Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum
In 1977, fellow survivors and Jewish community leaders gathered in the North Dallas home of Mike Jacobs to begin evaluating methods of educating the public on the history of the Holocaust. Forty-two years later, their vision has been realized with the opening of the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, a three-story, 55,000-sf facility designed by Omniplan and located in the historic West End of downtown Dallas. It’s the fifth largest Holocaust museum in the U.S., and the second largest to be built ground-up since the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. was completed in 1993.
Neatly tucked into its surroundings on one of Dallas’ oldest Anglo-settler sites at the banks of the Trinity River, the museum is, at first glance, appropriate to its context. In keeping with the surrounding architecture, brick and metal envelope the building. At approximately 55 feet high, its roofline matches those of its neighbors, both old and new. While this approach arguably maintains the integrity of the historic district, a fairly strict adherence to these guidelines undermines the aspirations of the museum’s designers. The building seeks to be iconic but struggles — both to belong here and to stand out.
Conceptual renderings imagined a copper facade with dramatic movement in both the overall form and the orientation of the panels. These bold designs would have brought an inspiring, dramatic, and wholly appropriate character to the building exterior. Regrettably, the final product is greatly subdued, largely at the direction of the City of Dallas Landmark Commission, a quasi-judicial entity that oversees adherence and appropriateness of historically designated buildings and districts. While the project development team communicated regularly with the city throughout the design process, last-minute interjections by the commission left little time for a redesign, and the result is an attenuation of the dramatic effect of the building’s form and material use.
This is unfortunate, as the exhibition designer, Berenbaum Jacobs, who was part of the selection committee during the design competition phase, had been greatly inspired by the earlier concepts. The selection process was lengthy; submissions from local and national design teams were narrowed to a shortlist of four that notably included both Gensler, with Studio Joseph from New York, and Overland Partners, with James Carpenter Design Associates, also from New York.
The commission’s efforts to maintain the architectural language of the district also drove the redesign of the southern end of the block near the entry. This space is clad in a plaster finish meant to read as cast concrete panels that create a curvilinear foil to the overall building form. Again, original concepts that were disallowed by the commission late in the process had envisioned a dramatic cylinder flecked with tiny, playful windows reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel.
The end result is a building forced to assimilate to its neighborhood. The lack of differentiation in color between the upper and lower halves of the building is further exacerbated as the copper continues to patina. Lack of acidity in the local atmosphere virtually ensures a green tone will never be achieved. The dark brown of the copper has begun to blend with the brick below into a monotony — perhaps as the commission preferred. Nonetheless, the weathered copper is an excellent metaphor for the perseverance of survivors and adds to the monumentality of the museum.
Problems involving the context for a museum focused on the Holocaust are nothing new. The oldest such institution in the U.S., the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, struggled with its site when creating a new home in 2010 within Pan Pacific Park. In a city rich with NIMBYism when it comes to new structures in older neighborhoods, architect Hagy Belzberg created a dramatic experience fully submerged within the park and virtually invisible outside its main entry. The result was an emotionally moving experience that satisfied park patrons.
On the other hand, the Dallas museum’s parking structure is brilliant, and the most successful element of the project. In an urban core struggling to balance the infill of parking lots throughout the city with parking structures that do not further erode the quality of the streetscape, the parking structure succeeds. It is clad almost entirely with dark brick matching the museum, and, here, the material is more appropriate. The facade is playful yet forms an orderly pattern in keeping with the warehouse district surrounding it. Large openings reminiscent of removed windows read as conceptual, rather than as false modifications to a historic building. The fenestration is reinforced with detailed brick weaving that contributes to a porosity that appropriately clads the structure while revealing grand views toward the museum entry.
Upon entering the building and passing through registration, the lobby opens upward to a three-story volume and frames views of a large staircase against the far wall. A full-height curtain wall facade to the south faces an external courtyard, bringing light and a sky view into the main lobby. This well-illuminated courtyard is not visible upon arrival for most visitors and thus provides a delightful surprise after passing through the monolithic structure. The outdoor space also gives visitors a much-needed opportunity for reflection after completing the pathway through the exhibit halls above.
Off the entry lies the special exhibits wing, topped by a terrace and a small “Dimensions in Testimony” theater, where visitors can interact and have “conversations” with holographic recordings of survivors. The remainder of the second floor primarily houses the administration offices, open and well-lit by the playfully set exterior walls.
Experiencing the exhibits of the museum is an efficient journey through open space on a prescriptive pathway. Visitors are taken inward off the far corner of the lobby into a room featuring a video orientation. From here, the education begins, via multimedia displays integrated into the stairs leading up to the third floor. Audio instructions to pause at each landing establish a controlled pace at which to experience the history of the events leading up to the Holocaust.
By the time visitors arrive on the third floor, this uncomfortable ascension has prepared them for the grim story that is told through the exhibits that follow. A circuitous pathway takes visitors along from room to room in a way that was intended to mimic the weathering copper that moves along the building’s outside skin. The Dallas Holocaust museum culminates in a memorial gallery that overlooks the courtyard. This space, carefully re-created as it appeared in its original location in the Jewish Cultural Center nearly 40 years ago, serves to help guests decompress after their intense encounter with this horrific chapter in world history.
The museum was designed for those unfamiliar with the events of the Holocaust. In its simplicity, it seems to place its focus on teaching children, but it remains somber enough that even adults well educated about the Holocaust can appreciate it. Notably, the museum follows a somewhat controversial trend in newer Holocaust memorial centers by placing attention on other genocidal events and emphasizing tolerance education. It is also the first museum to link such atrocities with America’s journey for civil and human rights.
Immediately across the rail tracks is the infamous school book depository, both the location from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President John F. Kennedy and the home of the Sixth Floor Museum, dedicated to education on Kennedy’s assassination and the events that led to it. This museum was the result of great controversy and self-loathing for Dallas, which has long struggled with the moniker the “City of Hate.” Today, Dallas continues to struggle with this breeding ground identity in light of recent tragedies such as the murder of 22 innocent people in an El Paso Walmart by white-supremacist Patrick Crusius, who drove 700 miles from a Dallas suburb to commit the crime, or Micah Xavier Johnson’s 2016 rampage, in which he murdered five Dallas police officers and injured nine others in an effort “to kill white people.”
It is to be hoped that the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum is a good start in steering the city away from a future rife with such tragedies. It is a significant accomplishment in scope and scale, compared to its contemporaries. Last year saw the dedication of two other revamped centers, including the Holocaust & Humanity Center at the Cincinnati Union Terminal, and the expanded Holocaust Museum Houston. And while the design struggled with outside influence, it succeeds nonetheless in emotionally engaging its visitors. At the ribbon-cutting last fall, museum president Mary Pat Higgins noted that the founders saw as their legacy the creation of a museum for future generations. “Their mission — and ours,” she said, “is to … advance human rights to combat prejudice, hatred, and indifference.”
James Adams, AIA, is an architect at Corgan in Dallas.