The one constant about World’s Fairs and Expositions—from Chicago’s White City to the several Expositions Universelles in Paris to the New York World’s Fair of 1939—is that you cannot in any meaningful sense go to see them. It’s not merely that the midways are empty, Buffalo Bill dead, the dancing girls clothed, and “Forbidden Tibet” forbidden. The physical imprint of almost every single exposition of the golden age from the 1870s to the 1930s has been almost completely effaced, with remnants typically constituting one or two relics and some landscaping.

There are very few exceptions. But your best bet for immersion today is in Dallas’s Fair Park, a stunning time capsule from 1936 with 26 buildings remaining from the Texas Centennial Exhibition. Fair Park has been and remains the host of the Texas State Fair since 1886, so a spectacle persists every fall for three weeks. Many decades later, the difficult problem is what to do with these stellar grounds the other 11 months of the year. And the question is how Dallas can enliven this huge urban monument today—even as there is no question that the 1936 legacy of Texas should be both celebrated and preserved.

Though Fair Park’s landmark exhibition was not technically a “World” exposition, it drew on a very considerable range of national and international talent, and lived up to Texas’s reputation for gigantism in all of the best ways. As Jim Parsons and David Bush write in their book, Fair Park Deco: “In 1936, most of the United States knew little about Texas. If Americans thought of the state at all, they probably imagined it as a vast frontier filled with cowboys and oil wells. Centennial publicists, armed with a $500,000 allocation from Austin, were perfectly happy to use those misconceptions to their advantage, spinning them into decidedly sentimental symbols of the Lone Star State.”

You can no longer see Cab Calloway or Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Base Camp recreation, Judge Roy Bean’s Courtroom, “Midget City” (featuring “the miniature Mae West”), a crime prevention exhibit (with mock electric chair executions), or Orson Welles’s Macbeth, but yesterday’s dreams of tomorrow are available in this magnificent art deco ensemble.

The espanalade is a dazzling sight: a Beaux-Arts vista executed in art deco form, with murals and statues lining the whole of the fair’s ensemble around the reflecting pool. The overall design was done by Texas architect George Dahl, with input from notable Philadelphian Paul Cret. The exhibit drew on talents of Texas and far beyond. Carlo Ciampaglia’s murals at the 1939 World’s Fair are gone but are plentiful here. Raoul Josset’s sculptures at the same are gone but present here. Donald Barthelme Senior (father of the novelists Donald and Frederick) designed the ensemble’s crowning Hall of State.

The trouble is what you do with a fair when it’s over. E.L. Doctorow’s youthful alter ego goes to the New York World’s Fair twice in his novel of that name. Most don’t attend even that regularly. A fair is intrinsically an occasional thing.

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The question of Fair Park’s future came to the fore in a recent decision by the city of Dallas to transfer management of the property to a non-profit group. Fair Park First, which has arranged with Spectra, an entertainment management group, will run daily operations of the park in a 20-year contract.

Fair Park is home to several museums and institutions that fill original buildings, and a few constructed later. These include the African American Museum of Dallas, a Children’s Aquarium, the Texas Discovery Gardens (descended from the Centennial Exhibition’s horticulture garden), and a variety of performance spaces, including Cotton Bowl Stadium, a bandshell, a coliseum, and a music hall.

Fair Park reflecting pool, the centerpiece of the 1936 project.
By Joseph
/Flickr

Fair Park is host in some form or another to 11 of the 20 biggest events in North Texas.

The main trouble has been filling the park when events are not occurring, which speaks to problems typical of spaces oriented around large events whenever those events have shuttered as well as some problems very specific to a priceless cultural ensemble.

Some have argued that this is due to the grip of the State Fair, demanding that much of the soil lie fallow for all of the year save when their crops are planted.

A 2017 report by the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a local non-profit, argued this at length, and if their conclusion seems overstated, elements of their argument nonetheless resonate: “For most of the year, Fair Park is a tragedy of vast underused or deteriorating space. It certainly does not reflect the original vision as a ‘park for the whole people, for the whole time.’” It notes that almost 75 percent of the space is occupied by asphalt, with an additional 70 adjacent acres owned by the State Fair used overwhelmingly for parking. It asks: “How did this happen? How did a 277-acre park near downtown, in South and East Dallas, once the high ground of city culture, become a decaying relic?”

