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Park History

For more than a century the citizens of Dallas, Texas and its surrounding communities have been well-served by Fair Park. Home to the annual State Fair of Texas, the 277-acre park also functions as a year-round center of education, entertainment, recreation and culture. Declared a National Historical Landmark in 1986 by the U.S. Department of the Interior, it is the only intact Depression-era exposition site in the United States.

Fair Park was "born" in 1886 when eighty acres of "hog-wallow prairie" on the outskirts of East Dallas were chosen as the site of the "Dallas State Fair," the "grand-daddy" of today's State Fair of Texas. A rival "Texas State Fair" was held in North Dallas that same year when some of the original fair's founders broke away, accusing the others of self-interest in the selection of the East Dallas site. In early 1887 the two factions eventually buried the hatchet and merged to form an association called the "Texas State Fair and Dallas Exposition." At that time, they gave up the North Dallas site and retained the East Dallas grounds which today form the nucleus of Fair Park.


Original State Fair Exposition Building

In 1904 a financially-strapped State Fair association sold the fairgrounds to the City of Dallas after voters approved the "Reardon Plan," which strove to keep the site out of the hands of real-estate developers. Known officially as "Fair Park" ever since, the State Fair association continued to maintain the grounds in return for the right to hold the annual State Fair on the site each fall. This arrangement lasted until January 1, 1988 when administration of the park was transferred to the Dallas Parks Department. Happily, the State Fair continues to be held every year. For many Texans, it is as much a part of life as Christmas or the Fourth of July, and just as eagerly anticipated.

There can be no doubt that one of the most important milestone years in the history of Fair Park was 1936, when the Texas Centennial Exposition was held on the site. In preparation for the six-month long event, the appearance of the park was dramatically altered by architect George Dahl and an army of artisans and workers. Together, they transformed it from an early Twentieth century fairground into a veritable Art Deco showcase. Most of Fair Park's present-day structures date from 1936 and the few pre-Centennial buildings left standing were remodeled at the same time. Some of the Exposition's buildings were meant to be temporary. It's interesting to note that while several of these "temporary" structures have since been demolished, most are still in use today.

The Texas Centennial Exposition opened on Saturday, June 6, 1936. By the time it closed on Sunday, November 29, 1936 it had hosted over six-million visitors from around the world. Among the more noteworthy visitors were President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice-President John Nance "Cactus Jack" Garner, child-actress Shirley Temple, musician "Duke" Ellington, actress Ginger Rogers, and a western-style singing group called the Sons of the Pioneers. One of their members was a young man named Len Slyle who later changed his name to Roy Rogers. Another singing cowboy, the already well-known Gene Autry, made a movie on the Exposition grounds. It was appropriately titled "The Big Show." Providing news coverage was a rookie radio announcer named Art Linkletter, who would also go on to greater fame.

In the sixty years since the Centennial Exposition there have been other changes at Fair Park, but none quite as dramatic. As a result, the park still retains much of the architectural flavor of the Texas Centennial Exposition and its successor, the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition of 1937. It seems this is not due to any plan. Rather, it is the result of the benign neglect to which many of the park's buildings have been subjected over the years.

During the 1980s there was some renewed interest in the park. Between 1987 and 1989 the exterior of the Hall of State was cleaned and repaired and its interior restored and remodeled. The Automobile Building, constructed in 1947 to replace the Centennial Building's twin, was remodeled in 1985-1986 to resemble the original structure and to restore some measure of visual harmony to the Esplanade area.

As the 21st century begins, the future of Fair Park is uncertain. While no one has seriously suggested that all its buildings be leveled and the land be put to some other use, there are concerns that the park is not being adequately maintained, that many of the Centennial structures are deteriorating and that Fair Park is underused. Sadly, the solution to these problems may yet be many more years in coming.

Copyright © 2002-2003 by Steven Butler. All rights reserved.