Published: February 1st 2013November 15th 2011
Inside the Dallas memorial to JFK, by Phillip Johnson
Dallas has the misfortune of being known by most people as the place where two famous people were shot. JR Ewing
, thankfully, was only a character on the TV series Dallas
. President John F Kennedy
, on the other hand, was tragically a real person.
His assassination has long fed the conspiracy gristmill
The only place to separate the reality from the rumors, to the extent it can be, is here in Dallas.
Sixth Floor Museum
The Sixth Floor Museum
has the most extensive information on the assassination.
It’s located on (and named after) the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where former marine sniper and communist sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald shot what most believe were the fatal bullets.
It’s almost an unwilling museum in many ways; the rest of the building still holds county offices.
To show the depth of conspiracy theories around these events, a plaque on the building lists it as the location of the “alleged” assassin.
The sixth floor itself looks like a warehouse, which it once was.
It features a single large open room with exposed brick walls.
Texas School Book Depository
The building where Lee Harvey Oswald fired at JFK, from the window on the far right, sixth floor
Large windows overlook the surrounding area.
The museum staff have put up dividers to house the exhibits.
The first section contains an overview of the Kennedy Presidency
Most will be very familiar to anyone who has studied US history.
More than his immediate predecessors, Kennedy was loved personally here and abroad.
He was a charismatic speaker.
He was also very young, only 42 when elected.
Like no President before him, he understood the power of television to communicate an image and message
He had an incredibly glamorous wife
For many people, he symbolized a new generation taking the lead in American life, the generation that came of age as soldiers in World War II.
Kennedy was the first President as media celebrity.
The display takes pains to point out that the personal connection people felt did not carry over to his policies, particularly foreign policies. Anti-communist fervor
still ran high in the early 1960s, and many activists believed Kennedy had sold out his country to the USSR.
Withholding air support during the Bay of Pigs
invasion of Cuba was only
Conspiracy theory, anyone?
Plaque on the building. Note the circled word in the description
the most prominent example.
Southern whites were deeply angered by Kennedy’s support of the Civil Rights movement [see By My Works Ye Shall Know Me
Even socialist activists disliked the Kennedy administration, thanks to the Cuban Missile Crisis
and sending advisers to Vietnam.
That leads to Kennedy’s visit to Texas.
The display presents it as motivated almost purely by political concerns.
The state was (and still is) pretty hostile to northeastern Democrats.
Texas Democrats were deeply divided between conservatives like Governor John Connally
and more liberal leaders, and the national party wanted to shore up support.
Kennedy and Connally planned multiple fund raising dinners during the trip.
The display has a copy of a now infamous ad
showing the tenor of the times.
Placed by a group of anti-communist Dallas businessmen, it opens with “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas… A city so disgraced by a recent Liberal smear attempt that its citizens have just elected two more Conservative Americans to public office.”
It then lists a long set of questions they want answered, all regarding policies that they believe are allowing the USSR to take over the world.
The street where JFK was assasinated
That leads into a discussion of Kennedy’s Dallas schedule
It has a very particular point, that nobody in the federal government thought that someone would assassinate a sitting President, which led to things people now consider security lapses.
Kennedy was famous for interacting with the public, which was part of his appeal.
After arriving somewhere, he would typically shake hands with people at the airport, events with almost no security.
His plan was a motorcade through downtown Dallas, followed by a major fundraising luncheon at the convention center.
The museum now has one of the original invitations.
The Dallas papers published the motorcade route a week in advance, enough time for a potential assassin to set a trap.
The Secret Service and Dallas police did only a cursory check of buildings along the route, several days in advance.
The next section covers Lee Harvey Oswald
He trained as a sharpshooter in the Marines.
Three years later, he defected to the Soviet Union.
While there, he married a Russian.
Later he brought his family back to the United States.
Dealey Memorial on the Plaza
Many years later, the FBI revealed they shadowed Oswald during this period as a potential Russian spy, but concluded he was too unreliable to have been recruited by the USSR.
The display concludes with a police photo of him holding a military marksman riffle from two months before Kennedy’s visit.
Two weeks before the horrific day, Oswald got a job at the Texas School Book Depository
His role was packing textbooks in crates.
One should note very carefully that he arrived AFTER the local paper publicized preliminary details on the motorcade.
Seen in hindsight, the Depository was the perfect location to attempt an assassination.
It directly overlooks a part of the route where the cars would have to make a very sharp turn, and then drop down a curving road through a park.