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Ken Smith, president of the Revitalize South Dallas Coalition, points to a decades-long flight of core institutions from the park as a source of general etiolation. The Dallas Museum of Art relocated in 1984, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the Dallas Opera in 2009, and, most recently, the Museum of Science in 2012, which made occasional use of its former Fair Park facilities but has gradually been phasing out their use. All of these relocated to precisely the same neighborhood, Dallas’s Arts District.

As Smith observes, “We made a conscious political decision to take those institutions that were keeping Fair Park vibrant and we started putting all of our money into the Arts District. Then we say why aren’t you doing better, Fair Park? Is it their fault that our city chose to take the arts and leave it as a carcass?”

One restaurant, the Old Mill Inn, which previously operated seven days a week, shifted to a limited schedule after the Science Museum’s departure. The African American Museum and the Texas Hall of State, containing a tremendous selection of murals, are open every day. The Aquarium and Texas Discovery Gardens are popular destinations. Other museums have opened and closed: the Dallas Women’s Museum shuttered in 2011.

Some of these issues have related to the Fair’s requirements for space. Willis Winters, director of the Dallas Parks Department and author of a book on Fair Park, points out that “a lot of the large exhibition halls that the State Fair uses can’t have permanent tenants because the city’s contract to the State Fair gives them full rights during the fair.” He notes, “We had an automobile museum of classic cars that had to move out. They gave up because it didn’t work for them.”

The State Fair has been one attraction that hasn’t left Fair Park and remains a valuable source of revenue. Mitchell Glieber, president of the State Fair of Texas, notes that the fair has contributed $18.5 million in revenue to Fair Park over the last four years, and has conducted other improvements of benefit to Fair Park when it is not in operation.

There have been varied suggestions about achieving a better balance of uses or somewhat shifting the Fair’s footprint or altering its set-up and tear-down time, but the fair is a vital part of the park to most observers. Glieber noted that preparation and removal of fair facilities are complicated undertakings, pointing out that “there are literally dozens and dozens of events that take place during fair setup.”

Most of the institutions in the park experience their largest attendances during the fair.

The struggles of Fair Park are not unfamiliar to other American fairgrounds, many of which are empty almost all of the year, or sporting or concert facilities. It’s a problem not far removed from Olympic facilities, which Matt Wood, head of the non-profit group Friends of Fair Park, appreciates, given his prior involvement with Dallas Olympic bids.

“You have to look at not what just happens for an event,” he says. “What’s its five-year, 10-year, 50-year impact? What’s its impact on the community?”

Wood noted that there are limits to the recreational aspect: “It was designed to be a festival space. It wasn’t designed to be central park.”

If the park was undeniably more active with more cultural institutions and could benefit from more, then museums alone are inadequate, he suggests: “Museums don’t make great primary draws; they’re great secondary activities, which is why many of the museums moved downtown because there’s Monday through Friday activity nearby.”

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A majority of the great fairs of yesteryear were intrinsically evanescent, built to be destroyed, with many of the most seemingly opulent sharing a material foundation of staff, a compound containing some cement, but much larger amounts of plaster of Paris, often strengthened by fibers or literal sackcloth. It wouldn’t last, and was torn down before it would decay in Paris in 1878 and 1889, Chicago in 1893, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, and elsewhere. This was relative material luxury; later fairs such as Chicago’s Century of Progress were built largely out of plywood—possibly not much progress!

Fair Park was an exception, building structures out of more durable materials. Some were subsequently demolished and many decayed greatly. Much of the art adorning these buildings was painted over. Despite a number of much larger threats over time, the considerable majority survived and restoration efforts beginning in the early 1980s have restored many of their original 1936 features.

Vintage arial view of Fair Park, 1936. (Lloyd M. Long)

Part of the trouble is that, for all of the varied urban sobriquets applied to large expositions and fairs, from Chicago’s White City to Buffalo’s Rainbow City (a common nickname for The Pan-American Exposition of 1901) and onwards, they’ve more often been a vision of fantasy urbanism than the real thing, even beyond their temporary construction. Sometimes their sites are highly central, such as Paris’s Champ de Mars, but more often they are located in fairgrounds or used as schemes to improve or create parkland on the urban periphery. Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is not exactly well connected to its surroundings. Balboa Park in San Diego, host of the California-Pacific International Exhibition (and the most substantial surviving complex in the U.S. beyond Fair Park), consisted of a simulacrum of a dense urban core in the middle of a park.

