An architecture critic jump-starts real change in Dallas’s memorial landscape.
By Timothy A. Schuler
For the past 20 years, the places where President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed have been marked on Dallas’s Elm Street on the north side of Dealey Plaza by two white Xs—not as part of an official commemoration, but at the hands of what Mark Lamster, the architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, describes as “assassination tourist guides.” “[They] come and spray-paint these really tawdry Xs on the ground, and every time the city tries to erase them, they just get spray-painted back there,” says Lamster, who began thinking about Dealey Plaza and its shortcomings in 2013, during the 50th anniversary of the assassination.
Shaped like one-half of an hourglass, Dealey Plaza features several small art deco colonnades and fountains but is dominated by three wide roadways, which converge at the west end of the plaza before diving under a raised railroad bridge. Visitors regularly dart into traffic on Elm Street to pay their respects or take photos. Lamster argues that the arrangement is hardly befitting an event of such tragic significance, nor is it tenable: Just on the other side of the railroad bridge is the recently established Martyr’s Park, which memorializes the lives of three Black men who were lynched in 1860. Beyond that is the $250 million Trinity River Park by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, currently under construction. None of these spaces are currently accessible to pedestrians or cyclists or, in some cases, even by car. “We need to have a way to get to Martyr’s Park, and there needs to be a cycling route [to Trinity River Park],” Lamster says. “There isn’t really a choice to just leave things alone.”
In 2021, Lamster approached Chris Reed, FASLA, the founding director of Stoss Landscape Urbanism, about putting together a vision for Dealey Plaza, imagining a sort of new memorial district that would tie together Dealey Plaza, Martyr’s Park, and the nearby Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum.
The resulting proposal, developed with MPdL Studio with early contributions from the Dallas-based landscape firm DELINEATOR, focuses on the periphery of the plaza as an opportunity to improve the experience for visitors and create new connections between multiple sites of civic importance. The two most transformative elements are the proposed closure of Elm Street and the insertion of a cantilevered timber viewing platform, which would spiral up over the railroad tracks, creating pedestrian access to Martyr’s Park and new visual connections to Dealey Plaza and the Sixth Floor Museum, one of the only local institutions that educates visitors about the assassination.
Together, the street closure and platform create new, safe places to gather while respecting the historic nature of the site and the design of a forthcoming memorial in Martyr’s Park. “Our attitude has been to look for opportunities on the edges, where we could intervene and transform the whole without doing away with those aspects of [the existing] spaces that are already working well,” says Mónica Ponce de León, the founding principal of MPdL Studio and the dean of the architecture school at Princeton University.
The proposal for Dealey Plaza was unveiled to the public in October 2022 in an edition of the Dallas Morning News and immediately garnered interest from the public. “When we published it, we arranged to have a large community meeting,” Lamster says. “We were going to have it at the Sixth Floor Museum, but within an hour we sold out their largest space, and we had to move it to a large auditorium we have at the Dallas Morning News.” Additionally, Lamster says the proposal has reached members of the city council, some of whom have championed the project and have since committed to funding a plan for this area of downtown Dallas.
Meanwhile, the design team continues to refine its ideas, informed by ongoing community engagement, and an exhibition of the work recently on view at the Princeton University School of Architecture is poised to travel to Dallas to coincide with future public forums. “Mark’s piece started a really bold conversation,” Reed says. “It started to get people involved in figuring out how we move forward.”