Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Dec. 13, 2013

Behind the scenes at Dealey Plaza

People are drawn to visit places of historical importance. Yet few sites are compatible with the wear and tear that comes naturally from such attention. Those responsible for such a location are often faced with difficult decisions relating to balancing preservation with access. The challenge is amplified when the original event is one that evokes strong emotions.

My nephew Paul is a principal in the Dallas, Texas landscape architecture firm Studio One. In cooperation with architecture firm Good Fulton and Farrell, they were recently involved in the renovation of the site where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A few days before the 50th anniversary, Paul emailed me a press release about the work on Dealey Plaza, the site of the Texas School Book Depository and the Sixth Floor Museum.

Renovation included repair and restoration to both north and south shaded walkways, revitalizing the fountains, complete with new nozzles, mechanical equipment and filtration methods. The irrigation system was repaired and new turf was installed over engineered soil containing synthetic fibers to help offset the effects of heavy foot traffic and soil compaction. Existing site trees were carefully pruned and the large live oaks on the eroded slopes of the Grassy Knoll were stabilized.

Additions include a series of new concrete sidewalks and ADA-compliant ramps to maximize accessibility and circulation, shrubs and groundcover beds, lighting, and a series of small graphic educational panels, including one containing a quote from Kennedy on the north-side lawn.

Since Paul was born in 1975, I quizzed him about what research the firms did before starting on the renovation.

"I didn't know much other than the major facts of the assassination. Once we started working on the standards in 2003 and reviewing film, I was able to spend time in the Sixth Floor Museum and get a better understanding of the details around the event and learn more about the different conspiracies theories. The Sixth Floor Museum is really an incredible resource to learn more about what happened."

Paul said he and the others had a chance to review film shot by different photographers that is stored in the vaults of the museum. They were allowed, under guard, to review additional video, photos, and news clippings from that day.

"... Dealey has gone through a number of changes over the years. There are many historical blueprints and photos from its inception to its present-day state and there were a number of details we had to get right to get it back to November 1963."

They studied 10 different shots of the fountain taken over the years to get the nozzle displays right.

"We thought there were only three nozzles on each side of the plaza, when in reality there were four. One was just broken when the photographs were taken in December of that year. The city always thought that there were three, but research showed that the fountains were supposed to have four to a side. Small details like that allowed us to uncover a snapshot of that single moment in time."

Paul said maintenance had been poor. Plants were allowed to die, irrigation heads remained broken, graffiti was abundant, erosion on the Grassy Knoll was out of control, and the structure of the pergolas shading the walkway on either side of the plaza were in decay.

"The biggest challenge was finding an overall solution for the site that is both historically accurate, yet meets the demands and pressures created by so many people coming to this space. Prior to 1963, the site was a simple, civic green space - more of a visual monument than a functioning park. Now, 50 years later, after millions of visitors have walked through it, we had to rethink how the site would be used going forward, while maintaining the fundamental goal, which was restoring the site to a snapshot in time.

"This has given the park and green space new life."

Top: Dealey Plaza looking east. Top arrow points to book depository where the shooter was located. Bottom: Looking southwest from approximately the location of lower arrow in top picture. The area was named after George Dealey, a long-time Dallas newspaper publisher and businessman. Photos by Arlen Kennedy.

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