Dallas County's committing a crime against history by erasing its 101-year-old downtown jail
It's where Lee Harvey Oswald was going to before Jack Ruby shot him deacon live TV.
J.E. Hartgraves, his hair slicked back and his demeanor deadpan, worked in the century-old Dallas County Criminal Courts Building on and off till 1994, around the time the jail overlooking Dealey Plaza closed. The assistant chief deputy in the Sheriff's Department figures he's been back maybe five times since, giving tours to the curious and the nosy who want to see where Jack Ruby was jailed or where Dallas used to hang its condemned men or where Clyde Barrow and Harvey Bailey (the so-called dean of American bank robbers in the 1920s) and Billie Sol Estes, among other famous prisoners, pulled their short stretches.
"It's a real jail," he said, as we took our first steps inside Wednesday morning. The white lead paint, much of it dotted with mold, peels off cell doors and ceilings and the "sweat boxes" where inmates were slow-cooked beneath high-watt bulbs. With the air conditioning cut off, the place smells of rot and indifference. Two dead birds, one shriveled to a skeleton, are the lone inhabitants now of the 107,255-square-foot jail spread over three floors.
Hartgraves, crisp in his uniform on this hot and soggy morning, took one look around and let loose the tiny, almost unnoticeable grin that comes with barely obscured pride.
"There's no glass here," he said, nodding toward the steel bars that stretch the length of a city block and several stories high. "This is the real deal. Now they can't throw stuff at the officers."
Someone in our small group asks: What did the prisoners used to throw at you?
The chief, deadpan: "Everything."
But, sadly, this will be one of his last tours.
In coming days, the facility hailed as "the last word in jail building" when it opened in May 1915 will be closed, then gutted. And when that happens, a significant piece of Dallas' history, one immortalized in the 1931 Gene Autry song "Dallas County Jail Blues," will disappear forever -- including what's known as the "Ruby Suite," a concrete expanse of a cell that will not survive the redo.
Just when it seemed Dallas had stopped vanishing its yesterdays comes this gut-punch. It's like tearing down Alcatraz and putting up an office tower.
"The old jail is probably one of the most significant structures the Sheriff's Department has for its history," said Sgt. Chris Dyer, president of the Dallas County Sheriff's Association. "And I hate to see us lose it -- and I hate to see the citizens lose the ability to tour the jail and see what conditions were like at the turn of the 20th century. And once it's gone, it won't be repeated."
The building, designed by H.A. Overbeck, is a local and national landmark, part of the West End Historic District and National Historic Landmark given its proximity to Dealey Plaza. The exterior can't be erased. But what's inside isn't protected. What's inside can't be saved. What's inside will be scraped out and dumped -- every cell, every tale.
The courts building is being evacuated at this very moment in advance of a $138 million renovation that will involve asbestos remediation and a "surgical interior demolition" slated to begin in September. The second-floor courtrooms, including the shell of the one where Ruby was tried and convicted, and the stained-glass skylights in the lobby, are being polished, preserved and made whole again.
The jail will be replaced come 2019 by all-new county facilities -- tax offices, public works, human resources, the mundane everyday doings of government business. The Dallas County commissioners and county judge will move from the old Texas School Book Depository to the seventh floor of the jail -- which, from 1915 until 1921, is where Dallas hung convicted murderers by the neck until they were dead. Death row remains for now, but not for long.
Brooks Love, chief of staff for Commissioner Elba Garcia, said Wednesday that the stacks of cells will be sold off as scrap as part of the lead remediation.
"Even leaving a piece intact is problematic," he said, "because of the way it's constructed."
I asked Love if the county ever, for a second, considered turning the jail into a museum. He wasn't there in 1994, when it shuttered, but said that, yes, in the not-too-distant past, county staffers did look at what it would take to clean up the cells and open it to the public -- $15 million to $20 million, just for the remediation. The county didn't think it would be able to recoup that investment.
Which is nuts, because once you've seen the "X" on Elm and toured the Sixth Floor Museum, what else is there to do in Dealey Plaza except spend $4.16 (the actual price) for a single scoop of Henry's Homemade ice cream at the Museum Store + Cafe that also peddles School Depository earrings (for $30, just in time for my folks' 49th anniversary). Imagine touring the courtroom where Melvin Belli defended Jack Ruby, or the bunker where Lee Harvey Oswald's killer spent the last three years of his life awaiting the second trial he wouldn't live to see.
The city, in the midst of making over its century-old city hall on Harwood, has taken the opposite approach: Architects are saving almost everything -- from Oswald's cell to the elevator where he took his last ride to the interrogation room where he was questioned by Capt. J.W. Fritz to the old jail cells where Dallas police stashed rowdy Texas-OU-goers way back when. Conley Group principal Ken Parr, the project manager, said the city's even storing the old jail cells in a warehouse in case anyone wants them for a movie set.
he city's Landmark Commission will get a sneak peek at the county's plans for its historic building on Tuesday, during a courtesy review that's simply meant to offer suggestions before the project comes back for a full vote in coming weeks. The Texas Historical Commission has already signed off on the makeover; the city probably will, simply because it has no say over the interior.
"But bricks and mortar are only so significant," said Katherine Seale, chair of the Landmark Commission and former executive director of Preservation Dallas. "Sometimes the exterior is extremely important, but sometimes the interior is more important. It's all about: What meaning does it hold for the citizens?"
Or did. Because one more piece of Dallas' past is about to become past tense. And there's nothing you can do to stop it.