first turned prairie into farmland, and there is the first integrated computer circuit, built in 1958 by Texas Instruments engineer Jack Kilby.

The Old Red Museum doesn’t avoid the difficult subjects in the Dallas County story. One exhibit, for instance, describes the mob lynching in 1910 of Allen Brooks, an African-American who was tossed out of a second-floor courtroom in this very courthouse and later hung a short distance away. Another exhibit plays a firsthand video account of John F. Kennedy’s assassination as observed from one of Old Red’s balconies.

Old Red not only houses history, it is history. Prominent among nearby historical treasures—Dealey Plaza, the JFK Memorial, the replica of an 1840s log cabin known as the John Neely Bryan log cabin, the 1916 Union Station, and the historic West End—the fully-restored Old Red promises to remain Dallas’ premier 19th-Century public landmark.

The Old Red Museum of Dallas County History & Culture, 100 S. Houston St. in downtown Dallas. Hours: Daily 9-5; closed Thanksgiving and Christ-mas Day. Admission: $8, $6 age 65 and older, $5 ages 6-15; free age 5 and younger. Call ahead for groups of 20 or more. Guided tour daily at 2. Call 214/745-1100; www.oldred.org.

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