Briar Patch

March 1973By , and Comments


PERSONALS—SEVEN-STORY BUILDING ON well-traveled Dallas corner. Within easy walking distance of County Courthouse, John F. Kennedy Memorial, Dealey Plaza. Once used to store books; now empty. Has potential for use as historical museum, or can be torn down and land converted to other use. Need advice on what to do with it. Please help. Signed, Dallas City Council.

In 1894, the Southern Rock Island Plow Company bought a plot of ground at what is now 411 Elm St. in Dallas. The land had been part of the homestead of John Neely Bryan, who founded the city.

The plow company built a fairly large, nondescript red brick building on the site in 1903. After a variety of uses, the building came into the hands of the Texas School Book Depository Company in 1960. Into their employ came a man named Lee Harvey Oswald. And according to the Warren Commission, on November 22, 1963, into Oswald's telescopic sight came President John F. Kennedy.

Tourist traffic around the site in Dallas is rather brisk. The building is definitely an attraction, even though Oswald's sixth-floor vantage point isn't open to the public. People come in bunches and droves, from all over the world, snapping pictures, gawking. Not too long ago, the building's owners had to take the cornerstone out and brick over the hole because souvenir hunters were chipping the stone to pieces.

Obviously, the public considers it a historical landmark. But much of official Dallas doesn't want the building to be there. It's a grim reminder of that day the world looked askance at Dallas (despite the fact that Oswald was apparently some shade of Marxist,) and blamed the right-wing attitude of Dallas for the President's death. There were lots of folks who figured the town that spat on Adlai Stevenson and kicked Lyndon Johnson in the behind was just doing business as usual when Kennedy came to town.

During the first few years after the assassination, the Depository was ignored. (The Texas School Book Depository Co. moved out in the late 1960's, and wishes people would please quit calling it the school book depository.)

In 1969, incoming State Senator Mike McKool of Dallas said the state really should take over the building and do something with it.


In 1970, owner D. Harold Byrd put the building on the auction block. The high bidder, at $650,000, was Aubrey Mayhew of Nashville, Tenn., a music firm executive and almost pack-rattish collector of Kennedy memorabilia. Mayhew said he was going to turn the building into a museum.

Suddenly everyone got alarmed. McKool renewed his suggestion that the building should be taken over by the state and preserved as a museum run by some public agency.

In late 1971, the Dallas Chamber of Commerce asked that the state buy the building so it wouldn't become a commercial tourist attraction. McKool suggested that the committee that had been set up to decide how Texas should memorialize Kennedy should petition the Texas Legislature for power of eminent domain and money to purchase the building.

The committee did so, but the chairman of that group, Dallas developer Raymond Nasher, seemed in late 1971 to favor tearing the building down.

And then Mayhew ran into financial trouble, and Byrd, an oilman who acquaintances say would like to see the "right" thing done with the building, foreclosed. When that happened, in mid-1972, efforts on both sides to reach some decision intensified.

City Councilman Garry Weber, an establishmentarian-turned-maverick, said the city should buy the building and do something with it.

Councilmen Russell Smith and Fred Zeder, establishmentarians-still-establishmentarians, said the city should buy it and tear it down.

"This building will never be a memorial to John F. Kennedy, only to Lee Harvey Oswald," said Smith. "It should be torn down and a park or something else positive built there."

There are those who compare the depository to Ford's Theater in Washington, D. C., where President Abraham Lincoln was killed. But there is a difference: both Lincoln and his assassin were in Ford's Theater, while Kennedy had never set foot in the depository.

The city council finally resolved last fall to make efforts to have the property designated a national historical site; in the interim, the council also resolved, the building should be neither cleaned up nor torn down.

While Mayhew owned the building, he had tried to get the state committee that must nominate buildings for the national historical register to give the depository a green light. But the committee refused, worried that the building would become a tawdry venture in commercialism.

Blake Alexander of Austin, an architecture professor at the University of Texas and chairman of the seven-member committee, said recently that the committee might take a different attitude toward the building if it felt some entity like the National Park Service would be running it as a tasteful museum. "I think in that case it might be reasonable to keep it," Alexander said.

"It's a good strong building," mused owner Byrd. He says its walls are "three or four feet thick."

"I think it would be silly to tear it down," he said. "They might make this attractive enough that it might be complimentary to Dallas."