This ensured they would be very close, moving slowly, and in a clear sightline for a descent period of time.
That leads to the most chilling section, the killing itself.
The centerpiece is a recreation of the actual sniper’s nest
Days before, Oswald carefully piled boxes to create a hidden alcove
Outside the JFK Memorial in Dallas
next to a window overlooking the corner into the park.
He put two more under the window to act as a gun mount, and a third for a seat.
The recreation also has two paper bags: Oswald smuggled in his sharpshooter rife in the long one, and brought some lunch in the smaller one.
The rest covers everything
anyone would ever want to know about the horrific events.
It features a long gallery of photographs from many different angles, including stills from the only complete film, made by Abraham Zapruder
with a home movie camera.
A single photo from a news photographer shows the book depository, with a grainy black line near the rightmost window (this photo has become fodder for conspiracy theorists).
TV coverage from the motorcade plays in an endless loop.
It has pages and pages of witness testimony; most state they couldn’t believe what was happening, and only realized someone was firing a rife after the second shot.
The display has the police write up of Oswald’s actions after the assassination.
He threw the rife under some crates near the exit stairwell,
The former Dallas Courthouse, now a history museum
and headed down to a lower floor.
He was then stopped by two cops, who entered the building after hearing the shots.
Oswald showed his employee badge, and they let him go.
He then walked onto the street and disappeared into the crowd.
The section contains the official model
of the scene from the FBI investigation.
Oswald fired three shots as the motorcade proceeded through the park.
The first missed and hit the sidewalk.
The second hit Governor Connally.
The third hit the President in the head, killing him almost instantly.
The model shows the paths of all three bullets.
Next up is a discussion of what happened
The Secret Service rushed Kennedy to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
The scene was chaotic, to put it politely.
Two items during this time have become favorites for conspiracy theorists
The first is the autopsy
Dallas police ordered Kennedy’s body held at the hospital for an autopsy.
Lyndon Johnson, who was now President, personally overrode them and had the body
The Reunion Tower, famous on the city skyline
delivered to Air Force One.
His explanation, repeated in the exhibit, was that he felt that he and former First Lady Jackie Kennedy had to leave immediately for safety reasons, and Jackie would not leave without the remains of her husband.
The autopsy was finally performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, which reported that President Kennedy died from a bullet to the back of his head.
The other item is the ‘untouched bullet
A whole, undamaged bullet
was found on the gurney at the hospital.
Tests showed that it had hit Governor Connally.
Connally had multiple flesh wounds, in his back, right wrist, and upper thigh.
People have asked questions about this bullet for years, around why it didn’t shatter on impact and how it could do so much damage.
The official version from the FBI report is that it stayed intact because it hit only soft areas, allowing it to keep going and hit more body parts.
Many conspiracy theorists
believe it is proof of a fourth bullet being fired, meaning a second gunman was involved.
The final part of this section contains the
A large number of people brought cameras to capture the motorcade.
Once the bullets flew, their photos became crime evidence.
The gallery shows the specific camera models people brought, and includes a few actual witness cameras.
It pushes the point, hard, that nearly all of these cameras were designed for casual use with incredibly low resolution.
What appears to be conclusive evidence in a photograph may simply be a speck of dust, film distortion, or poorly photographed shadows.
Personally, I think the museum is trying too hard in this section.
Most conspiracy theorists
point to mismatches between witness testimony, things that appear out of place in photographs, and seemingly strange behavior by some officials as proof of some vast cover up.
The museum is trying to foster an alternative, much simpler, explanation for these items: shock and confusion, limited technology compared with today, and officials with conflicting agendas.
The next section covers the final days of Lee Harvey Oswald.
The police got lucky and captured Oswald quickly.
While driving out of Dallas, a cop pulled him over for a traffic infraction.
More 80s architecture in Dallas
Oswald shot him.
Another car nearby responded to the distress call and caught Oswald.
Detectives quickly matched his fingerprints to those on the gun found in the Book Depository Building, and the smaller bag containing a half-eaten sandwich.
They also discovered traces of gunpowder on his clothes that matched the type used by that make of rifle.
Preparation for Oswald’s trial quickly became a circus.
The county sheriff played moving Oswald from jail to the county courthouse and back for all the publicity he could.
Multiple times, Oswald gave long rambling statements to the press.
Two of these included quotes that have fed yet more conspiracy theories: “I’m just a patsy” and “I’ve been set up”.
