"What's the first thing you think of when someone says 'Dallas?'" asked the young lady setting out to guide me around town for the day. Fans of the Old West might think of Doc Holliday, Frank James or Belle Starr, not as a dentist, salesman or dance hall singer, respectively, perhaps, but as colorful characters in stories of the frontier. Sports fan will answer with the name of one of the town's powerful teams. Political junkies and anyone over 54 will remember the assassination of JFK, and that's what I replied. But from now on, lovers of painting, sculpture, architecture, opera, ballet and theater can begin thinking of the Dallas Arts District, which is going to remake the city's image.
Much of the renaissance in Dallas is due to the generous contributions of local self-made gazillionaires, the more recent of whom seem to be giving back to the community much more than their early oil billionaire predecessors of the 1960s through the '80s. Much is due to plain old virtuous civic mindedness, of course, but there may be a shade of guilt there, too, as the city wants to be known for more than the death of a president.
Dallas Arts District (DAD)
Dallas says it has the largest concentrated urban arts district in the nation, which is comprised of 19 contiguous blocks (68.4 acres) with at least 11 arts institutions, including the prestigious Dallas Museum of Art, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the Crow Collection of Asian Art, the Black Dance Theater and the Myerson Symphony Center. By next year, they will have finished building the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and by 2009 the new Opera House and the Wyly Theater will open. Two churches and a cathedral round out the list of major venues in the district, planning having been underway since 1984. This is like New York City having Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Carnegie Hall, City Center and the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater all in one contiguous grouping
Dallas can afford great architects, too, having lured he the likes of I. M. Pei (Meyerson Symphony Center and City Hall), Renzo Piano (Nasher Sculpture Center), Sir Norman Foster (the Winspear Opera House), and more.
You can get to the Museum of Art on the free McKinney Avenue Trolley (www.mata.org), which operates daily from 7am to 10pm weekdays and 10am to 10pm weekends. Parking is available opposite the Crow Collection. There are free guided walking tours (one hour) the first Saturday of each month at 10:30am, reservations required at tel. 214/953-1977 or www.artsdistrict.org. Tours at other times $7 by arrangement.
The Big Three in the DAD
The Dallas Museum of Art opened in 1903 and is the city's oldest art establishment, but it has the heart of a lusty youngster, with plans for some really neat exhibits in the near future. Undoubtedly the most important will be the J.M.W. Turner exhibit, said to be the largest ever held in the USA, from February 10 to May 18, 2008. The permanent collection of 23,000 works of art is magnificent, but I especially liked the Reves Collection in the reproduced Villa La Pausa, the original of which was built for Coco Chanel in southern France. For dining, there's an Atrium Café and the 1717 Restaurant, too. Free weekend tours. Admission $10. Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 North Harwood Street, tel. 214/922-1200, www.dallasmuseumofart.org.
The Nasher Sculpture Center was designed by famed architect Renzo Piano and opened in 2003 next door to the Museum of Art. Named for real estate developer Raymond Nasher (1921-2007), it contains a lovely outdoors garden (with sculptures) and an impressive indoor collection (amassed since 1950) that includes works by Calder, Giacometti, Hepworth, Matisse, Miro, Moore, Picasso, Rodin, Serra and others. My favorite might be Jonathan Brofosky's Walking to the Sky (2004). The Target company offers you free admission on First Saturdays from 10 to 2. Closed Mondays. Admission $10. Nasher Sculpture Center, 2001 Flora Street, tel. 214/242-5100, www.nashersculpturecenter.org.
The Crow Collection of Asian Art is the result of a private collection by real estate tycoon Trammell Crow and his wife Margaret, who opened this attractive venue in 1998 when they winnowed down their 7,000 pieces of art to just 569, with the help of Clarence Shangraw, the same curator who had earlier turned the Brundage Collection into the basis of the San Francisco's Asian Art Museum. I thought the highlight of my visit was the 12-foot tall sandstone 28-foot-long façade of an 18th-century Indian residence. A Tibetan exhibit from the Rubin Museum in New York is on from now through late April 2008. Free admission. Free guided tours twice weekly of this and once weekly of the adjacent Crow European Sculpture Garden (seven Rodin works). Closed Mondays. The Crow Collection, 2010 Flora Street, tel. 214/979-6430, www.crowcollection.org.
