On June 19, 1937, Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson turned up at 508 Park Ave. in downtown Dallas, and that simple act helped put the region on the musical map.
For that day and the next, this address — built for Warner Bros. Pictures in 1929 but later used by Brunswick and Decca Records — was where he recorded some of his most iconic tracks, including Love in Vain and the haunting Hellhound on My Trail. Flash forward 67 years and Eric Clapton recorded tracks for his 2004 Robert Johnson tribute project, Sessions for Robert J, here.
In between, 508 Park — an eye-catching, 23,000-square-foot example of early-20th-century art deco Zigzag Moderne architecture — was the place where more than 800 recordings took place of such performers as Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Western swing’s Light Crust Doughboys and conjunto pioneer Lolo Cavazos.
Over the years, the 508 Park building and grounds gradually fell into disuse and disrepair. Like too many important symbols, it had been threatened with demolition. But fans of the blues knew about the significance of the building, even in its less-than-inviting state of recent years.
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“People would come and just touch the building on a sacred pilgrimage,” says Carol Adams, an Encore Park committee member. “All around the world, there was this fear that this building would come down.”
In 2011, just seven years after Clapton had set up camp there, the nearby First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, which also operates the homeless-resource center The Stewpot across the street from 508 Park, purchased the building and grounds.
And beginning this year and culminating in either 2016 or 2017, 508 Park will be reopened as a blues and street culture museum, art gallery/studio, screening room, community garden, and performance amphitheater. The entire facility will be known as Encore Park.
“We could envision a creative cascade in the life cycle of a garden, the self-expression from the stage of the amphitheater, and the creativity from a music recording studio and art studio,” says the Rev. Bruce Buchanan, executive director of The Stewpot and associate pastor of community ministries for First Presbyterian Church, in an email about why the church bought the property.
“Every year we were reminded of the history that was made in that building; every day we were reminded of its enduring beauty. It’s in our nature to see possibilities; we don’t throw away people, and it was against our nature to see a building and a history discarded.”
Its opening will mark a sea change for Dallas, a city that has not necessarily celebrated its musical past as a blues hotbed, unlike such other metro areas as Memphis and Chicago.
“There’s an obsession of the new and, after the Kennedy assassination, that was even moreso,” says Texas music historian/filmmaker/author Alan Govenar, who also is the founding director of Encore Park’s museum. “People wanted to tear down downtown and build new buildings because they wanted to present a new identity. There wasn’t this interest in vernacular music and culture here. That was the music of poor folks and that was not where Dallas exactly wanted to position itself.”
A trip into history
A recent visit to Encore Park reveals Christy Coltrin and Brad Oldham’s completed The Birth of a City sculpture wall of famous local performers, a nearly finished amphitheater and a gutted interior that has a long way to go.
The pull of history is palpable here. It’s in what used to be the film vaults on the first floor, on the upper floors where Johnson and Clapton recorded, and in the scribbles on the walls that remain as mementos from the 1940-60 Decca era.
“We are planning a 90-foot interactive timeline that goes from the present back to roughly the Civil War,” says Govenar. “We will have elements of the early film history and be able to focus on that period between the silent movies and the coming of the talkies, the kind of pictures that were being made by Warner Bros. during the heyday of this building.
“As you walk into this space, we intend to have listening rooms,” he continues. “There are no museums that focus on the music of the 1920s and ’30s that have high-fidelity listening areas. Each one will be devoted to different styles of music. One will be devoted to Western swing, one will be devoted to the blues, another to the Mexican recordings, and another to the music of Deep Ellum.”
There are two names organizers hope to popularize: that of Don Law, Robert Johnson’s British-born, Dallas-based producer who went on to become a kingpin in country music as the head of Columbia Records’ country division, and his friend and fellow Englishman and 508 producer, Art Satherley.
“One of the things we want to do is lift up the work of Don and Art,” says Adams. “The idea that there were these two Brits who come to the U.S. without some of the racial assumptions that permeated America and just started traveling around getting these field recordings.”
The plans also call for a functioning recording studio.
“It could be used by art magnets, students and others,” Govenar says.
Beyond the beat
But Encore Park is not just about music and movies.
Visual art will also play a big part in its programming. One area of the building will look at the 1930s through the lens of the era’s Jim Crow laws, and the response to that by a group of artists from the time known as the Dallas Nine.
Making connections with the present, part of the facility will be used as a work area and gallery for artists now affiliated with the open-art program at The Stewpot.
“When I saw the open-art program and saw the outreach services provided by The Stewpot, I really wanted to develop a museum concept that would bridge both sides of the street rather than focusing only on the music,” says Govenar. “It addresses cultural history, social issues and brings them into the present. We have to show that growth and emergence of other forms like hip-hop and other forms of street art.”
Still, it’s music that will be the main draw for many visitors. Though there was a slate of festivities — including a performance from Fort Worth guitarist Larry Lampkin — during the dedication weekend for the sculpture wall and amphitheater in October, the first official event at the amphitheater is a free choral concert from the Dallas Street Choir and CREDO Choir on May 17.
“The hope is that people will rediscover [the music’s history] and understand the connecting point,” says Govenar. “The influence of the blues and other aspects of African-American vernacular have had a profound influence. Country, early Western swing were heavily influenced by the swing jazz bands of the ’30s. The most pervasive music in the world is African-American music. Dallas also has this rich history in jazz, as does Fort Worth, and that’s so often overlooked and it was just as important.”
As the neighborhoods of southern downtown near Encore Park evolve and more attractions — such as the remodeled, expanded Dallas Farmers Market and the forthcoming Alamo Drafthouse — try to lure patrons from outside the immediate vicinity, organizers believe that fears about coming into an area that had once been seen as desolate will fade.
“This whole area is probably the last area to be developed in downtown Dallas,” says Adams. “We’ve had people come by and look at the sculpture wall. We’d like to believe that what we’re creating is so great that [people] will just have to come down.”
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571
Concert with the Dallas Street Choir and CREDO Choir
▪ 3 p.m. May 17
▪ Encore Park amphitheater
508 Park Ave., Dallas