Aging JFK memorial earns city's attention



Design still debated, but cleanup plan isn't

11/22/99

By Ed Housewright / The Dallas Morning News

Graffiti isn't visible anymore inside the John F. Kennedy Memorial in
downtown Dallas. It has been crudely covered with white paint.

When a mentally ill man with a can of spray paint vandalized the memorial
last spring, he did more damage than ever. But the incident also helped
focus attention on the monument's already-deteriorating condition and
helped generate support to restore it.

Early next year, 30 years after the memorial was built, a
$70,000 cleanup is scheduled that many say is long overdue. The project will be paid for by the city of
Dallas and Dallas County.

Besides the graffiti, the memorial's concrete walls have been stained from
exposure, and small pieces have chipped off.

"You cannot let this memorial fall into disrepair," said Andy Stern,
chairman of the Dallas County Historical Foundation, which is coordinating
the work. "It's too important to Dallas and to this country and to the
world."

The boxlike memorial, 200 yards from where President Kennedy was slain
Nov. 22, 1963, is a major landmark today, but it was almost never built.
Officials and residents wrestled with how - and whether - to recognize the
assassination.

Some people, including the Dallas mayor at the time, opposed a memorial
because they didn't want to be reminded of the event that made Dallas
infamous. The Kennedy Memorial wasn't completed until seven years after
the president's death.

"I've heard people talking about erecting a monument in their sadness,"
then-Mayor R.L. Thornton Sr. said in a newspaper article on Dec. 4,
1963. "For my part, I don't want anything to remind me that a President
was killed on the streets of Dallas. I want to forget."

After the memorial was built, a debate ensued about the design by
renowned architect Philip Johnson of New York. Even today, some
people call the monument sterile and uninviting.

It consists of four 30-foot-high concrete walls, elevated slightly off the
ground with narrow openings on the north and south ends. Inside, the only
feature is an 8-by-8-foot slab of gray granite with the inscription "John
Fitzgerald Kennedy" in gold.

"This doesn't inspire me," said Lester Trapp, a recent visitor from
Claremont, Minn. "Most monuments capture some of the essential
contributions or ideals of a person. This is just concrete."

By contrast, the memorial deeply moves Jeff West, executive director of
the nearby Sixth Floor Museum, which is operated by the Dallas County
Historical Foundation. He said many people share his emotion once he
explains the 50-by-50-foot monument.

"I think the design is kind of fantastic if you know what it means," Mr.
West said. "I can go in there and make you get chill bumps. . . . It evokes
the charisma of Kennedy, the youth of Kennedy, the spirituality."

Mr. Johnson once said the cenotaph, or empty tomb, was intended to be
"a place of quiet refuge, an enclosed place of thought and contemplation."

"Utter simplicity," he said, "was the guiding idea."

Proud of design

In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Johnson said he was proud of the
memorial.

"I don't think it's sterile, of course," he said. "I love it. The idea of going
into an empty room with nothing to help you, except to think about the
slain president - I think that's a very moving image."

Mr. Johnson, who knew the Kennedys, said designing the memorial was
his most difficult job because "the circumstances were so tragic." He was
asked to take on the project by Dallas retailer Stanley Marcus, who
served on a 20-member memorial committee.

Mr. Johnson, who at 93 is designing the new Cathedral of Hope sanctuary
in Dallas, said he's disappointed that the Kennedy Memorial hasn't been
maintained better.

"I regret that it looks shabby," he said. "When you build something, you
don't think about it decaying. I thought city pride would have kept it
maintained."

Mr. Johnson supports the restoration, which is scheduled to begin in
January and be completed by Presidents Day in February. Workers on
scaffolding will meticulously clean each square inch. Afterward, a
graffiti-resistant sealant will be applied, and regular maintenance will be
done, Mr. West said.

"It's a public piece of art that needs to be maintained," he said.

The Kennedy Memorial was built with $200,000 in private funds. More
than 50,000 people from around the country donated money, including a
5-year-old girl who gave four pennies. An elderly couple donated $30 they
had saved for Christmas.

"If you have been waiting to join with other Dallas citizens to honor the
memory of our late President John F. Kennedy in a fitting community
expression, now is your opportunity," a newspaper ad in August 1964
said.

Many people offered suggestions about the memorial design. One that
received support was a curved white marble wall about 10 feet high with a
statue of President Kennedy. The designers proposed that it be built at the
assassination site.

Eventually, officials decided to build the memorial about 200 yards away
on an open block bounded by Main, Commerce and Market streets and
next to the Old Red Courthouse. The county donated the site, valued at $1
million.

Construction

Construction began in 1969 after being delayed for several years by
completion of a five-level underground parking garage beneath the
memorial site. Cranes hoisted the monument's 72 vertical, precast slabs of
concrete into place. They weigh as much as 13 tons apiece.

On June 24, 1970, the Kennedy Memorial was dedicated before 250
people.

"Designing this memorial," Mr. Johnson told the crowd, "was the only way
I had of honoring this man I loved and admired."

No Kennedy family members attended the dedication, nor did they offer
input on its design. Two days after the dedication, Sargent Shriver, a
brother-in-law of President Kennedy, visited the monument.

"I feel it is very appropriate, an effective and impressive memorial," he said
at the time. "The architect managed to capture a great many of the qualities
of John Kennedy's personality and spirit. . . . I would like to thank the
thousands of residents of this area who contributed money toward this
memorial."

Rallying point

Over the years, the Kennedy Memorial has been more than a place to
honor the 35th president of the United States. It has become a rallying
point for political demonstrations.

Protesters have spoken out about the Gulf War, peace in the Middle East,
immigration policies and the death penalty.

Nonpolitical events also have been held. In 1995, hundreds gathered with
candles when singer Selena was killed. Several times, vigils have been
conducted for the many homeless pets euthanized each year.

People who assemble at the memorial might overlook a quiet tribute to
JFK: About 50 feet from both entrances, granite markers are set in the
sidewalk with identical inscriptions.

"The joy and excitement of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's life belonged to all
men," the markers read. "[This] is not a memorial to the pain and sorrow of
his death, but stands as a permanent tribute to the joy and excitement of
one man's life.

"John Fitzgerald Kennedy's life."