The Bishop Arts District
For something completely different, check out the galleries in the Bishop Arts District, especially the Oak Cliff Artisan's Collective, organized by gallery owner and guru Ted Matthews for up and coming artists as well as seasoned artisans. It's a fabulous collection, ever changing, and is especially fun on First Thursdays, when stores and galleries stay open for the evening, attracting scores of visitors to the area, especially on Bishop Avenue itself. Look for designs by Laura Rosenstein while there. Artisan's Collective, 410 North Bishop Avenue, tel. 214/356-0818, www.artisanscollective.net.
Right next door is what may be one of the world's wildest soda pop stores, The Soda Gallery, featuring such delights as Dublin TX Dr. Pepper (said to be the original recipe), Sioux City Sarsaparilla and more. You can buy pop art, too. The Soda Gallery, 408 North Bishop Avenue, tel. 866/946-SODA or 214/946-SODA, www.thesodagallery.com.
The Dallas Arboretum is a gorgeous site on 66 acres bordering White Rock Lake, originally Dallas' sole source of water, and it's been open to the public since 1984. Based on the former neighboring estates of oil geologist Everette DeGolyer and Alex Camp (built in 1940 and 1938, respectively), the gardens see plantings of as many as 460,000 tulips in spring and 150,000 mums in fall, as well as special events such as the upcoming Great Pumpkin Festival through October 31 and a Chocolate Tree event from October 6 through January 6. Start your visit at the DeGolyer house, where the largest room is the library (16,000 volumes) and the most valuable work the Della Robbia terra cotta roundel coat of arms in the dining room. (There's a gorgeous lake view of one of oil billionaire H. L. Hunt's homes across the lake. I was told he maintained two separate families in Dallas, the one across this lake, another in Highland Park, each allegedly totally ignorant of the other's existence.) Admission $8, parking $5. Dallas Arboretum, 8525 Garland Road, tel. 214/515-6500, www.dallasarboretum.org.
The Dealey Plaza Historical Landmark District
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza was created in 1989 as a non-profit organization to commemorate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and to preserve the location for the future. In the former Texas School Book Depository, now a county administration building, it occupies the sixth and seventh floors. In addition to the 6th-floor corner where Oswald fired his rifle, you can see six different movies on as many screens and kiosks, and much more. Conspiracy buffs should note the display listing nine different basic conspiracies about who may have been involved with Oswald. There's an exhibit on the 7th floor of photos and oral histories of law enforcement officers involved in the aftermath of the tragedy, lasting until October 16, 2007. After that, starting November 12, you can see "Filming JFK" with home movies from Dallas, including the full uncut Zapruder film (which shows in its first frames a family birthday party before he took his 8 mm camera down to see the president drive by). Open daily, admission $13.50 (including audio guide). 6th Floor Museum, 411 Elm Street, tel. 888/485-4854 or 214/747-6660, www.jfk.org.
If you want to stay in a place where artists are appreciated, try the Belmont Hotel, a renovated 1940s motel overlooking the downtown area, with great views. A friendly bar said to be popular with media, arts and fashion people and paintings for sale are prominent features of the place, with a newly-reopened Cliff House restaurant at the entrance to the complex. 68 rooms from $139 and up. Belmont Hotel, 901 Fort Worth Avenue, tel. 214/393-2300, www.belmontdallas.com.
At the other end of the price spectrum is the just-opened Ritz Carlton, which I have to mention if only because I believe this may be the most modern and ritzy Ritz-Carlton I have ever looked at. In addition to the gorgeous flowers and furnishings, a smart restaurant and famous chef, every amenity you can think of, the Club floors ($60 to $100 above regular room rates) feature in-mirror television screens, rather like holograms staring at you from within the glass. I thought I could shave my face and George Cloony's at the same time, which is possible with this innovation. Also, they have in-room safes big enough to hold a laptop, the first I've seen like that. 218 rooms, starting from $369. Ritz-Carlton, 2121 McKinney Avenue, tel. 800/241-3333 or 214/922-0200, www.ritzcarlton.com.
Tillman's Roadhouse has some kind of wild menu, at least to my fairly tame eye. How about Venison Frito Pie, in honor of Dallas' own Plano-based Frito Lay corn chips, at $16? (It was better, I thought, without the chips.) Or Fried Pickle Cup appetizer at $6? (I passed.) You must end your meal with S'Mores Table Side at $13, which turned out to have three kinds of homemade marshmallows, cinnamon graham crackers and chocolate, with a little hibachi for roasting the mess. (My first and last s'mores.) But they have regular Texas food, too, such as excellent BBQ ribs and dozens of other delicious-looking concoctions. In business 14 years, redecorated a year ago in what I would call opulent rustic style. Tillman's Restaurant, 324 West 7th Street, tel. 214/942-0988, www.tillmansroadhouse.com.
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