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.
If your Sunday evening was sadly bereft of the SC &P crew and your Monday has been spent pining for more mid-century mod eye candy and late 1960s goodness, don’t fear! I have just what you’re jonesing for. Behold, a collection of blog posts and articles about Mad Men/1960s style and (of course!) historic preservation. Here’s to the anticipation of Season 7 and crossed fingers that the Mad Men Effect will continue to inspire a love for those mid-century buildings that so often get overlooked just because George Washington never slept in them.
1. Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner on Why Don Draper Is a Preservationist – Preservation Nation
2. Is Mad Men Good for Preservation? – DOCOMOMO
4. Mad Men Locations in Los Angeles – Discover Los Angeles
5. Mad Men’s Village People – GVSHP
6. Montgomery’s Mad Men Modern Buildings – Are They Worth Protecting? – The Washington Post
7. Mad Men, Mad Buildings – Preservation Journey
8. Mad Men Motif Comes to Life in New Canaan, Conn. – Boston Globe
9. Touring Los Angeles’ Modern Skyline – Preservation Nation
10. Mad Men Style : The Best of the 1960s from House Beautiful – House Beautiful
11. Mid-Century Modern? Not Here – LA Times
12. American Style Through the Decades: The Sixties – Apartment Therapy
With season six wrapping up last Sunday, I’ve been reflecting on the effect Mad Men has had. Sometimes it seems like Mad Men single-handedly made mid-century styles popular again. Each week for six seasons, millions of viewers have tuned in as much for the furniture, art, interior design, clothes, make up, and hair as for the storyline. In the years since it premiered, stores from Banana Republic to Manhattan Home Design rolled out Mad Men inspired collections. It’s undeniable that mod is back in a big way.
And it’s popularity has been a boon for preservation. Mid-century buildings are suddenly cool again. Preservation organizations have harnessed the power of pop culture by throwing Mad Men themed fundraising events and awareness campaigns. The series has become a touchstone around which to discuss preservation and preservation issues. Mad Men itself even joined the conversation when it featured the demolition of Penn Station in Season 3, which was the birth of the modern preservation movement in the US.
Many television series have been set in the past, from westerns such as Gun Smoke to teen dramas/comedies like That 70s Show, The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks, but few have had the cultural impact of Mad Men. I think the secret* lies with show creator/runner Matthew Weiner’s notorious attention to detail. His staff tirelessly works to make sure each peculiarity, from the size of a bouffant to the size of a pastry is accurate. This translates into set design and wardrobe that is thoughtful, clever, nostalgic, sumptuous and beautiful. It also feels authentic, never theatrical or costumey (unless the scene, of course, is meant to be those things).
One key to authenticity is Mad Men’s use of a variety of sets and styles. With the exception, maybe, of the SCDP/SC&P offices and the Drapers’ apartment which were newly furnished, no scene design is comprised solely of pieces from one era. Nor is every set a “1960s” set. Take the Draper residence in Ossining, for example. It is based off of a 1910s colonial revival design and is filled with a hodgepodge of furniture. It’s easy to imagine that some of the pieces are family heirlooms or holdovers from Betty or Don’s singledom and that some of it is new. The Francis residence, a Victorian, is similarly decorated with a range of styles from early American to modern. If in each scene every stick of furniture and nicknack and chotsky was produced in1968, it would feel fabricated and fake. That’s not how people live now and it isn’t how people lived then, either. So the mix and match approach of Mad Men’s set design feels real to us in the present and it makes it easy to see how mid-century pieces can work in contemporary spaces, too.
When possible, Mad Men also tries to utilize the built environment – it films on location in places that existed during the time period. Of course, the “authenticity” of using these places is questionable considering they are in LA locations masquerading as NYC places, but I think that charge (which has actually been leveled by some preservationists) is a little nitpicky. Showcasing existing historical locations, whether they be in LA or NYC makes a scene feel more real and is good for preservation. In fact,one shooting location, La Villa Basque actually became the center of a preservation campaign. Shortly after Mad Men filmed, “The Suitcase,” the restaurant planned to overhaul its historic interior. (Unfortunately, despite pressure from preservationists and the media attention generated by its link to Mad Men, the remodel was completed.)
