Park and Rec Assistant Director Willis Winters Talks About His Fair Park History

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Old Dallas Stuff
Willis Winters, assistant director of the city's Park and Recreation Department, says, with a laugh, that it took him all of 30 days to write his forthcoming Fair Park history. He signed the contract with Arcadia Publishing in March, under the assumption that it wanted the book in time for the 2011 State Fair of Texas. Then he found out: No, sorry, Arcadia actually wanted it for this year's fair.

"But it's been in my brain for 25 years," Winters says. "So writing the book was like a brain dump. I've been doing research on Fair Park for 25 years."

Many of the photos come from the State Fair's archives; the remaining, from the Dallas Municipal Archives, "an incredible tool for a researcher to be able to pull up." There, he says, he discovered the names of the architects responsible for the original buildings, among them the Coliseum built in 1910 (that's a C.D. Hill building -- he also did the downtown Municipal Building). "That was, for me, the greatest surprise during the course of my research -- the quantity of information so readily available from their archives."

He says he'd spend hours studying the photos -- and, mostly, the people in them. He points out: In almost every photo till the '36 Centennial Expo and shortly after, "Everyone's dressed like Sunday for church -- and 1936 was the hottest summer in recorded Dallas history up to that time --109 in August. And people are wearing ties to the fair. My God." He laughs. "And look at the Coliseum -- there was a buggy show during the day, and it became an opera hall at night, and both with the same stage. If you can imagine going to the opera in the summer with a dirt floor and no air conditioning, it must have have brutal."

I tell him: One of the most striking things about the book are the photos of the long-gone buildings. Because while the Coliseum would ultimately become The Women's Museum, other structures -- chief among them a facade on Parry Avenue -- were razed a long time ago. I asked if he's saddened by what's no longer there.

"Yes and no," he says. "I am a great fan of the city's old architecture. Dallas Rediscovered is one of my favorite books. But to know it's been replaced by something even better -- the greatest collection of Art Deco archiutecture in the world -- eases the pain a little bit. One thing I hope people take away from the book is that there's a 50-year history before the Art Deco architecture.

"Many of the original buildings are still there -- they're just hidden. That's another layer of history Fair Park has that no other comparable site ha sin the country: It's 50 years of State Fair and city park buildings incorporated and subsumed by the Centennial Exposition, and even over in the original Livestock Arena, it's still in there from 1915. It had a very innovative structural roof buried in there. It's an incredible overlay of history that was resurfaced by George Dahl."

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