THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
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