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Cheap kitsch or regionally expressive design? Either way, Dallas's Pioneer Plaza is a raging popular success.
By Deborah Dalton, ASLA

The Trail Boss, an Anglo cowboy, sits with one knee draped over the saddle horn, his chin in hand, pensively overlooking the herd of 40 longhorn cattle as they swirl past the limestone bluff, through native oaks, and down the hill to the stream crossing. Off to his left, The Cutter, an African-American cowboy, wheels his horse out of the mesquite and switchgrass to chase a recalcitrant longhorn back to the herd. Across the stream, out ahead of the herd, The Vaquero, a Hispanic cowboy, charges after a bolting steer around a clump of Texas sage. A few quail crouch under the bushes. At least half the herd is on the sandy flat adjacent to the stream, a few longhorns already splashing through the water. Upstream, just below where The Trail Boss sits, a waterfall rushes down the face of the limestone bluff, pausing briefly in a pool before it curves through a shrub thicket, cattails, and bulrushes, riffles over rocks, and meanders by the sandy flat. Is it kitsch or is it a good example of regionally expressive design? It depends on whom you ask.

photo by Michael S Kendall

Pioneer Plaza is a 4.2-acre landscape with 40 one-and-one-quarter size bronze sculptures of longhorns and three mounted cowboys. The story of how this sometimes controversial project came into being is an interesting lesson in how meaning is expressed in the landscape, what history should be revealed, conflicting tastes in public art, and how politics, procedure, influence, and money mingle in the making of a public place. It is also another chapter in the long-running epic of American taste.

The space in question was a 250-car parking lot adjacent to the Dallas Convention Center. In the late 1980s, as an important element of convention-center expansion plans and economic development strategies, the city council had explored the possibility of making that site a convention center hotel. However, with the oil bust, the city's negotiations with a hotel developer collapsed. The space was designated as a four-acre green space in the 1989 master plan for the convention center expansion. Around this time, consideration also was given to developing part of this green space as a small plaza, perhaps with a monumental artwork.

In 1990, the convention center and the Convention and Visitors Bureau conducted a survey of almost two million people who had attended conventions in Dallas. Visitors were asked about what they came to see in Dallas, what they expected to see, what they didn't see, and what they wanted to see more of. Paula Peters, then executive director of the Dallas Parks Foundation (now Trees and Parks Foundation), is quoted in the Dallas Morning News as saying, "The overwhelming response they got was: 'Where is the West? Where is Dallas history? Did the city spring fullblown in 1960?' And that was the seed of Pioneer Plaza."

The early discussions about how to develop the plaza/park space in 1991 revolved around landscaping and a water feature, with some thought about a sculpture, but no specifics. This is apparently what came before the council for discussion, if not approval. Around this time, Dallas-based developer Trammell Crow, chairman of the board of the Dallas Parks Foundation, saw an opportunity to enlarge the idea of the original plaza, to make it the gateway to the convention center and have it focus on an aspect of the "Wild West" history of Dallas from the pre-Civil War years. He discussed the idea with the mayor and the city manager. Since funds were not available to develop the green space, the city asked the Parks Foundation to come up with private funding. In March 1992, a contract was signed between the city and the Dallas Parks Foundation for the foundation to spearhead the development of the site as a scenic gateway to the convention center.

The Parks Foundation hired historian A. C. Greene to prepare a report on early history in Dallas with an emphasis on the cattle trails that ran through Dallas in its early days. By August 1992, an article in the Dallas Morning News described a plan developed by the foundation for a plaza that would commemorate a typical cattle drive along the Shawnee Trail. The sculptural element was to be 70 steers and 3 cowboys in bronze, frozen in time, running across the site. A stream, waterfall, and pool were also part of the plan. City officials were described in the Dallas Morning News as "thrilled at the foundation's proposal, even though the planning is still preliminary. The landscape architects and artists have not yet been selected, and a fund-raising campaign will not officially begin for another few weeks." Start of construction was anticipated to be June 1993, with completion intended to be early 1994.

