Just a few months shy of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, a 1920s apartment building in Dallas was demolished causing local controversy and national headlines. The building, at nearly 90 years old, was historical and eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, to be sure, but the controversy over its demolition was not based on either fact. Instead, the controversy arose from the building’s link to the death of JFK
Eight months prior to the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald and his family lived in the apartment building for about six months. It was there that Oswald ordered and had delivered the gun that killed President Kennedy. And it was there that investigators believe Oswald, a twenty-three year old former marine, planned the assassination.
This is only the latest incident in which the city of Dallas has struggled with its connection to the infamous assassination. In its immediate aftermath, many wanted to sweep the tragedy under the rug. A citizen effort led by a local merchant resulted in a monument that continues to inspire controversy. Later, painted Xs mysteriously appeared on Elm Street where the president was struck by bullets, the Sixth Floor Museum in the book depository became a place of interpretation for thousands of people who visit Dallas each year, and finally, this year dozens of commemoration events will take place all over the city.
Immediately following the president’s assassination, the most prominent advocate for moving forward without memorializing the tragedy was then Dallas mayor, R.L. Thornton. He felt Washington was the appropriate location for any monuments to the slain leader. Though the “city of hate” stigma may have been undeserved, what Mayor Thornton did not realize is that place memory is powerful. Memorial or not, the City of Dallas will always be remembered as the place where the vibrant and popular 35th president was killed.
Local merchant king, Stanley Marcus, moved forward with a memorial choosing Harvard educated Phillip Johnson (ironically, the Kennedy administration had just months before rejected Johnson’s candidacy for the Fine Arts Commission after a review of his career as an American fascist and Nazi propagandist in the 1930s). Inspired by Mies Van Der Roe, Johnson designed a box of white pillars linked together and floating above the ground. Approved by Jacqueline Kennedy and funded by donations, the monument was meant to symbolize the freedom of Kennedy’s spirit. Johnson described it as “devoid of expression or moralizing” and “monumental in its empty presence.” It is “a place of quiet refuge, an enclosed place of thought and contemplation separated from the city around, but near the sky and earth.”
Reviews were not especially generous when it was finally opened to the public in 1970. The long delay, necessitated by the construction of an underground parking facility, was yet further indication of where the city’s true priorities stood. Recently, LA architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote:
The memorial by Philip Johnson, for its part, also symbolizes the city’s deep ambivalence about commemorating the assassination. A spare cenotaph, or open tomb, designed to be built in marble, it was instead cast in cheaper concrete. And its location east of the assassination site suggested an effort to tuck the history of that day away.“
While Dallas’ JFK memorial remains divisive, millions of people who visit the city each year seek out sites associated with the assassination. They come to just walk the “Grassy Knoll” at Dealey Plaza to reflect on the tragedy. They gaze into the traffic zooming along Elm Street. Up until this week, they could look from the Xs painted on the pavement marking the places where Kennedy was struck by bullet(s) to the sixth floor windows of the Texas School Book Repository where Oswald perched that fateful day. (The Xs where removed earlier this week during street repairs made in preparation for tomorrows commemorations. Mysteriously, the city does not know who painted the Xs or has maintained them over the years). And they visit the Sixth Floor Museum housed, as the name would indicate, in the space where Oswald fired on Kennedy. The museum “chronicles the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy; interprets the Dealey Plaza National Historic Landmark District and the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza; and presents contemporary culture within the context of presidential history.”
Tomorrow, among other commemorations planned across the city, a new memorial to Kennedy will be unveiled in the grassy knoll area of Dealey Plaza. An austere plane of aluminum alloy the size of a large door, it bears the concluding words from the speech JFK was to deliver upon his arrival at the Trade Mart, but never did. “We, in this country, in this generation, are — by destiny rather than by choice — the watchmen on the walls of world freedom,” he was to say, before concluding with an invocation from Scripture: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.”
By marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination with fanfare and memorials, the city of Dallas is moving forward in its efforts to make peace with the role it played in the death of one of America’s most popular political and celebrity figures.