One Memorial Day weekend a couple of years ago, as I was driving through peaceful urban canyons in downtown Dallas, I began to worry that a smart bomb had been dropped near the convention center. Where was everyone? I’d forgotten that on this weekend, the state’s city dwellers, as genetically programmed as salmon, migrate en masse to cool bodies of water. This year around 350,000 of them will descend on Lake Texoma, some 50,000 will clog the Guadalupe River, and 50,000 more will roast on the coast at South Padre. If you’re looking for a relaxing holiday, why not buck this trend? I for one would head into the heart of Dallas, where museums aren’t crowded, hotel rates are rock bottom, and reservation lists at even the trendiest restaurants are full of holes. Some might argue that the business district is snooze city on any weekend—or even weeknight—but I’m here to warn you that Dallas seems hell-bent on revitalizing its center, a concentrated area of historic and modern high-rises flanked by the West End and Deep Ellum.
Nothing broadcasts the fledgling renaissance louder than the red neon Pegasus on the roof of the old Magnolia Petroleum Building, smack-dab in the middle of downtown. We all know the story of how this winged pony, who sprang from Medusa’s neck after Perseus lobbed off her head, pranced around releasing springs and muses wherever his hooves struck the earth. (Okay, so I didn’t know that until I read about it on a rock in the artsy fountain next to the building. Greek mythology wasn’t offered at Bellville High.) In 1934 Magnolia Petroleum (later Mobil Oil) crowned its corporate headquarters, the tallest building in Texas when it opened in 1922, with a fifteen-ton Pegasus revolving atop an oil derrick. The flying horse became a mascot for the booming metropolis. Then, in 1974, the aging steed stopped spinning. Three years later Mobil abandoned its downtown digs and turned the structure over to the city. In 1997 Pegasus blinked out and the gods of urban revival wept—but not for long. That same year Denver developers bought the 29-story building and converted it into a swank 330-room hotel. And as part of Dallas’ millennium celebration, Pegasus—well, a $600,000 reproduction; the original is now behind Plexiglas at the Dallas Farmer’s Market—was relit at the turn of the century.
The minute I stepped inside the Magnolia Hotel on a recent weekend, my inner decorator squealed with pleasure: a totally chintz-free zone! You could call the style Prairie Zen deco, a sort of Restoration Hardware meets Tokyo via Radio City Music Hall: dark-wood accents, frosted glass, curvaceous seating. And while a hotel this size offers the anonymity I find so comforting, the staff, without exception, was as welcoming as the decor.
Although the hotel was designed primarily for businesspeople on extended stays, weekend interlopers can take advantage of the great rates on its expansive rooms, no two of which are alike. One of the six original elevators, emblazoned with the Pegasus logo, whisked my husband, Richard, and me up to our room so fast we left our stomachs somewhere in the lobby. Our suite, number 1414, boasted a living area large enough for cartwheels, a life-size kitchen, a huge bathroom with a tub for two, and a corner bedroom with a view east to Deep Ellum. Done up in light ocher with greenish-gray accents, the room sported furnishings I can best describe as Danish modern with a sense of humor. The nine tall windows framed architectural snapshots of neighboring buildings and glimpses of the U-shaped Magnolia itself. After dark, the city’s glow seeping through our room’s blinds cast menacing shadows on the walls and Pegasus’ red reflection burned on the glass walls of One Bell Plaza across the street. Muted sirens, truck engines, and grinding gears merged into a haunting urban soundtrack. This touch of noir-ness made me want to vamp around in high heels and a slinky dress, calling Richard “you big lug” while he drank shots of gin.
Instead, we held on to our hats, plummeted back down to the lobby, where we collected our stomachs, and crossed the street to France—I mean Jeroboam, a hopping bistro in the renovated Kirby Building, built in 1913. (Will people come downtown at night? Evidently they will if you offer them an encyclopedic wine list, crisp fried oysters, steak au poivre, and perfect Dover sole in a theatrically stylish atmosphere.)