With all the reporters and hangers on, providing security at these events became nearly impossible.
On November 24th, Jack Ruby
, the owner of a local nightclub, got close to Oswald and shot him dead.
At his subsequent murder trial Ruby stated he committed the deed to spare Jackie Kennedy any further distress from seeing her husband’s assassin on trial.
His real reasons have fueled speculation for
Dallas Art Deco Greyhound station
That leads to a section on subsequent investigations into the assassination.
It opens with a quote from President Lyndon Johnson: “I accept that Oswald pulled the trigger, but I don’t accept he was the only one involved.”
The first part covers the Warren Report
Johnson appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to investigate the events and all available government records.
His final report, the size of a small book, concluded that Oswald carried out the assassination alone.
People have spent many years trying to debunk his conclusions
Many of their explanations focus on deliberate malfeasance of the CIA
The spy agency initially refused to supply any documents to Warren, and what they ultimately did provide was later proved to be fake.
After a presidential order in the mid-1970s, they released documents showing they were working with Cuban exiles in Florida and Miami mobsters to overthrow the Cuban government, and providing truthful data would have exposed the plot.
Of course, conspiracy theorists now question whether those documents are any more truthful than previous ones.
In any case, Louisiana district
Buildings from an oil boom in downtown Dallas
attorney Jim Garrison
prosecuted multiple mobsters for plotting to assassinate the President.
They were acquitted.
Oliver Stone dramatized this case in the movie JFK
In 1974, the House of Representatives launched a series of hearings
into the assassination, which launched one of the most enduring conspiracy theories
, the “grassy knoll”.
A police dispatcher recorded the police radios during the assassination.
Most of it consists of motorcycle noise and crowd screams.
A group of sound engineers tried to enhance the tape to find sounds of gunshots.
They claimed to find four, while Oswald fired only three.
Other investigators immediately pointed out that Daily Plaza park is surrounded by buildings and concrete monuments, causing echoes.
The engineers then did another test, placing microphones around the plaza
to analyze the echo effects.
After this analysis they still concluded that four shots had been fired.
They then claimed that they could identify the source of the fourth, a grassy knoll within the park next to the motorcade route.
Some people noticed this matched up with testimony from a single witness who claimed to see a group
Unusual building in downtown Dallas
of unknown men at the railroad tracks near the knoll, and a single photo possibly showing a metallic glint at that location, and the theory took flight.
The next section contains a selection of memorials to JFK
that sprung up around the world.
Streets were renamed for him in cities large and small.
Countries erected monuments and issued memorial stamps.
The displays have an incredible array of memorabilia.
For some reason, it’s missing the editorial written by Stanly Marcus, the owner of Neiman Marcus at the time, “What’s Right With Dallas?
The displays push the point that part of Kennedy’s enduring appeal, and the appeal of conspiracy theories, is that he was a young and charismatic figure whose life was cut tragically short.
The museum closes with a long wall listing various conspiracy theories put forward over the years.
Anyone and everyone have had one
at some point, and they have involved every group under the sun.
The evidence for all of them is highly circumstantial at best, which the display lays out.
The three most prominent theories, at least on this wall, are
Dallas art deco
Art Deco skyscraper in downtown Dallas
the CIA and Cuban exiles did it because Kennedy was preventing their efforts to take back Cuba; the USSR did it to remove the President who blockaded Cuba; and organized crime figures did it as revenge for Kennedy’s crack down on the underworld.
As to the truth, who really knows?
I walked the edge of Dealey Plaza
after the museum.
It consists of a sloping semi-circle park surrounded by marble and concrete monuments.
The plaza was built in 1938 and named for a Dallas newspaper publisher.
Its most notable feature is the triple bridge; three roads pass through the park and converge just before a railroad bridge.
The rightmost road is where Kennedy was shot.
The infamous grassy knoll sits to the right of this road, with a monument behind it and then the railroad tracks.
Trains pass by regularly.
The eastern side of the park, opposite the triple bridge, sits next to a red brick building that used to be the county courthouse.
Another small city park sits to the east of the courthouse.
It contains Dallas’s official memorial to JFK
Dallas Musem of Art
Tree turned into a sculpture outside the Dallas Musem of Art
The memorial consists of four concrete walls on stilts, forming an open cube.
Walking in reveals a low black granite platform with John F Kennedy’s name on it.
The sculpture is the first major minimalist memorial in the country, designed by famous architect Phillip Johnson
The plaque next to it talks about all sorts of symbolism in the height of the walls, the number of pillars, and so forth, but I couldn’t see any of it.