It was at this point that storm clouds of concern began to gather on the horizon. Between March and September 1993, the Dallas Morning News published 14 articles covering various aspects of the controversies swirling around the cattle-drive sculpture. The basic idea of the cattle drive was seen by some to be misrepresenting the true history of Dallas, as well as stealing the rightful history of Fort Worth. Indeed, an article on the front page of the January 17, 1994, New York Times reported on the controversy under the headline "Dallas Casts New Image, In Bronze, as a Cow Town." A snide follow-up in the January 20 editorial pages suggested that Dallas was trying to establish a "phony cowtown heritage" and remarked that something like bronze statues of Roger Staubach, Tom Landry, and "a couple of prancing cheerleaders" would have more to do with Dallas.

Many in the art community felt it was bad art. The high art-low art issue of figurative versus abstract was raised, as was the issue of traditional "realistic" bronze (pedestrian and literal) rather than, for example, Luis Jimenez-type colorful fiberglass sculptures (contemporary and edgy, not quite kitsch). Others were concerned that the steers were derivative of the well-known Mustangs of Las Colinas. Because it would have been prohibitively expensive to craft 70 different animals, the artist developed 10 basic body types and an array of tails, limbs, and horns that could be combined in a number of ways. This led to the works being dubbed "frankensteer" by some artists. And perhaps a less authentic and lower form of art?

The Shawnee Trail did in fact originate in south Texas before the Civil War and ran through Dallas, very near the convention center site, and on up to railroad yards in Kansas and Missouri. It was only after the Civil War, in 1867, that the Chisholm Trail opened 30 miles to the west, the Texas cowboy began to become part of the national myth, and Dallas went on to become a mercantile and financial center. By the middle of the 20th century, Dallas had developed a cosmopolitan civic image as "where the east ended." Fort Worth was the beginning of the West, the cowtown. The concern over the western cowboy imagery that the proposed Pioneer Plaza generated was not the first time this image problem had arisen. In 1960, a similar furor arose when the new NFL expansion team that came to Dallas was named the Cowboys. The desire by many in Dallas for a less rough-hewn, more cosmopolitan image for their city has been at play for decades.

More important to some, the way the project was approved bypassed the accepted procedures for making public art. There were also concerns about the cost of and responsibility for maintaining the work. Others felt that it would be a hazard and would attract graffiti and vandalism. Several local artists filed a lawsuit alleging that use of public funds to construct the plaza was illegal and that the project was never formally submitted to the Public Art Committee of the city. Dallas Morning News art and architecture critic David Dillon panned the work as silly but also found "the public brouhaha over whether abstract or representational sculpture was more appropriate for the site was absurd. The space needed a hotel, not art."

Not least, some were put off by the perception that powerful developer Trammel Crow has sufficient clout in Dallas to impose his will and his aesthetic vision. Some suggested that Crow's involvement and the selection of this particular site represented a conflict of interest and a loss of future revenues for the city, since Crow owns the struggling Loews Anatole Hotel located several miles from downtown Dallas. The cochair of the fund-raising committee was the wife of the president of the company that owns the Hyatt Regency—another large convention hotel a few miles from downtown. Yet others considered the hotel issue already dead since the city had not had success after years of trying to attract a developer for a hotel adjacent to the convention center. Still others saw the project as a successful effort to support and develop convention and tourist business in the city.

In spite of the ruckus, with the approval of the city council—which overrode a negative recommendation by the Public Art Committee—construction began in mid-1993, and the first seven steers and The Trail Boss were in place by April 1994. By July, the plaza was already a big draw for tourists and locals. Articles continued to appear in the Dallas Morning News at a rate of at least one a month, though by then they were reporting on the progress and the growing popularity of the plaza with a certain bemusement. With 20 steers in place, the grand opening of the plaza took place on Halloween night 1994, coinciding with the national Tour Association convention. The grand opening was a blowout gala in true Texas tradition. To the delight of onlookers, 15 head of live cattle were driven by 40 cowboys through the streets of Dallas to the plaza. There were also a huge barbecue, fireworks, a laser show, and various music and dancing groups.

Although 70 steers were originally planned, after the initial installations of 40 longhorns between 1994 and 1996, funding and energy began to dwindle. Sixteen more longhorns have been cast and are soon to be installed; that will complete the piece with 56 rather than the original 70 longhorns. In 2000, in the paving on the sidewalks under the trees, 38 granite panels were installed that relate the history of cattle ranching and the history of Texas brands, along with 36 of the 100-plus historic brands. In April of this year, a large granite medallion showing the map of the Texas cattle trails accompanied by a short explanatory text incised into the granite was installed in the pavement at the corner of Griffin and Young streets, overlooking the reflecting pool into which the stream empties. As soon as the last of the steers is in place, the work will be officially complete.

