The photographs below are from the collections of the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library.
THE 1955 DALLAS PUBLIC LIBRARY had an odd knack for inspiring scandalous artwork. Now, that may not be so difficult to do in this bastion of Southern conservatism, but still, some of the furors were genuinely impressive. The first began a couple weeks before the building was set to open, in September of ’55.
“Quest for Knowledge” by Marshall Fredericks hung on the Commerce St. facade of the building. See image 19-01. The architect—George L. Dahl—had been entrusted with finding a suitable artist to create a mural above the main circulation desk, and he’d commissioned the Italian-born Harry Bertoia, a Pennsylvania sculptor, to create a piece. What Bertoia came up with was in fact an abstract 10'x24' bronze plated screen, which he described as “a mirror to the person who looks into it.” And proceeded to add, oh so smugly, that “those who find nothing evidently have not prepared their lives.”
Well, when the sculpture was unveiled to city officials shortly before the library’s opening, Mayor R.L. Thornton looked into it and saw “a bunch of junk painted up,” not to mention a “cheap welding job,” colorful jabs that very much set the tone for the media field day that followed.
Over the next few days the Morning News and Times Herald were brimming with outraged editorials, snide limericks and cartoons, and the whole thing quickly descended into a riotous denunciation of modern art, complete with vintage 1950’s wingnutty allusions to the Communists appearing in letters to the editor. The situation got so ugly that George Dahl had to offer to reimburse the city the $8500 the art had cost and had the sculpture dismantled and all 3000 pounds of it trucked over to his house, at which point the media began calling him at home, asking whether he’d dumped the thing in the back yard, stuffed it in his garage or actually (gasp) had it installed in his house.
Now just to put that $8500 in context, the new building cost 2.5 million and simply moving the library’s 250,000 volumes from their temporary home at Union Station to the new building was going to cost close to $10,000, so it wasn’t a whole lot.
The circulation desk, with the notorious artwork above. But once Dahl offered to let the city have the sculpture back, for free, it started to look better. However before that happened, some wealthy citizens, embarrased by the boorishness of the whole affair, finally stepped in and donated the money for the sculpture. It was reinstalled in time for the library’s opening; you can see it in the photo here, and it now hangs in the foyer of the current downtown library, largely unnoticed.
The new library opened on September 26th, 1955, and immediatly drew large crowds. The sculpture fiasco had provided tons of free publicity, and everyone was curious to finally lay eyes on the thing. But enough people left with a book in hand that within a few days, newspapers were complaining that the shelves were nearly stripped bare, hardly the worst problem a library could have. The building had a capacity of 800,000 volumes, and opened with about one third that.
The original Dallas Public Library, at the intersection of Commerce and Harwood. Note the corner stone from image 19-10.
The next art scandal wasn’t far behind, though. The library still needed a sculpture to be hung outside, near the entrance, and to this end something had been commissioned from sculptor Marshall Fredericks. His sketches for the sculpture show a boy standing on the palm of a giant pair of hands, and Fredericks summarized it as the hands of God supporting youth reaching for learning through the medium of literature. The library director and senior staff liked the concept, but the story takes a turn towards the farcical when the sketches were presented to the board. Fredericks, maybe out of a certain purity of concept, or maybe just in order not to get too entangled with the everyday, the starched and pressed fashion of the age, envisioned the boy as striving towards knowledge unencumbered by shirt, shoes, or even pants. “Neckid,” to be frank. The board was aghast.
Though the trinity of American retail (No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service) seems to dictate a different response, a motion was made and seconded to put some trousers on that boy, and that was that. The word was conveyed to Oslo, Norway, where the 880-pound sculpture was being cast, and the boy arrived in Dallas with newfound modesty.
From what I can tell, the trousers affair was largely kept out of the papers, but emotions ran high and lingered long after for some of those involved. Which leads directly to the question of what happened to the sculpture, since today only its outline remains. There’s some speculation that it’s locked away down in the basement of the new library building, and if there’s not yet a rumor that it’s hidden in a secret tunnel connecting the two buildings, that’s only because enough people aren’t aware of its absence, or for that matter, its one-time presence.
The truth, though, isn’t so fantistical, but it’s interesting nonetheless. In 1982, when the central library was moving to its new and much larger facility a few blocks away, director Lillian Bradshaw (who’d been assistant director during the opening of the 1955 library and ensuing sculpture flaps) had the Bertoia screen moved over to the new building, but ordered the boy and his reactionary pants left behind with the vacant building, since he was merely a sad commentary on Frederick’s original vision. The old building changed hands several times over the following years, and at some point the sculpture was sold to the Fredericks family and taken away.
The building has been vacant since the library moved in 1982, and currently is owned by the same people as the old Statler Hilton (Dallas Grand Hotel).
I’d like briefly to discuss the original Dallas Public Library, which stood on the corner of Commerce Street and Harwood where the 1955 library stands today. The city had had a few private libraries in the late 19th century, but in 1899 May Dickson Exall and the Dallas Federation of Women’s Clubs began to press for the creation of a public library. Within a few months she’d organized the Dallas Public Library Association, raised nearly $12,000 from prominent local businessmen, and secured a $50,000 grant from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
Reading room Construction on the building, designed by Fort Worth architect Marshall Sanguinet, began in late 1900 and the library opened in October 1901 with nearly 10,000 volumes in its collection.
The library proved quite popular with the citizens and grew rapidly. The second floor originally housed a public art gallery—a first for the city—but within a few years this was moved out to Fair Park to give the library more space (incidentally, the gallery eventually became the Dallas Museum of Art). The library, though, continued to be chronically overstuffed and underfunded, and after some years not only was the building cramped, but also moldy, drafty, leaky, etc. since the library’s budget sufficed for only the most stop-gap style of maintenance, which seems a shame, since old photographs show a remarkably handsome and ornate building that would have been rare and quite valuable today, had it been properly maintained and not demolished.
Circulation desk That was a hard arguement to make, though, in the early 1950’s, when plans were being made for a new central library. The building was demolished in 1954.
Location: U.S. / Texas / Dallas
Photography: December 2006