In another location, the former Jesse R. Dawson State Jail might be easy to ignore. It is certainly forgettable, with its brown brick facade and lack of windows, but its size and prominent location adjacent to the Trinity’s floodplain in Dallas commands one’s attention. For those entering from the west, the old jail, along with the Dallas County Jail across the street, forms a gateway into downtown Dallas. It is a menacing welcome — as if notifying passersby of the might of the local justice system and warning them that they must behave while in the city.
The Trinity Park Conservancy, the group tasked with creating the long-promised park in the Trinity’s 1/3-mile-wide floodplain between the levees, purchased the Dawson State Jail in spring 2019 with the intention of incorporating it into the future park. An RFQ for design teams was sent out on July 2, 2020, with submissions due by July 23, and 45 teams submitted in the short timeframe. A search committee from the Conservancy selected and interviewed a shortlist of seven teams. In the end, Weiss/Manfredi was chosen, alongside local firm Malone Maxwell Dennehy Architects.
The selection process was not without controversy. Criticisms were leveled at the Conservancy for a lack of transparency in selecting the design team, as well as the lack of minority partners in the selected design firms. The Conservancy will need to come to terms with this perception, whether justified or not, and make any needed changes, both to stay in good standing with the people of Dallas and to live up to the Commitment to Equity posted on its website.
Weiss/Manfredi’s initial conception of the project poetically imagines the old jail as a place where the air of the river and the excitement of the city are brought together, and the robust structure of the jail is seen as an armature or scaffold upon which to create the new expression. Marion Weiss, FAIA, describes the project as an opportunity to invert the original building, which was all about keeping its contents separate from the outside world, and reinterpret it in a way that is open and welcoming. The architects also referenced the idea of a geode, which, when its rough exterior is cracked open, reveals a world of beautiful crystals.
Weiss/Manfredi is still in the very early stages of design, and the firm has begun engaging with the local community via listening sessions facilitated by the Conservancy. Michael Malone, FAIA, of Malone Maxwell Dennehy describes the number of constituents and community members engaged by the Conservancy to weigh in on the project as “staggering.” Among those the design team heard from at the first session were former inmates of the jail, who described the inhumane conditions they experienced inside and the ominous sense they feel every time they pass by. Some spoke of going years without seeing nature. Another spoke of how excited he is for the “redemption of the building.” Others described creating art inside the jail. Says Weiss: “The humanity of what we heard was deeply moving.”
Andrew Barnes, AIA, is the founder of Agent Architecture in Dallas.