Threatened: Dallas Art Deco Building with Blues History

Warner
1929 Warner Bros. Film Exchange Building, Dallas

Credit: Jack Keene

An art deco building in downtown Dallas, abandoned for 18 years and now in need of expensive repairs, is at the center of a debate in the city.

Concerned with public safety, in August 2008 the City of Dallas generated a list of 36 empty properties, 22 of which are contributing structures in the downtown National Register-listed district. This fall, as part of a Downtown Vacant Buildings Initiative, the city sent letters to seven owners, notifying them of code violations and threatening lawsuits or fines of as much as $1,000 per day, per violation.

One of the empty properties is the Warner Bros. Film Exchange Building, located two blocks from City Hall. Designed by Weiss, Dreyfous, and Seifert, the architectural firm that designed the Louisiana state capitol, the 1929 structure was built to store reels of film. But its more famous for the Brunswick Records recording studio which once shared the space. Mississippi blues musician Robert Johnson (1911-1938) made one of his few recordings here. Now a designated city landmark, the building remains empty, and its roof is caving in.

Listen to Robert Johnson sing "Me and the Devil Blues," recorded in the building in June 1937, a year before his death at age 27.

Although the Warner Bros. Film Exchange Building is in clear violation of Dallas codes, the city "would not support demolition," says Chris Heinbaugh, chief of staff to Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. "I think that building is very saveable. The owner has already met a lot of the conditions, and he's not that far off [from full compliance]." (A representative of the owner, Colby Properties, did not return phone calls before publication.)

Warner
Robert Johnson recorded his second and last recording in this 1929 art deco Dallas building. It has been empty for 18 years.

Credit: Paula Bosse

This week Katharine Seale, president of Preservation Dallas, will meet with Mayor Tom Leppert to discuss the fate of the Warner Bros. Building and other vacant historic structures downtown. "I don't think the city is conspiring to demolish historic buildings, but it's an unintended consequence [of the initiative]. They're forcing property owners into a corner," Seale says. "Let's mothball these buildings, let's board them up, and when the economy is looking up, let's look at possible solutions."

Stabilizing the building may be Colby Properties' best option. Outright sale would be more difficult because of the neighborhood (a nonprofit across the street serves a population of homeless people), and because vandals have stripped copper piping from the interior.

"The bottom line is, you can't allow that [neglect] to continue, regardless of whether it's a historic building or not," Heinbaugh says. "The worse it gets, the harder it is to save that building down the road. The owners of these buildings have let them rot, fall into disrepair; they've left them open to the elements and undermined their structural integrity. These owners have gotten a free ride for years."

 

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed

Comments

Submitted by Ol' Whip at: October 6, 2009
Dallas doesn't exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to preserving it's past. I hope this one can be saved. Everyone talks about Memphis or Chicago but they forget how influential Dallas was in the history of the blues. This building is at the heart of that history.

Submitted by edry at: May 16, 2009
What is the status on the building today - what plans are in the works?

Submitted by Brian at: February 14, 2009
I wonder if there are interesting details in the interior or if its all trashed. Looks like it could be a fantastic building if preserved.

Submitted by David Thompson at: February 12, 2009
Great building. I hope it can be saved and restored at sometime.