By late spring 1993, Dallas landscape architectural firm Slaney-Santana and sculptor Robert Summers of nearby Glen Rose were selected to carry out the vision. The parking lot site, owned by the Dallas Convention Center, had been carved out of a hill, separated from the historic Pioneer Cemetery by an 18-foot-high retaining wall. An old railroad tunnel and rail sidings were located below the parking lot and remain below the plaza. The southern part of the 4.2-acre site was to be left open to accommodate future convention center expansion, some of which is taking place now. Program requirements were minimal: to provide green space and a stage for the sculpture, as well as to provide for circulation around and through the site and access for people with disabilities to the bottom and top of the sculptures. A stone-grit path wends around the hill, separating the cemetery from the artwork, while limestone stepping-stones ascend the steep, 30-foot hill alongside the longhorns. According to project landscape architect Michael Kendall, ASLA, the design did not come easily, and after a number of unsuccessful concepts were prepared, a model of the site was built and the designer, sculptor, and foundation directors, including Trammel Crow, sat around a conference table sculpting the model with tiny shovels.

When construction began, the city was channelizing a stream, which yielded ample fill. This enabled a reconstruction of the hill to create a more dramatic setting for the spectacle of the cattle wending their way down under the watchful eye of the trail boss. It also established a rationale for the waterfall. Unfortunately, the alluvial soil caused problems with settling, so the footings for the man-made "limestone" cliff and waterfall had to be placed on the original parking lot grade for stability.

Liability would seem to be an issue, since the cliff and waterfall are 12 feet high and there are stepping-stones across the stream, yet there are no railings (nor have there been any serious accidents to date). Lawyers for the city reviewed the plan and deemed the project an acceptable risk. Native plantings buffer the edge, and the stepping-stones and moving water are self-evident. A sign asks that the sculpture not be climbed upon; though with an eye to the rowdy behavior that often accompanies the yearly college football rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas that traditionally takes place in Dallas, the sculptures were deliberately constructed to handle heavy weights hanging from the horns or clambering on the sculptures.

Calling this landscape a plaza is perhaps a misnomer since it is predominantly a soft green space, with two large areas of lawn framing the sculpture and a surrounding mix of native trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses. The green space is itself framed by paved elements along Griffin and Young Streets. These include a small visitor parking lot and three areas where the sidewalk widens and grids of trees have been planted. Some of the 36 historic brands incised in the sidewalks are also found on the hips of the steers, as well as big "Ds" on their sides, which signify their Dallas destination. The stream was modeled on one in Glen Rose, Texas, home of Summers, about 40 miles from Dallas. The man-made rock was based on local outcroppings and includes bands of different colors to represent the stratification of the rock. The plaza and the cemetery form a large, well-used green open space in what is otherwise a highly urbanized area.

The project cost was $9 million—$4.2 million of that the value of the land, which the city in effect donated, and the Dallas Trees and Parks Foundation (DTPF) raised an additional $4.8 million for the sculptures and the landscaping. The foundation maintained the site for the first two years of the project life (1995-1996). Landscape architect and DTPF Executive Director Mike Bradshaw, ASLA, estimates that maintenance at that time was roughly $11,000 per month. This covered the cost of a mechanical company to keep the pumps going and the water features in shape, and a landscaping company to maintain the lawns and plantings. The city of Dallas, through the Dallas Convention Center, now maintains the site.

Pioneer Plaza and its bronze cattle drive have undeniably been a raging success with the public and have come to be accepted with fondness within the Dallas community. Images from the work are featured in visitor and tourist information, and it is near the top of a list of 50 things to do in Dallas for free. Visitation rates have far exceeded original expectations. In fact, it is the second-most-visited tourist site in the city after Dealey Plaza. As a result, erosion has been an ongoing problem, as well as keeping any kind of grass alive, particularly near and among the steers. There is perhaps an unintended irony about the erosion at the feet of the cattle since, after all, erosion induced by excessive grazing pressure is a significant problem throughout the West.