Minimalist memorials can work wonders when done right, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
in Washington DC, but this isn’t one of them.
Dallas Museum of Art
I next walked to the Dallas Museum of Art
That may sound surprising, and it probably should.
The art museum is about a mile from Dealey Plaza through downtown.
In the Northeast, people would walk that distance (or take public transit) while in Texas everyone drives.
Dallas’ city core clearly resembles a boomtown, all tall glass buildings designed around the same time, the mid 1980s.
Interspersed between them are older towers, some built during a boom in the 1920s with beautiful art deco
The art museum is yet another comprehensive regional art museum.
on display is larger than Houston’s [see Oil, Art, and Football
], although the overall museum is smaller.
It had a major temporary show on French fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier
, with a separate admission.
For anyone not familiar with his boundary pushing work, the exhibit entrance has a cowboy outfit covered in so many rhinestones Elvis wouldn’t touch it.
I skipped the show.
The American artwork
was organized by time period instead of movement.
While some people find this confusing, I liked being able to compare artwork with different styles.
Most of the usual names appeared, many with descent examples.
Sadly, very few of the paintings were by Texas artists.
The section started with colonial paintings.
Very unusually for an American museum, the first paintings were the actual first paintings created in what is now the United States, by the Spanish.
Paintings from the original 13 colonies follow, highlighted by one of the many copies Rembrandt Peale
made of his Portrait of George Washington.
That led to the
Genesis, the Gift of Life
Large mosaic outside the Dallas Museum of Art
expected mix of realism and Hudson School paintings in the early 1800s, including The Icebergs by Frederick Edwin Church
and View of Rome from Tivoli by George Inness
After that came American Impressionism and the Ash Can School of the late 1800s to the early 1900s, including Duck Island by Childe Hassam
and Emma in a Purple Dress by George Bellows
The next rooms held one of the collection’s highlights, paintings from the 1920s.
American artists in this period were grappling with advanced ideas from Europe.
They chose many different responses. Gerald Murphy
, a wealthy expatriate living in France, painted a series of large scale cubist inspired paintings of consumer products like watches and razors.
Although he completed less than ten, they heavily inspired later artists like Stewart Davis.
Dallas owns Murphy’s most famous painting, of a watch. Charles Demuth
painted industrial machinery and landscapes with clear geometric lines and muted colors, a style now called Precisionism.
On the other end of the scale, some artists blatantly copied European artists, just as the American Impressionists had a half-century earlier.
The section ends with another highlight, paintings from the 1930s.
During this decade, most American artists joined the nationalism of the time, creating paintings celebrating American life.
The result was the American Scene
Dallas has a huge selection of the style, including famous artists like Thomas Hart Benton
and Alexander Hogue
. European art
was arranged by movement, and then chronologically.
It starts with the usual paintings from the 1700s, leading to academic work from the early 1800s.
That leads into a surprisingly small section of Impressionist
works, highlighted by The Seine at Lavacourt by Claude Monet
Next is a selection of Fauve
paintings, featuring bright colors. Henri Matisse
is the most famous artist of this group.
That in turn leads to a section on Cubism
, featuring paintings from Pablo Picasso
and Fernand Leger
The next section highlights Surrealism
[see Surreal Houston
All of the usual suspects appear; including a painting of pants standing on a table by Rene Magritte
The last room of this section contains a surprise, a survey of the career of Piet Mondrian
, one of the most important geometric painters in history.
After art school, he started painting realistic paintings of the Dutch countryside.
Even these show flashes of his later ideas, because they emphasize composition with everything precisely laid out to create balance.
Mondrian had a brief flirtation with Impressionism, which looks really out of place in the survey, and then had a life-altering discovery of Cubism.
He performed a long investigation of this art movement, ultimately creating paintings composed only of horizontal and vertical lines.
These ultimately led to the severely geometric paintings in primary colors that made him famous. Contemporary art
, which this museum defines as art made after World War II, gets its own section.
Huge canvases made by Abstract Expressonists
fill the first few rooms, including Cathedral by Jackson Pollock
, an Untitled by Arshile Gorky
, and Slate Cross by Franz Kline
. Pop art
makes an appearance, including Skyway by Robert Rauschenberg
Pride of place goes to Paper Clip by James Rosenquist
, a picture of consumer detritus on a huge scale, with the Dallas Pegasus [see Dallas goes Bling
] front and center as the Mobil logo.