He told us he has been offered $1.2 million for the building, which he considers a fair price. But some of those offering that sum wanted to tear the building down and sell it off at $5 a brick. Byrd said he didn't want to see that happen. While he'd rather see it taken over, restored and run by a public authority, Byrd told us he'll defer to the city council. "I'll leave it in their hands—whatever they want to do," he said.

The city council position, according to seasoned observors of that body, is that it would be willing to retain the structure if someone else would pay for it. If the city has to pay—well, that's another thing.

Raymond Nasher, the head of the Kennedy memoral committee, has had a change of heart since 1971, when he seemed to favor tearing the building down. Early this year, he said he would favor keeping the exterior of the building if it is declared a national historic site. The inside of the building, he said, might be altered "to relate to some of the things that the president was very interested in."

Failing that, he said, the building should be torn down and something reminiscent of Kennedy put in its place.

"The feeling is, it could go in either direction," Nasher said. The decision on what to do with it, even if national historical status is granted, will depend on the city council, he says.

The usual rule for Congress to grant federal money for such a project is that there be unified community support for it. But, the city council is divided.

They can decide to tear down a historical legacy, trying to obliterate guilt Dallas says it shouldn't have anyway. Or they can leave it intact and try to get it made into a federal historical museum, with the possible charge that they helped commemorate an assassin.

And there the council is, in a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't position.

Don't hold your breath, America.


MALE TOPLESS DANCERS? YES INDEED; step right up; courtesy of the voters of the state of Texas. The voters of the state of Texas? Well, it happened this way...

At least one night club owner has decided to deter—or at least confuse—his local vice squad by taking to heart our new constitutional requirement that "equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex..." He's hired a young college football player to bump and grind on stage, topless of course, for a few minutes before the regular bevy of female beauties appear. If it's legal for a man to dance topless, reasons the night club owner, then it's the rankest form of sex discrimination to prevent women from doing the same thing.

Rank or not, he may have a point. When the voters approved Amendment 7 last November by a lopsided majority, few paused to reflect on the implications of declaring sex equality to be part of our fundamental law. If a man can legally dance topless, it will tax the ingenuity of a city councilman to figure out a way to keep the pasties on the women without mentioning their gender in his statute. Perhaps we will see a spate of ordinances forbidding men to dance topless too; but then what about on the beach, or those naked-to-the-waist construction crews in the summer time? You never know where a liberated woman is going to turn up next. The public decency statutes may be in for a hard time.

But even if our lawmakers can somehow breast this onslaught of nipples and areolae, the grooming codes so dear to the heart of almost every Texas school board seem doomed beyond rescue. It's probably no exaggeration to say that every public school hair regulation went straight out the window with the adoption of Amendment 7. Who can force an unwilling high school boy to shear his shoulder-length locks, so long as the girls are permitted to keep theirs? The courts in several other states with "equal rights" amendments on their books have already declared that requiring shorter hair for males than females constitutes unlawful sex discrimination. Strange as this may sound to Texan ears, we voted for it, didn't we?

As the word rolls out to the provinces, look for a courageous school board (Midland? Pasadena? Borger?) to defend the honor of Texas manhood with the only means left: crewcuts for everyone. It'll be a whole new look in drum majorettes.


IT IS NO SECRET THAT Texas Attorney General John Hill looks cordially on the idea of running for governor next year. He may have found the issue he needs in Houston's ever-worsening smog. There is a growing indication that Hill actually intends to use the long-dormant enforcement powers of his office against polluters. A Houstonian himself, he is said to feel that Harris County voters (who constitute nearly 25 per cent of the state's Democratic party electorate) are willing to see some industries shut down, if that is the price that must be paid for cleaner air. He is in a position to do it.

We paid a visit not long ago to Hill's regional office in the Bayou city, where two young lawyers (the first of a proposed staff of five) are brushing the dust off several dozen air pollution cases that have been lying around for as long as five years. The lawyers—former legislative aide Terence O'Rourke and former Assistant District Attorney Rod Gorman—are taking aim squarely at major companies like Armco Steel and Champion Paper, instead of following the traditional Houston policy of harassing garbage dump operators and other topwaters who lack political clout

It remains to be seen whether O'Rourke and Gorman will get very far. A federal pollution lawsuit against Armco was squelched during last year's presidential campaign, allegedly on direct White House orders. There is no doubt that the major polluters still rest fairly comfortably in their belief that well-placed campaign support carries more weight than public indignation about bad air. They probably have enjoyed an occasional chuckle at the thought of Hill's two-man staff toiling away at their desks across the hall from John's Beauty Parlor in a stodgy, unprepossessing old building on North Main. The striking white skyline of corporate Houston towers above it, and they helped build that skyline. Who is John Hill anyway?