The popularity of the plaza was evident when I took a group of students on a field trip to Dallas over the Martin Luther King holiday this past year. On that brisk and windy day in January, the place was loaded with visitors walking all around the longhorns, touching them (which is irresistible), putting their small children on the longhorns or the horses, having their pictures taken. When I visited again on a scorching but normal Wednesday in late July, there were considerably fewer visitors, but still a steady stream of families and couples wandered through, patting the longhorns and looking closely at the three cowboys. Summers is known for his use of realistic detail; each cowboy is wearing a different type of chaps, there is a group of quail under The Vaquero, the rowels on his spurs spin, and there is a fly on The Trail Boss—so close examination is rewarded.

Three construction workers ate their lunch under the trees and then drifted among the longhorns. A family from Mexico came through and stopped for a while, marveling, touching, and photographing. A local family slowly made their way along the longhorns, resting for a while on the stones under the trees before going up to the bluff top and then swinging back down to explore the falls and the stream. Couples wandered through; a father and son pair paused for pictures by The Trail Boss. Many of the visitors continued on past the sculpture into the Pioneer Cemetery and strolled among the old headstones.

After several visits, I have come to believe that Pioneer Plaza is a good example of bioregional design and expression, both cultural and natural. Regardless of the controversies about the work, it is a product of careful historical research and thoughtful design. It creates a sense of the native landscape of the area and vividly portrays a part of the history of Dallas (as well as Texas and the southern plains) and the cattle culture, as well as providing welcome green open space. One can perhaps quibble with some of the details; the transition from prairie stream to urban reflecting pool is abrupt. And yes, for one trained in "high" design and in art history, the realistic bronzes and the faux limestone signal that it is out of what we politely call the "popular" tradition these days. Still, since we pride ourselves in some mythic way on the great diversity of our culture and our nation (which by extension must include a diversity in taste), is it not possible, even appropriate, that our landscapes reflect that diversity?

There is an odd synergy in this mosaic of land uses just a few blocks from Dealey Plaza and the Kennedy Memorial. The sense of history is enlarged by the adjacency of the Pioneer Cemetery that contains the remains of some of the earliest settlers. Some of the old graves still have flowers or other memorial offerings placed at them, a palpable connection between present and past. The Police Memorial just up the hill, dedicated in 2002, is more abstract (and less visited when I have been there). In this two-block area, there is a richness in the mix of abstraction, metaphor, and symbol expressing different aspects of the past, unified by the undulating green sweep of the grass, all of it juxtaposed against the massive concrete structures of the city hall and the convention center, a strange echo of the limestone bluff.

Making the sculptures larger than life-size works to set them apart, to create a sense of myth while permitting history and the present to function as well. Much of the southern plains today still is the country of working cowboys, cattle, longhorns, bison, and cowhorses, coexisting edgily with the sprawl of modern American life. Pioneer Plaza is richer and frankly more authentic than the Mustangs of Las Colinas, which have received numerous awards in spite of being set in a poorly functioning urban plaza in a suburban setting as an oversimplified reference to local landscape and culture. The mustangs, also larger than life-size figurative sculptures, are set in a flat expanse of granite described as an abstraction of the prairie and have become the ultimate in the tourist drive-by photographic experience. After a short stop to touch and photograph, however, there is little else for most tourists to do in the vicinity, so they get back in their cars and drive away. On the other hand, one can walk and take public transit to get to Pioneer Plaza, which is embedded in the matrix of the city both physically and metaphorically.

Deborah W. Dalton, ASLA, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oklahoma.


Landscape architects: Kendall + Landscape Architecture, Dallas; Slaney Santana Group, Dallas.
Owner/client: Dallas Trees and Parks Foundation, Dallas.
Sculptor: Robert Summers, Glen Rose, Texas.
Fountain consultants: CMS Collaborative, Inc., Santa Cruz, California.
Civil engineer: Lockwood, Andrews and Newman, Inc., Dallas.
Structural engineer: Siegfried Stricker, P.E.
Irrigation consultant: Terry J. Little, ASLA, Addison, Texas.
General contractor: Bowman Construction, Dallas.
Fund-raising: Carol Reed Associates, Inc., Dallas.

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