Thursday, June 18, 2009

Historic Dallas Part 4: Founder's Plaza

In Part 4 of of "Historic Dallas" we visit one of the most controversial sites in Downtown Dallas: Founder's Square. The hotly debated, roaming alleged log cabin of John Neely Bryan, Dallas's founder, rests here now. Founder's Plaza is directly across the street from The Old Red Courthouse and the JFK Memorial Plaza. It is a relatively unassuming place, consisting of a series of fountains in a curvy Y-shape, a lot of pavement, and a cabin that has seen hotter debates than a southern city hall in summertime.

Viewed from the comfortable shade of Big Old Red's arches, Founder's Plaza looks serene, perhaps even scenic, but not terribly interesting. It is almost as if the point was what surrounds Founder's Plaza, not what it contains. In the distance is the top of Fountain Place, known to local residents as "that big blue pointy building," because we've never been that good with names.

By the time we hit Founder's Plaza, we'd already trekked through the JFK Memorial Plaza, the Old Red Courthouse, and Dealey Plaza, where my camera had run out of batteries, all in 107 degree heat. By this point, my wife and I were practically wilting, but as we walked back to our car, I looked to the left and what I'd thought was an empty plaza courtyard was in fact an oasis of fountains and, oddly enough, a log cabin. Having just read the plaque at Dealey Plaza, I couldn't help but wonder if this was indeed the "first house" mentioned in the plaque. If so, I absolutely had to photograph it. Without the aid of my "real" camera, I pulled out my phone and with great dismay, realized it was also almost out of juice. Nonetheless, I managed to pull off a few decent photos, and did the best I could to clean them up in Photoshop.

I really love how this shot turned out. A wedding that had just completed at Big Old Red had let out, and the happy bride and groom were having their photos taken with family in the plaza. The fountains themselves alternate their height as well as whether they are on or off, creating a chasing effect that the kids loved. The plaza itself is huge, hot, and blinding, and more than anything at that moment I wished I'd been a little kid again so I could run through the fountains and not look odd doing so. Instead, I lived vicariously through the phone. The resulting photo seems to perfectly convey the feeling of that moment in time and space, and it's easily my favorite of this session.

Unless you know the story ahead of time, on the opposite side of the fountains from Big Old Red is a very out-of-place log cabin. And unless you know the story ahead of time, what you'll probably do if you see it is think "Huh... a log cabin in the middle of downtown Dallas...that's odd," and move on. One of the biggest complaints of those familiar with Dallas history is that there's no rhyme or reason or explanation for this cabin. You're just supposed to know what it's for, pay your respects, and move on.

In fact, this is probably the most controversial--and mobile--pieces of real estate in Dallas. Allegedly the cabin was the home of none other than Dallas's first resident and founding father, John Neely Bryan. This is "the first home, which also served as the first courthouse and postoffice[sic], the first store and the first fraternal lodge" mentioned on the Dealey Plaza Plaque.


The thing is, a historian by the name of Barrot Sanders published a book about the cabin claiming it was in fact built as a replica of Bryan's cabin, by expert woodcraftsman Gideon Pemberton. Unfortunately, Sanders failed to cite any references or leave behind any evidence of his assertions, and the cabin itself has not been forthcoming. The relatives of Bryan roundly reject this assertion, some claiming that it was Bryan's actual cabin, others claiming that the timbers themselves were used by Bryan and then reused to make the new cabin. The Dallas County and City Council go with the book story.

Now you may ask yourself, "so what? What's the difference if it's real or replica?"

Apparently it makes all the difference in the world. The Bryan was the founder of Dallas is undisputed, but he died in Austin, his grave is lost to time, and he was much more of a Public Relations person than a builder. The land he donated became the site for Dallas's famous West End, Trinity River Parks, the Old Red Courthouse, and 94 other lots, but in vicinity of Dealey Plaza is where it all began. This cabin may very well be the last physical work that ties the city to the life of Mr. Bryan before he was committed to an asylum in Austin, and any hope of getting the truth from him about the cabin was silenced. But if it really was his cabin, it should remain near the original spot it was built upon, both as a tribute to the man, and the first permanent structure in Dallas.

But no one can prove one way or the other that it's really Bryan's cabin. As a result of this controversy, the cabin's relevance and location is under constant dispute. Over the years, the cabin has been moved all around Dallas, from Dealey to East Dallas, to Fair Park, then back downtown, and now rests at Founder's Plaza, and there has been repeated attempts to move it from there to Old City Park, where admission would be required to even view the cabin. Which then begs the question:

If you remove the Founder's Cabin from Founder's Plaza, can you still call it Founder's Plaza?

The debate rages on, and has been for many years, and will continue to do so, as Mr. Bryan had many, many descendants across America who will continue to fight for this vital piece of Dallas history against the county and city who increasingly find every inch of Downtown space becoming more and more valuable and the question of the cabin's authenticity remains forever in question.

Be sure to visit us tomorrow, where we will feature an interview with Nadine and James Bouler, of Bouler Design Group!

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