Even better connected events, such as the World’s Columbian Exhibition, share a highly anti-urban feature: ticket gates. Walkable and visually appealing urban landscapes behind gates, poorly connected to any street grid, is the story of, well, Disneyland: it’s no surprise that Walt’s father, Elias Disney, worked as a carpenter on the World’s Columbian Exposition. Walt visited others and constructed attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

The situation in Dallas, in terms of the Fair’s connection to the city surrounding it, began poor and became very deliberately worse over time. Ken Smith notes that in the past, “Fair Park was trying to keep the nearby community out.” The Fairgrounds pursued a purposeful strategy of acquiring and demolishing land in nearby largely African-American neighborhoods, not for expansion of facilities but for expansion of parking. One 1966 report on the Fairgrounds cited “intense emotional discomfort in middle-class white residents” concerning the area around the park.

There seems to be no one who isn’t intent on trying to change this at present. All concerned want to forge a better connection with surrounding neighborhoods, with a park (or more than one park) on its periphery a declared aim of Fair Park First. In earlier plans, the full south side of the site was to be converted to a large park. This may not happen, but something will. As Wood explains, “There’s a misconception that the neighborhoods aren’t welcome. We’re trying to create corridors. Come over here; this is your park; come in here!” Smith notes that “the fence needs to come down.”

Willis Winters, who agreed with the necessity of better connections to the surrounding community, noted that there are still some practical constraints: “We’re interested in taking that barrier down as much as we can but we still need to maintain control for events in the park.”

The park is free every day that events are not occurring, but this may not be easily perceived. A recent Saturday visit saw mainly empty grounds.

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Culture and recreation may not be adequate to populate Fair Park. Wood mentions a former proposal for the Dallas Community College to locate their culinary school in the former Women’s Museum as the sort of solution that could guarantee regular circulation: “Rather than a museum which has to attract a new visitor every day there are 500 students coming in every weekday.” He brings up other prospects for filling the buildings, spaces for dance and theater that “would literally just involve putting in a stage” or other arts and arts education events. He suggests that it would prove an ideal site for the Dallas International Film Festival or for other film shoots.

There are real problems of deferred maintenance, which is estimated to hover in the realm of $250 million. Some buildings lack a certificate of occupancy.

Smith recounts some realities of lengthy neglect: “If you go into the Hall of State when it’s raining there are literally buckets catching the water. In the springtime the auditorium can’t be used because it floods.

Inside the Hall of State at Dallas Fair Park.
By Joseph
/Flickr

Smith argues that a prime trouble has been the “variety of fiefdoms” that constitutes Fair Park. “We think that bringing in new management is the answer but the new management is still in the same bureaucratic convoluted straightjacket that the old one was. We have not eliminated the straightjacket.”

He remains hopeful that Fair Park First might devise a solution, suggesting that coordination between the Park’s constituent elements was essential and that “each resident institution needs to operate on all cylinders as a standalone entity.”

Other examples of this type of built environment are relatively rare. Balboa Park in San Diego has a more robust set of tenant institutions, including the city’s main art museum, natural history museum, and science center (with a total of 16 museums) but struggles with some similar issues. Exposition Park in Los Angeles, which is a somewhat smaller version of the same with stronger resident institutions, houses Los Angeles’s major league soccer team, their principal Natural History Museum and Science Center, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and will soon be host to George Lucas’s Museum of Narrative Art.

More recent exposition grounds suffer from fewer preservation burdens but similar difficulties just staying tenanted and busy. Hemisfair Park in San Antonio has a number of unused pavilions and has built a hotel and is adding apartments and commercial space. At the site of the 1962 World’s Fair of Space Needle fame, the Seattle Center grounds are relatively vibrant, but some spaces sit empty and unused.

Many of these spaces are of a scale that echoes Jane Jacobs’s criticism of another megaproject, Lincoln Center, as an unnatural isolation of culture from ordinary activity of the city—though the scale of these fairgrounds can make Lincoln Center look positively modest. In any case, when cultural facilities are spread across the urban fabric, they are obviously more easily integrated with their surroundings or repurposed. There is no arguing with a fundamentally unique treasure such as Fair Park, however, and we can only hope that it devises a formula for success.

Fair Park draws widespread plaudits as an institution not merely academically but personally important to the citizens of North Texas. As Willis Winters observes, the place is “so central to our city. My first college football game, my first professional football game, my first opera, my first symphony visit, my first fair—all were at Fair Park. It’s been so important to my life and so important to many residents of this city.”  

Anthony Paletta has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Guardian, and numerous other publications. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.