Soon thousands will descend on Dallas’s south side for the State Fair of Texas, where, over the course of a month, you can indulge in all things fried, gawk at a thousand-pound pig, and go for a ride on the iconic Texas Star Ferris wheel. For most of the 2.5 million attendees, this may be the only version of Fair Park they’ll ever see—and that’s a real shame.
What many don’t know is that the park is open year-round and, at 277 acres, it’s one of Dallas’s largest parks. It’s also one of the most underappreciated. Fair Park houses the largest collection of art deco architecture under single ownership in the world. Remarkably intact, the thirties-era buildings represent our state’s own style of “Texanic” architecture and feature hundreds of one-of-a-kind paintings, sculptures, and more. The park also played a pivotal role in Black Texans’ fight for equality, a story that is just now starting to be told.
Recently, I bought a $10 ticket for the Fair Park tram tour, typically held the third Wednesday of the month. Norm Alston, an architect and founding member of the nonprofit Fair Park First, credits the state fair as “the reason we still have Fair Park.” He started the tram tours to solve what he describes as “the corny dog problem.”
“I love corny dogs, but Fair Park is a National Historic Landmark, just like the Alamo. When we talk about the Alamo, people talk about the battle and the things that make that place important. They don’t talk about the burgers and shakes across the street,” Alston says. “So many times when I say ‘Fair Park,’ immediately the conversation goes to corny dogs.” His tours aim to reorient visitors to think about Fair Park as, well, a park.
To get to the tour’s meeting point, you pass through the same entrance the first state fairgoers used back in 1886. Built on former cotton fields, Fair Park had other initial uses beyond the annual fair. It was home to a race track and an ice skating rink and, in 1930, the opening of the Cotton Bowl added fuel to the already fiery Texas-Oklahoma football rivalry. But what really put it on the map was the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936. Dallas wasn’t founded until almost six years after the battles at San Jacinto and the Alamo, but that didn’t stop leaders from campaigning to host the party of the century, honoring Texas independence from Mexico. With a lot of money, a fake-it-til-you-make-it bravado, and its existing status as the host of the state fair, Dallas beat out cities with more historic credentials, including Houston and San Antonio.
In less than two years, Fair Park underwent a 180-acre expansion that included fifty new buildings and a price tag of roughly $560 million today. It paid off. In a show of might, the Texas-sized world’s fair attracted 6.3 million visitors—more than the population of the state at the time. During his visit, President Franklin D. Roosevelt saluted the “Empire of Texas.” But perhaps the biggest success is that, nearly ninety years later, many of those buildings are still standing.
Visiting in the middle of a workday in May, there’s no denying the place feels different from a sweat-soaked Saturday in September. The Midway—usually a flurry of color and lights—is dark and boarded up. It’s quiet except for the far-off hum of a landscaping crew. Alston ushers our group of six onto a tram that’s typically used to ferry fairgoers to and from parking lots.
The first stop is the esplanade, considered “the holy ground” because it’s the most intact, most art-filled section of the park. Flanking a seven-hundred-foot reflecting pool, two long buildings each boast three porticos, adorned with massive, hand-painted murals that depict the state’s major industries and sculptures that symbolize the six different entities that ruled over the area (Fair Park was reportedly the first to assert the “six flags” motif). There’s no denying the art deco influence, but the style is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
As Alston explains, “Texanic architecture” was coined by George Dahl, a young Wisconsin architect who masterminded most of the centennial’s buildings. It’s characterized by simple, rectangular forms, done in a “Texas sunshine yellow.” It was an efficient and economical way to meet the centennial’s short construction timeline, but that didn’t mean Dahl sacrificed style. To zhuzh up the exteriors, he commissioned more than 250 works of art, half of which are believed to be by female artists (a rare move back in 1936). He brought sculptors from as far away as Italy and France and tasked a Hollywood set designer with the trim work. The Hall of State, which sits at one end of the esplanade, is an even bigger spectacle. It features Texas limestone on the outside, wood paneling from all of the trees native to East Texas on the inside, and a number of design “Easter eggs” that you need a pro like Alston to decode (for example, the lead architect hid his name among the names of other prominent Texans on the exterior).
With the buildings stripped of the signage that usually accompanies the state fair, I feel like I’m truly seeing them for the first time. However, it becomes clear over the course of the hour-and-a-half-long tour that there’s just as much to learn from what you don’t see.
In the decades after the centennial, works of art were painted over. (Thanks to private donations, many are being restored, but Alston estimates there’s still about 40 percent left to be discovered.) Some sculptures have mysteriously disappeared. In the case of the Woofus, an amalgamation of Texas farm animals, it may have been because it resembled a pagan god. Others were perhaps too anatomically correct for the Bible Belt.
The Centennial Expo was also rich with novelty architecture—think a building shaped like a cash register that counted attendance and a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Not far from Big Tex, a Ford exhibit allowed visitors to test drive the latest models around the lagoon. All of that’s gone now, but Alston tells me that there is some chatter around rebuilding them in the future using the original plans.
Sadly, one of the centennial’s most important buildings, the Hall of Negro Life, will likely stay lost to time. Built with federal dollars (after state leaders pulled their support), the Hall opened on Juneteenth 1936. It was the first time Black people got to tell their story at a world’s fair using their own writers, artists, and historians. All 400,000 who visited (around 60 percent were white) received W. E. B. DuBois’s pamphlet What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas and had the chance to marvel at murals painted by Aaron Douglas, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Exhibits highlighted the Black heroes of the Texas Revolution and subsequent contributions to science, music, education, and more. A 2022 documentary, Rising: The Hall of Negro Life, describes the experience as a “watershed” moment that influenced major decisions like the desegregation of the University of Texas, and yet outside those walls the city had a long way to go.
It would be another 25 years before Black Texans could attend the state fair beyond the designated “Negro Achievement Day.” Following protests, the fair was desegregated, but in the late sixties, the city backed a plan to acquire Black-owned homes surrounding the park at less than market value under the guise of creating more parking lots. In reality, it was to assuage the “intense emotional discomfort” some middle-class white residents felt when confronted with poverty in Fair Park’s neighborhood. As for the Hall of Negro Life? It was demolished once the centennial ended. A whites-only swimming pool replaced it. Today, it’s just another parking lot.
While less monumental, Fair Park’s part in pop culture is significant, too. It was an incubator for three Super Bowl–winning teams and the Dallas Chaparral, which would become the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. A young Elvis shook up a record-breaking Cotton Bowl crowd of 26,000 in 1956, setting the stage for future crooners like Garth Brooks in 1990 and the Jonas Brothers in 2007. Fair Park is also considered Dallas’s first arts district. Before the tour ends, I make a mental note to return and experience new-to-me spots like the Magnolia Lounge, a groundbreaking theater I must have walked by a hundred times before but never noticed. Alston’s parting words ring true: “Fair Park is a beautiful place hiding in plain sight.”
Tours are on a brief hiatus for the state fair and the holidays—when a Christmas light maze overtakes the grounds—but Alston will be back in January. In the meantime, you can look for me at this year’s state fair. I’ll be the Fair Park fan spouting off facts in between mouthfuls of fried cookie dough and corny dogs.