The Perot Museum is the most promient new space on Dallas’ skyline, but older, offbeat museums resonate with historic import


The Perot Museum will be under construction for the rest of the year, but this rendering illustrates what the final facility will look like when landscaping is complete.

DAVID TAFFET  | Staff Writer

While the major art museums are part of the Arts District, Downtown Dallas is home to a number of smaller museums with a focus on history and science that are worth a visit. The new Perot Museum of Science & Nature will rival the art museums in size and scope.

The Perot Museum
After three smaller museums — Dallas Museum of Natural History, The Science Place and the Dallas Children’s Museum — merged in 2006, the new institution needed additional space to house the collections and a vision for more halls as well. The new home, rising along the north side of Woodall Rodgers Freeway a few blocks west of the Arts District, will become a city landmark.

Designed by Thom Mayne, the building will appear to be a large floating cube under a landscaped roof. Inside, 180,000 square feet will house 10 galleries on five floors. (Like the cornerstone buildings in the Arts District the museum is also designed by a Pritzker Prize-winning architect.)

Museum CEO Nicole Small describes the building as a “sustainable science lesson.” It will feature two 25,000-gallon underground cisterns that collect rainwater from the roof and the plaza for the non-potable needs of the project. The wavy roof’s rockscape and drought-resistant plantings will also help keep the building cool; solar energy will heat the water.

Small says the building will appear to float over the plaza, an outdoor space she sees as suitable for everything from cocktail parties to community festivals, from art to food.

The skin of the building is pre-cast, custom-molded concrete. But the most striking design element is a diagonal glass box — now just a steel frame — that will house an escalator.

“The view from the top will be stunning,” Small says.

Although principal construction is nearing completion, the opening of the facility is still 18 months away. Exhibits are being assembled off-site, but installation will take months to get ready for public viewing.

Small said the permanent exhibition will span dinosaurs to DNA. “We’ll have the largest dinosaur in Texas,” she says.

The museum will be able to take much of its vast collection of artifacts out of storage for the first time. But one of the most exciting things about having the new building is that Dallas won’t be missing all of the major traveling shows that can now be booked into the museum’s temporary exhibit space.

The West End
Sixth Floor Museum. Two floors of the old School Book Depository Building make up part of the city’s No. 1 tourist destination: The Kennedy assassination site. The notorious building, which now also houses Dallas County Commission offices, chronicle the presidency of John F. Kennedy and his death at Dealey Plaza in 1963. From the sixth floor window, visitors can stand in the sniper’s nest that Lee Harvey Oswald created on Dallas’ darkest day.

Dallas County acquired the building in 1977 and converted the first five floors to county offices. In 1989, the museum opened, a project headed by an openly gay man, Jeff West, who became the museum’s first director.

Old Red Museum of Dallas County History & Culture. This iconic structure with the red stone façade was once the Dallas County Courthouse. Built in 1892 and restored more than 100 years later, the museum’s exhibits trace Dallas from prehistory through its early years as a trading center to its current status as a business center and the hub of the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. Across the street from the museum is a replica of Dallas founder John Neely Bryan’s log cabin.

Dallas Holocaust Museum. A block from the Sixth Floor Museum sits the one of the oldest Holocaust museums in the country, which moved Downtown in 2005. In its current temporary space, the museum tells the story of one day during the Holocaust. To bring the story home, survivors who later settled in Dallas donated many of the artifacts on display, including the front pages of the areas’ three local newspapers from that day.

The building that houses one of the original boxcars that transported victims eerily evokes the period as DART trains regularly rumble past. Temporary exhibit space was added to the museum late last year. The first traveling exhibit to open in the space is called “Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945.”

Museum director Alice Murray says that attendance this summer soared over previous years so that other exhibits are planned including one on Jim Crow laws next year.

Plans call for building a new, larger museum on adjacent property that the museum owns.

Elsewhere Downtown
While the Dallas Public Library isn’t actually a museum, the central branch across from City Hall houses one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence — the only one in the western United States — in a temperature-controlled case on the seventh floor.

After the Continental Congress appointed a committee to declare independence, Thomas Jefferson drafted the text of the document. The copy is one of about 25 printed on July 4, 1776.

Just south of I-30 sits Dallas Heritage Village, better known as Old City Park. This museum is home to Texas’ largest collection of 19th century shops, pioneer and Victorian homes and even an old hotel that once stood in downtown Carrollton. Moved from throughout North Central Texas to the city’s first park, the 20-acre site recreates life in North Texas more than 100 years ago.

Among the interesting facts we learn is that when the hotel was full, guests would sometimes have to share a bed. Strangers sleeping together? Right here in Dallas, Texas? Why, we can’t even imagine what might have gone on.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 26, 2011.