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How a mural became a symbol of Fort Worth

Chisholm Trail mural in Sundance Square
Chisholm Trail mural in Sundance Square

Nothing says “Fort Worth” like a three-story-tall cattle herd.

On national TV, nothing says “North Texas” like Richard Haas’ bullish 1985 mural, “Chisholm Trail.”

From his New York studio, Haas finds both pride and irony in the idea that his rip-snortin’ cattle-drive trompe l’oeil from 30 years ago is sometimes a backdrop on ESPN SportsCenter.

“That mural is mainly there because it covers the ugliest wall in the world,” Haas, 74, said with a laugh.

As a boy in Spring Green, Wis., Haas sneaked into the Green Bay Packers’ summer practices to see star receiver Don Hutson.

But instead of drawing up plays, Haas grew more interested in the drawings of his stonemason uncle’s architect boss, Frank Lloyd Wright.

By the time Haas was in his 30s, he had become an artist and teacher. In the 1970s, he began painting giant murals on building facades, mostly in New York.

When Sundance Square founder Sid Bass wanted murals painted on the Houston Street side of the original square, he called Haas. The next year, Sundance officials asked Haas what to do with the dilapidated south wall of what was a Main Street bookstore.

“It was in bad shape -- but nobody wanted to tear it down,” Haas said.

“We came up with a mural. That was before Fort Worth really celebrated the cattle drives.”

In 1985, the Stockyards was still a cattle market. The renovated Stockyards Hotel, long a flophouse, had just reopened. Sundance had a few shops and restaurants and had just drawn its first big crowd for the inaugural Main St. Fort Worth Arts Festival.

Haas studied Leonard Sanders’ and Ron Tyler’s book “How Fort Worth Became the Texasmost City” and envisioned the 1870s cattle drives along Jones and Grove streets north toward the Chisholm Trail.

It took three weeks for a team of painters to bring Haas’ 17 longhorns to life. The mural covers two sides of the 1909 building, modeled after Wright’s Larkin Building in Chicago and built as a ticket office and headquarters for the old Crimson Limited light-rail line.

“It is not the largest or most visible mural I’ve ever done,” Haas said. “But it is certainly one of the best located, and the most appreciated.”

Sundance executive Johnny Campbell said the mural has become a centerpiece — unintentionally.

“It was put there to solve problems, and to bring life and energy to that block,” he said.

“But sometimes you draw a plan, then real life starts to shape it for you.”

In the 1990s, one Sundance plan called for demolishing the cracking, problem-prone building.

“Lots of people have different ideas,” Campbell said.

“But we absolutely understand the value of that mural. When we think of future plans or events, it all starts around the mural.”

If this is any indication, Campbell said Sundance will soon run new tests to learn why the stubborn building keeps shifting.

Haas planned to return to refurbish the mural.

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