• The chapel defines the prominence of the square along the urban edge at the corner of Ervay and Bryan. Photo by Leonid Furmansky.

Photographer Leonid Furmansky

On the night of July 7, 2016, shots rang out on the western edge of Downtown Dallas, taking the lives of five police officers during a peaceful protest. Marking the single most significant loss of law enforcement lives since the catastrophic events of September 11, Dallas was back in the national spotlight for the unfortunate act of one individual. The emotions, uncertainty, and anguish felt by those close to the situation eerily conjured up memories of the moments that followed the JFK assassination, which occurred just a short distance from the 2016 crime scene.

The following day, determined to heal and unite the city, Dallas residents held an interfaith vigil at Thanks-Giving Square — a public park and nondenominational chapel designed by Philip Johnson and completed in 1976. The plaza was filled to the brim with people, like a real-life depiction of the “Golden Rule” mosaic by Norman Rockwell that sits prominently within the western entrance to the square. Among the leaders in attendance, religious and political, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings delivered an impassioned and powerful message to his city:

For 50 years, people around the world saw our city through the lens of the Kennedy assassination. Through that tragedy, modern-day Dallas was born. A great city. Those of us who love this city always knew there was so much more to Dallas than what happened on that day in 1963. Now, the year following that, this oasis, Thanks-Giving Square, began to come to life. This place is not really a park. It is a piece of the soul of our city. The idea was that we needed a gathering place. A place for unity of people of all backgrounds, of all religions, of all races. A place to say thank-you. A place of thankfulness.

Thanks-Giving Square was born out of a deep, universal spiritual intention. The project was also just as much about fulfilling the ambitions set forth by the Goals for Dallas program, enacted under the leadership of Mayor J. Erik Jonsson. The collective vision behind the program, established in 1964, aimed to heal the morale and image of a city coming off the heels of the JFK assassination. In the spirit of thanksgiving, the project was an obvious fit for the program, infusing a growing downtown with humanity-driven initiative.

At 40 years (the square was completed in its entirety in 1977), Thanks-Giving Square still serves as a nexus for spiritual refuge and awareness. The Thanks-Giving Foundation’s programming has grown to encompass more involvement with a growing homeless population, concentrating on outreach and faith- centered connections. The chapel remains the focal point of the project, and often lines of people can be seen waiting to view the spiraling, stained glass masterpiece that is Gabriel Loire’s “Glory Window.” A recent lighting adaptation to this piece adds further interest to the subtle tones cast from the glass above. Moreover, events shaping society in Dallas draw attention to the space anew, marking Thanks-Giving Square once again as a place for universal expression.

But what is one to make of Thanks-Giving Square as public space, now that the demographic is changing from a business district to a mixed-use neighborhood? The population in the city’s central business district has been on a steady increase since 2000, growing from a mere 200 residents to well over 7,000. The desire for public space is high and often causes spaces like Thanks-Giving Square to be used for unintended purposes.

The foundation is in the process of implementing a plan to address the future needs of the square, with a thorough investigation of the archives as well as the needs of Downtown residents and visitors alike. “As part of Thanks-Giving Square’s 40th anniversary, efforts are being made to organize archival content, clean up original architectural models, and share early stories that have not been displayed for decades,” says Noah Jeppson, an experiential graphic designer based in Seattle who is on the foundation’s board of directors. A regular advocate for the historical fabric of downtown Dallas, Jeppson has been combing through archival content as a means of informing the branding and graphic work he is doing for the square.

The chapel is the focal point of Johnson’s plan. It is sited at the highest point of the one-acre, pie-shaped site, at the corner of Ervay and Bryan. Its spiral form is based on a Benedictine monk’s interpretation of gratitude as being not a closed circle, but an ascending one. Its proportions are derived from the golden section.

While the chapel garners attention for connecting to the public, the landscape lags behind. With the recent attention and use of the space as a celebratory arena for humanity and gratitude, the desire for the park to evolve has never been more apparent. “The renovation does take into consideration the new neighborhood and advanced thinking on how parks and green space interact with the pedestrian and general streetscape,” says Jud Pankey, who is leading the facilities and renovation project — “working with Philip Johnson’s firm to maintain the integrity of space intent, while bringing the improvements and pathways into a contemporary and useful asset for the neighborhood.”

One early and noticeable change to the visitor experience is new exhibition and wayfinding signage designed by Jeppson. “Layers of signage over the years added confusion and were a target of frequent vandalism,” he says. His approach takes into account an understanding of the interests of the public and how they use the space, as well as the original intent of Johnson’s design. “These signs serve as a test bed to gain feedback from visitors and test the durability of materials in an urban setting, and will be improved upon during a larger landscape renovation that improves accessibility. They complement the architecture of the space, while reminding visitors that they have entered into a place that is unique from other public spaces in downtown Dallas.” Flexible and colorful seating will also be added as a way to make the space more inviting through a simple gesture. Ongoing plans will focus on neighborhood integration through addressing plaza areas and public space. The gardens will also be restored with landscaping that better suits the climatic conditions, and the fountains will be repaired.

The evolution of Thanks-Giving Square reveals a societal depth that no designer is able to foresee. The vigil following the police shooting serves as a testament to that depth. Events such as these remind us of the powerful role that spaces can play in shaping societies. Thanks-Giving Square is unique in that it is a monumental space that can shape the society on a neighborhood scale and redefine its relevance simultaneously. The Thanks-Giving Foundation’s efforts to preserve and uncover the past, displaying its contents to public view, will, it is to be hoped, aid the rehabilitation of similar humanist projects across the country.

Michael Friebele, Assoc. AIA, is a senior associate with FTA Design Studio in Dallas. 

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