O'Rourke seems confident that Hill intends to carry out a hard-line policy, however. One of the first cases will be against Armco, where he is seeking more than two million dollars in accumulated fines. He expects to win it. Sitting at his desk in front of the usual diplomas (including a Texas law degree and a Rice master's degree in geology), silently watched by a small portrait of Lorenzo de Medici, he conveys the impression of a man who sees more in his work than an eight-to-five job.

"This pollution thing has to be won, especially the air pollution," he says. "The air in this town is killing people, actually killing them. It's a question of whether we can keep Houston a place that's worth living and raising a family in. What does it mean for me to quit smoking cigarettes, if living in Houston is the same as smoking three packs a day?"

O'Rourke shakes his head over the sense of priorities which local pollution officials have often shown in past years...Just look at this list of cases referred by the City of Houston," he says. "Half of them are garbage dumps. Here's a dump; another dump; here's Robert's Dump. There was a suit in here a while back against one called Grandma's. Dump. I know you can't ignore these things, but we have to have some feeling for what's most important. So you do shut down Robert's Dump; he just moves somewhere else. What about the kind of pollution that comes from major industries—the heavy metals, the acids that etch people's lungs, the odors that can make a whole neighborhood vomit? We can't keep on ducking these and expect to have a place worth living in."

He clearly feels that the previous Attorney General, the late Crawford Martin, ducked the hard cases. "The Environmental Division tried exactly two air pollution cases in the whole state last year," he says indignantly. "One was a sheep feed lot in West Texas and the other one was a chicken rendering plant near Waco. They won on the feed lot, and they got a hung jury in Waco."

Gorman spent his tenure as an assistant to Carol Vance bringing misdemeanor pollution lawsuits throughout Harris County. He and O'Rourke have come up with at least one novel technique which hasn't been used before: advertising for evidence. Beginning February 1, both of the Houston dailies began carrying legal notices concerning a suit against U.S. Plywood-Champion Papers, Inc., for alleged odor pollution. The notices read:

"Citizens with facts regarding whether or not the paper mill involved in this case causes air pollution are requested to call the attorney general's special deputy at 524-0607. All information supplied will be kept in confidence."

If this approach induces the victims of pollution to step forward and make themselves heard, Hill's trial lawyers may start winning some significant victories. If that happens, Houstonians may find themselves in the middle of a vigorous debate about how far the state should go in shutting down polluters. And the 1974 gubernatorial race may develop its first issue.


A SHORT TIME AGO WE attended the opening of Helena's School of Bellydancing. The school is in a converted home on Westheimer in Houston, up one flight from The Bacchanal, a Greek restaurant where Helena dances nightly.

Helena is a lovely dark-haired lady with eyelashes out to there and flesh of swirling satin. With pride and grace she showed us around the studio. She told us it had just been completed that afternoon. Flourishing long, deeply colored nails, Helena remarked that she still had dirt beneath them from working on the place.

There was champagne and Greek delicacies; dancing by young Greek apprentice-bellydancers; and afterwards complimentary drinks downstairs and a chance to see Helena perform. Of those who attended and were considering taking a course, none professed the desire to actually perform as a bellydancer—though several expressed interest in teaching it—except for one girl in high curled hair and stage make-up whose life's ambition it was. Few, in fact, were certain they would take the course at all, and for most, the hang-up was money. A ten week course of ten one-hour lessons is $100: $50 down, $50 halfway through (all major credit cards accepted). As most prospects seemed to be either young single working girls looking for something fun to do or suburban mothers interested in toning up midsections, it was a lot of money.

We all seemed to be checking out bellies and going at it about as slyly as conventioneers checking name tags. Few bellies looked promising. Helena's, of course, will likely dance her into heaven, but as for the others: Well, a person could only sympathize. After years of being maligned, constricted and flattened, those poor bellies were now faced with being asked to perform, to roll and shimmy and dance to the music. To be, above all, beautiful. It seemed a lot to ask, but nearly every belly did its best.

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