Alas, only one more season of Mad Men remains. Even so, I’m left with a lot of hope. I hope preservationists use this next year to their full advantage and ride the Mad Men train all the way to the station – educating and inspiring and saving places all along the way. I hope Mid-Century Modern styles remain popular and the discussion around buildings of the recent past continues. And I hope there is another period drama in the future that helps people to reexamine the buildings and places around them, that preservationists can hitch their wagons to, that makes preservation topical and interesting a cool. (Are you listening Matthew Weiner!?) Here’s to the Mad Men Effect and here’s to season 7!
*I think another reason is pure chance. Mad Men came along at just the right time. Mid-Century Modern was already on an upswing (however small) and the series catapulted it to the forefront of design trends.
This weekend traditionally marks the start of summer and is usually accompanied by the ceremonial opening of pools everywhere. Unfortunately, much of the country is experience unseasonably cool weather!
Since most of us aren’t going to be taking a dip today, we can at least enjoy this photo slide show from The Weather Channel of folks frolicking on beaches and through the centuries. Not only are the fashions fun/bizarre/awkward, but the photos offer a glimpse at many historical seaside resorts and other strange things from our bathing past like “bathing machines” and “skreenettes.”
I hope you’re having a fabulous holiday!
Forty-five years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee as he stood on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Just days after King’s assassination, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and King’s legacy was cemented. His advocacy and activism not only advanced the Civil Rights Movement in the US, but it influenced civil rights struggles world wide.
The Lorraine Motel and other buildings associated with King’s assassination were purchased in the early 80s and 90s by the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, and now house the National Civil Rights Museum.
Fortunately, the owner of the Lorraine, Walter Bailey, recognized the significance of the motel to the history of the Civil Rights Movement early on. After the assassination of King, he maintained rooms 306 and 307 (those used by King and his entourage) as a shrine to the activist’s memory, even as the motel suffered a long and steep decline. When the motel was threatened by foreclosure and demolition, he reached out for help to maintain the property as a civil rights memorial and the Save The Lorraine campaign was born. A group of concerned citizens formed the Martin Luther King Foundation (later called the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation). The Foundation raised enough funds to purchase the motel at auction on the courthouse steps, saving it from sure destruction. Using the design recommendations of a former Smithsonian Institution curator, the Foundation created the educational facility and memorial site that today is the National Civil Rights Museum.
The museum complex is comprised of the Lorraine Motel, former Canipe’s Amusement store and rooming house, and the empty lot in between. The properties were an integral part of Dr. King’s assassination investigation. The museum became custodian of the police and evidence files associated with the manhunt, indictment and confession of the assassin of Dr. King in the late 1990s. Many of the items, including the rifle and fatal bullet, are on display at the museum.
As one might suspect, the use of the motel to memorialize King and the Civil Rights Movement has not been without controversy. Using the site where the civil rights leader was slain has been called insensitive and morbid. It has also been faulted for causing gentrification surrounding the museum, forcing the traditionally low-income African American population out of their homes – something antithetical to King’s teachings.
Despite the controversy, it is difficult to deny that the link between Martin Luther King, Jr., the Lorraine Hotel, and the Civil Rights Movement is strong. No one can forget the iconic image of King’s prostrate body on the second floor balcony surrounded by a group of people pointing toward the boarding house – an event that was followed by turmoil and a long, contentious investigation.
What do you think? Is the Lorraine Motel an appropriate site for the National Civil Rights Museum? Is it insensitive or morbid to preserve it for visitors to experience? Or is it a powerful and moving place from which to discuss the Civil Rights Movement in America and one of its most beloved leaders?
The Lorraine Motel is designated an historic site by the Tennessee Historical Commission. More than $3 million people have visited the museum since it opened in 1991.