Behind the Lines

Conover Hunt and the Sixth Floor Museum.

April 1988By Comments

Certainly few people in America remember the first three days of last June with the clarity that Conover Hunt does. She had just returned to Dallas from Virginia to take a job as a project director with the Dallas County Historical Foundation. In her new house the plumbing backed up; she arrived at work to find that her office was in an old elevator shaft. Then came the phone calls.

“On Monday I found out about what DART was planning,” she told me. “On Tuesday I found out about the city. On Wednesday, the third of June, I found out about the state.”

“Is that also when you found out about the archeologist?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said, lighting a fresh cigarette and taking a long drag. “That wasn’t until June fifteenth.”

The project that Conover Hunt returned to direct is called “The Sixth Floor.” The name refers to an area in the old Texas School Book Depository. There, in late November 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald sat with a mail-order rifle propped on cardboard boxes as President Kennedy rode in a black convertible through downtown Dallas.

“The Sixth Floor” is not intended as a memoriam of any kind but rather as an educational exhibit about a momentous event in recent history. The project has survived the lingering antipathy for the depository in Dallas as well as the gimlet-eyed scrutiny of certain special interests, each committed to preserving the past but each with its own reason for doing so. For one group, the past has a commercial value; for another, it has a scholarly value. The third believes the past should be preserved in order to serve the curiosity of the broadest public possible. Amazingly, given modern urban politics, each of those interests was able to get what it wanted. Not so amazingly, I suppose, getting what they wanted made the cost increase.

Since 1963 the depository changed hands several times until Dallas County bought it in 1977. The county hired James Hendricks, who had renovated the old Cumberland Hill School for the headquarters of Bill Clements’ Sedco, still one of the most admired restorations in Texas. Today the interior of the depository holds a courtroom on the first floor and offices on the second through fifth floors. The effect is one of open spaces, sandblasted wood, and polished brick, the kind of place you might expect for an advertising agency or a recording studio.

The sixth floor wasn’t touched, even though the public longed for something there. Every day, visitors arrive at Dealey Plaza. They look about, take pictures, point up at the sixth-floor window; some still leave flowers. Inside the building is a small alcove with a guest register. Although no sign points the way, people find their way in, and list of names in the register grows daily.

One obstacle to opening the sixth floor was finding a good way to an expected half a million people a year up there and back down. The county didn’t want lines of people filing through its offices, and the structural design of the building prevented any feasible second entrance on the ground. Architect Hendricks devised a solution—a separate elevator tower at the back of the building that would connect with the sixth floor by a short sky bridge. In 1983, the Dallas Landmark Commission, which has the power to approve changes in historic Dallas buildings, agreed to the plan for the separate tower and the exhibit settled into dormancy.

On January 2, 1987, Lee Jackson, an earnest, hardworking Republican with ten years of experience in the state legislature, took office as the county judge. In his inaugural speech, he promised to revive the idea of a sixth-floor exhibit and to get the project done. The twenty-fifth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination was coming up, and that was long enough to wait for something in Dallas that would try to describe the sad event and its effect on history. The pledge excited Lindalyn Adams, a civic volunteer with a bottomless pool of energy and the president of the historical foundation. She soon had Hendricks working on plans, Jackson working on funding, and Conover Hunt on the road back to Dallas.

One bad sign was a call on June 2 from the landmark commission. Its members weren’t so sure they liked the idea of an elevator tower and sky bridge after all. Since 1983 the whole area behind the depository had experienced a renaissance. For practically a century the West End had been an area of little else but warehouses. Then in what seemed like a matter of months it was transformed into a polished brick-and-neon center of restaurants and clubs that attracts thousands of people. Landlords and tenants in the West End are jealous of what they see as the area’s special qualities. They have a task force to advise the landmark commission on proposed projects in the West End, and the task force was adamant about two aspects of Hendricks’ plan. One was the elevator tower, the other was landscaping.

Hendricks had proposed that a visitors center at the base of the elevator tower be set back from the street and landscaped so that trees would provide shade for visitors. Yet warehouses districts rarely have congenial landscaping—certainly the West End never did—and the task force didn’t see any reason to start now. It wanted a “hard streetscape” or, in laymen’s terms, a brick wall along the sidewalk. Nor did it want the tower. Hendricks was . . . oh, let’s just say he was not immediately enthusiastic about these changes. “I’ve been doing this for a while,” he told me recently. “I’ve won my share of awards. I’ve done the Tarrant County courthouse, still one of the biggest restorations ever completed in Texas. I’ve done the Governor’s Mansion. I know a little bit about restoration. But when you go to talk to some of these people, none of that means a thing to them.”

Hunt and the others held firm on the tower since they could see no other solution, but they gave in on the setback with its shady landscaping. “You want the building permit,” Conover Hunt said in a meeting, “then give ’em the brick wall.” That decision raised the price of the project by 60,000. “Now,” Lee Jackson told me with a faint, wistful smile, “people who are eating and drinking in the West End will be able to look up and pretend they’re seeing a warehouse.” The West End task fhorce still strongly sobjected to the tower, but the landmark commission approved it anyway, ruling that their favorable decision in 1983 was binding.

Now everything should have been ready to go, except for the archeologist. A state law says that land under construction paid for by public finds must have an archeologist survey before building can proceed. After that, there may be a full-scale dig, paid for by the builders, if the survey shows there is a reasonable chance of finding artifacts of interest.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), while exploring routes for its rail lines, had employed archeologists form Southern Methodist University to do just such research. DART had originally planned to build a portal, basically an open ditch with railroad tracks, behind the depository. That would have used space that the county needed for a parking garage for visitors to the planned exhibit on the sixth floor. After talks with the county, DART had agreed to consider moving the portal a little northwest, behind the famous grassy knoll. That solved the DART portal problem, but DART’s archeologists were another matter.

“June fifteenth is when I heard about the Pompeii of Dallas,” Conover Hunt recalls. She got a call from one of the archeologists, Randall Moir of SMU. He told her that the area behind the building where they were planning the elevator tower and visitors center was the only block in downtown Dallas that had not been built on in this century. It was part of John Neely Bryan’s original grant. Also, the site was once an important Indian camping place. And before that, prehistoric beasts had probably roamed the area searching for food and water. “I had a vision of wooly-mammoth bones down there,” she says. “Do you know how long it takes to excavate a whole wooly-mammoth? Months!” Best of all, in 1882 the railroad had dumped several feet of fill to build a switching yard, preserving everything underneath. Thus, the Pompeii of Dallas. Once the archeologists started digging, it could be a long time before they were finished. And Moir had been quoted in the newspaper earlier as saying the cost would be reasonable: “well under one million dollars.”

What to do? Hendricks and his partner, Tony Callaway, were sent into the fray with instructions to make sure the archeologists were finished by March 1. The final compromise was that the county would clear away all the fill in one swoop. That would expose the whole area to the archeologists’ spades, a luxury they would not otherwise have. In return, the dig would finish in the allotted time. And the cost was well under $1 million—$75,000. (The archeologists discovered even more than they had hoped. In particular, they proved that in early Dallas white and black families lived on the same block.)

On February 29 the county commissioners voted the final $2.3 million for the project, and now at last construction has begun. The goal is to be done in time to open in early November. If that proves impossible, the opening will be delayed for a respectful time after November 22. And once the exhibit is open the most powerful reason for preserving the past will be apparent: its mystery.

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