Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Sixth Floor Museum: A Must-See Exhibit and Historical Landmark If You Are Visiting Dallas, Texas; From the Cradle to the Grave

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post about the assassination of president John F. Kennedy. It was a watershed moment in the lives of most of us back in 1963, one that will never be forgotten. This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to Dallas, Texas...once a place unfairly despised by many Americans because of what had happened there.

Our cab driver gave us two Dallas 'must-dos' on the way to our hotel: having a steak and scheduling a visit to the 'Sixth Floor Museum' at Dealey Plaza, within walking distance of our hotel. Having a steak was already on the agenda, in fact we would have two! I was intrigued but hesitant about visiting the museum thinking it might be a bit tacky or too intrusive but I was very much mistaken.

The grassy knoll and sign.
Walking over to the spot, at the intersection of Houston and Elm Street, I was struck by how much it hadn't changed, how much the image of the book depository and it's environs, had been indelibly etched in my mind. The red brick of the building, the shape of the windows, the tree in front, the 'grassy knoll' and the white structures surrounding Dealey Plaza were overwhelmingly familiar to me and would be to anyone who was glued to their TV sets or devoured newspapers back in November of 1963.

What I didn't know was that Dealey Plaza was the spot upon which the city of Dallas was founded. Not only was Dealey Plaza the birthplace of the city and county of Dallas, founded by John Neely Bryan in the 1840s, but it was also the site of Dallas’ ultimate city planning solution, a vehicular park and a triple underpass. Hailed as the “Front Door of Dallas,” Dealey Plaza served as the major gateway to the city from the west and, equally important, as a symbol of civic pride Built in the 1930s and 1940s during the Texas Centennial and President Roosevelt’s New Deal, these projects were spearheaded by George Bannerman Dealey, an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News, a civic leader, and the man who had campaigned for the area's revitalization. The land was donated by early Dallas philanthropist and business person, Sarah Horton Cockrell. Three streets converge at Dealey Plaza: Main Street, Elm Street, and Commerce Street and they pass under a railroad bridge known as the aforementioned triple underpass. The white monuments lining the plaza are not there to honor President Kennedy, but actually honor previous prominent Dallas residents and predate President Kennedy's visit by many years. There is a Dallas monument to Kennedy, a cenotaph, located one block away.

One of the two spots where the president was hit.
Ironically, Dealey Plaza became a site that served as both “cradle” and “grave”, a historic place where Dallas was born and an American president died.

The Sixth Floor Museum is located in the former Texas School Book Depository built in 1901 on the corner of Houston and Elm streets. In its day, the firm stocked and distributed textbooks for public schools in north Texas and parts of Oklahoma. 

After the book company moved out in 1970, it was hoped that the building would be torn down. Dallas County acquired the building in 1977 with plans to locate county offices on the first five floors and did so in March of 1981. The sixth and seventh floors of the building remained empty.

On President's Day 1989, The Sixth Floor Museum was opened with the many visitors who had come to Dealey Plaza over the years serving as the impetus for the historical exhibition. The museum shows the Kennedy family legacy and the promise of his presidency as well as the assassination site and aftermath. The floors remain in part as they were back then, with the addition of many photo partitions and film kiosks. A recreation of Lee Harvey Oswald's sniper's nest is located in the exact spot and sealed off with a glass partition. Visitors are self-guided through the museum with the help of a headset and the visit should take an hour or two depending on how much time you spend at each exhibit. A gift and book shop is available at the end of the tour. The Museum is owned and operated by the Dallas County Historical Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization and it is a designated National Historic Landmark.

The sniper site from the museum website.
In July 2010, the Museum opened the Reading Room overlooking Dealey Plaza that serves as an environment for those interested in understanding and reflecting on the assassination and legacy of President John F. Kennedy. 

After visiting the museum you might want to walk out onto the 'grassy knoll' (this was 'tackily' marked with a plastic sign) and take in the familiar environment where the Kennedy motorcade passed by. Two 'X's mark the spot where the bullets struck the president. This was the area that was the subject of so many conspiracy theories in whether or not Oswald acted alone or in concert with a shooter located somewhere in the grassy area.  

In all, it was a very moving and solemn experience, a reminder, like 9-11, of a very sad time in our country's history.

Another view of the grassy knoll.

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