Art from the last two decades, as expected, ranged all over the place. Cindy Sherman
’s staged photographs sit near a huge photo-based collage from Jess
. Jenny Holzer
’s electronic sign based work appears near a picture of the Empire State building in flat colors from Robert Moskowitz
. Donald Judd
[see Minimalist Art on Maximum Scale
] appears with a series of precisely machined open boxes arranged vertically on the wall.
One of my disappointments in the Southwest was the lack of a comprehensive museum on Native American crafts.
Those that showed it explored the subject mostly in terms of history [see Cedar Mesa: Southeast Utah’s Wonderland
Admittedly, my schedule forced me to bypass the most important museum on the subject, the Heard Museum
in Phoenix Arizona.
Thus, I was delighted to discover that the Dallas Museum of Art has a comprehensive pottery collection
Much of the bowls and pitchers were covered in geometric designs of various types, plus images of birds and animals.
The most striking were the black and white designs of Mogollon pottery
, all of which contained holes for some reason.
[LATE UPDATE] I’ve found out that Mogollon bowls were made for specific individuals and buried with them in their graves.
The holes were punched at that time, to aid the spirit’s journey to the next world.
The museum included a temporary show on Mark Bradford
I’ve seen his painting/collage hybrids before.
He works by layering posters found in his Los Angeles neighborhood, cutting them with a knife, and then painting over them.
The results look like highly stylized maps of some distant place.
His most famous work contains a huge group of small white squares overwhelming a darker area in the middle of the canvas, Scorched Earth
It’s a memorial to a race riot in Tulsa Oklahoma
in 1921 that completely destroyed a prosperous black neighborhood.
Like the Creativity Lab back in Columbus Ohio [see The History of a Misguided Intention
], this museum has a place for people to study and experiment with making art, the Center for Creative Connections
The more of these spaces I see, the more I like them.
This one had a theme of ‘space
How do artists manipulate space within a gallery or painting, and to what ends?
For classical art, the answer is pretty obvious; for modernist work on the other hand, it’s usually not.
The exhibit had sculptures for people to study, next to sheets with questions to answer.
The finished sheets are posted on the wall.
One sculpture was incredibly conceptual, a small classical statue looking directly at a mirror.
What is this about?
After a while it dawned on me that I was looking at the statue exactly the same way that it would be looking at me; by viewing the work people become part of it!
Normally, this would only be spelled out in a caption a mile long.
Another sculpture was a detailed model of the Eiffel Tower, made entirely from Erector set parts.
A true classical statue also made an appearance.
I enjoyed this room, and wish more museums had them.
The museum has a small sculpture court.
It’s dominated by an enormous surrealist tile mosaic, Genesis the Gift of Life
by Miguel Covarrubias.
It originally hung in a downtown Dallas office tower, and was donated to the museum in the mid-90s.
The rest is pretty minor by comparison.
My last item was the most unexpected architectural landmark in the Dallas area.
The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex has the second highest concentration of malls in the United States, after greater Los Angeles.
Like malls everywhere, nearly all were designed for pure functionality over aesthetics.
Dallas holds the exception, the Northpark Center
Its design is so distinctive the American Institute of Architects once called it the most important mall in the world.
The original version of the mall was one of the last designs completed by famous architect Eliel Saarinen
, who is most known for his rejected design for the Chicago Tribune building [see The Birth of The Modern City
He died before groundbreaking, so local firm Omniplan took over.
They stayed true to Saarinen’s design ideas through multiple expansions, resulting in an architectural masterpiece
Along the way, the owners filled their mall with sculpture and artwork
, creating a place even non-shoppers can enjoy.
The mall puts out an art guide to go with the store list.
I haven’t seen a center like this since Country Club Plaza in Kansas City [see Treasures of Art and History
The mall looks like none other I have ever seen.
The mall’s design is a classic of the International Style, long concrete ceiling slabs over walls of precisely aligned yellow and white bricks.
The narrower corridors felt like a well designed warehouse (part of the International Style aesthetic involves indifference to function) but the rest worked well.
Uniquely, this mall completely surrounds an open courtyard, an incredibly peaceful oasis in the Dallas sprawl.
The art includes some large modern sculptures, including Ad Astra by Mark di Suvero
, and 20 Elements by Joel Shapiro
Some of it appears in really unexpected places, such as the Andy Warhol prints lining the corridor to the bathrooms.
What a pretty place!