Although I could certainly have used the exercise after dinner, we hailed a taxi instead of walking the eight long blocks to Deep Ellum, an eclectic neighborhood of bars, galleries, shops, and restaurants. Our driver, a dapper man with a Nigerian accent, lamented the lack of activity downtown. “Any great city,” he philosophized, “must be judged by the life on its streets. They are trying for more people, but it is still gloomy.” He obviously wasn’t talking about our destination, an area where goths and bikers and bow-heads window-shop for everything from tattoos to home furnishings (you could get an eyebrow pierced and studded to match your nailhead-and-leather ottoman!) and damage their hearing listening to rockabilly or technopop in the hodgepodge of clubs. We opted for mellow, head-bobbing jazz at Sambuca, a sophisticated restaurant cum cocktail lounge, before flagging down a taxi for the ride back, during which our driver, the formidable Cowboy Judy, told us, “I don’t go anywhere without my two best friends, Smith and Wesson. And my pepper spray.” (Okay, okay—we won’t stiff you.)
We enjoyed our cab rides so much we decided to take our transportainment one step further by—gasp!—leaving the car parked at the hotel. Yes, my fellow Texans, we’re talking public transportation here, but guess what? It was fun. The Magnolia sits a mere two blocks from DART’s Akard Station, where an electric train will quietly take you across downtown faster than you can say “Feed the parking meter.” A two-minute ride from the hotel will deliver you to the West End, a multiblock area of turn-of-the-century warehouses where vintage street lamps, horse-drawn carriages, and themed restaurants like Planet Hollywood lend a Disney-esque air. The Sixth Floor Museum, on Dealey Plaza, has sobering exhibits on the Kennedy assassination while at the nearby grassy knoll, an enterprising (but not so sensitive) hot dog vendor offers his wares. Culture vultures can flock to museums and theaters in the Arts District, seven blocks from the hotel on the northern edge of downtown. And who said you can’t simply walk the streets admiring stunning architecture, like the ornate Adolphus Hotel, across the street from the Magnolia, or I. M. Pei’s Fountain Place, a green-glass tower rising from a plaza with pools, waterfalls, and geysers near the Arts District? Downtown attractions could keep you busy for days, but if you must venture farther afield, you can take a fifteen-minute train ride to the Dallas Zoo or a twenty-minute ride north to the Southern Methodist University campus and raucous Greenville Avenue, with its mixed bag of eateries, clubs, and shops from fancy to funky. Or hop aboard the McKinney Avenue Trolley in the Arts District to explore the galleries, antiques stores, and restaurants of Uptown, a ten-block stretch of McKinney between St. Paul and Hall streets north of downtown. Although plagued with perpetual construction, the avenue is worth the trip for a nosh at the ultrahip Salve! Ristorante, near the western end of the trolley line, and an arty experience at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary (the MAC) at the other end.
Just because Dallas will be quiet, don’t imagine for a moment that it will be dead. Over the holiday weekend you can catch the National Tap Dance Day Celebration in the Arts District or the annual Artfest at Fair Park, a deco mecca itself where you’ll find nine museums, including one of the nation’s top repositories of African American history, art, and culture.
In a recent poll of area residents conducted for the Dallas Morning News, more than 60 percent of respondents agreed that the city’s downtown is “undergoing a renaissance.” Well, duh. Municipal funds have been earmarked to refurbish Main Street. The convention center is in the midst of a $125 million expansion. And on the other side of Interstate 30, Gilley’s Dallas Texas—190,000 square feet of meeting space, shops, and clubs, complete with a Wild West show, rodeo arena, and “genuine” Texas honky-tonk—will soon occupy two entire blocks. Since the journey of urban renewal is sometimes more exciting than the destination—where grit and character are often obliterated by name-brand gentrification—now’s the time to visit Big D, before manic boosterism takes its toll. The beach can wait.
Magnolia Hotel, 1401 Commerce Street, 214-915-6500, 888-915-1110, fax 214-253-0053; themagnoliahotel.com. Weekend rates start at $119 for a standard room and $149 for a suite. Complimentary breakfast buffet and evening cocktail and hors d’oeuvres. Overnight parking $17.
DART rail pass $2 a day from station vending machines; schedule online at dart.org. McKinney Avenue Trolley schedule online at mata.org; $1.50 round trip. Visitors information and maps galore at the Old Red Courthouse, corner of Main and Houston, 214-571-1000; dallascvb.com.