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National Historical Landmark

by Clint Skinner

4. Women's Museum

To the left of the Founders Statue lies the former home of the Women's Museum. Construction of the building began in 1909 at a cost of 108,000 dollars, almost half of it funded by public donations. Fair Park Coliseum opened a year later on land that was previously used for baseball games and livestock events. Originally built for the purpose of hosting horse shows, animal exhibits, and livestock auctions, the place was designed by architect James Edward Flanders.

Flanders began his career in Chicago working as an apprentice. He then moved to Minnesota, but transfered to Dallas a year later in 1876 because the city desperately needed architects, thanks to the constant growth it was experiencing. Flanders spent most of his time designing several of the downtown commercial buildings and residential projects. After a brief stint in San Diego, California, he began focusing on churches and schools. During his 55-year career, he designed over three hundred structures. Most of them were located in the Dallas area, but he also did work in West Texas, Oklahoma, California, Arkansas, and Missouri. His most notable works included the Shackelford County Courthouse, Navarro County Courthouse, and Hollywood's Hotel Dupont.

The coliseum that Flanders built had the seating capacity of eight thousand. Because of its size, the building also hosted musical and theatrical entertainment, though these events mostly took place at night while the livestock shows occurred during the day. The stage was fifty feet long and thirty-six feet wide with twenty-four available dressing room nearby. This amount of space made the Fair Park Coliseum a popular place for companies to visit and perform, despite the low-quality acoustics resulting from the building's spacial design. In addition to the entertainment and livestock, the place also served as a venue for car shows and public speeches. The most famous speech was the one given by Woodrow Wilson in 1911 while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.

When Fair Park Auditorium, now called Music Hall, opened in 1925, the coliseum returned to its beginning roots. However, it also hosted agricultural exhibits and car shows. In 1935, in preparation for the centennial celebration, the interior was remodeled so it could serve as the administration building for the exposition. George Dahl also gave the order to renovate the exterior.

Dallas TX - Fair Park Women's Museum
Fair Park Women's Museum
Photo courtesy Clint Skinner, February 2016

In front of the building, Raoul Josset designed a reflecting pool for Jose Martin to sculpt. The artwork needed for the pool came in the form of a fountain located in the back. The fountain depicted a group of fish jumping out of the water and diving back in. A tall mural and large female statue, together forming an artwork called Spirit of the Centennial, stood behind it. The two Frenchmen chose Georgia Carroll to be the model, who would later become a famous singer for her participation in Kay Kyser's big band, known as the Kollege of Musical Knowledge. The twenty-foot statue itself was a nude woman standing on saguaro cactus. The mural was the work of Italian artist Carlo Ciampaglia. Although he was born in the boot-shaped nation, Carlo spent his childhood and artistic training in New York City. He then traveled to Rome in his native homeland for additional training. He spent most of his time doing design and decorative work for places such as the Chapel of the Fairmount Mousoleum, the Sunbury Court House, the Masonic Temple in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the New York home of David Milton, and the Food Building of the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The building fell into a state of disrepair and neglect, which continued until the Women's Museum took over operations. The museum was the brainchild of Cathy Bonner. She was in charge of several marketing and advertising companies, one of them responsible for helping twelve state programs dealing with college aide. In addition to her business endeavors, Bonner served former governor Ann Richards by becoming the executive director of the Texas Department of Commerce and working to improve the economy. However, this was not the first time that the two women had worked together.

In 1975, before she got heavily involved with politics, Ann Richards took her family to San Antonio to see a special show about the state's history at the Institute of Texan Cultures. Amazingly, not a single woman was mentioned throughout the presentation. Richards decided that she would find out more about the role women played in Texas history. She looked in textbooks and exhibitions for answers, but came up empty every time.

Not to be deterred, Richards formed the Texas Foundation for Women's Resources, which Cathy Bonner joined and became one of the organization's founders. They started working on their first endeavor and called it the Texas Women's History Project. With Mary Beth Rogers as the director and Ruthe Winegarten in charge of research, the members joined forces with a team of historians, college students, and other volunteers to find and preserve women's role in Texas history. Five years after Ann's inspiration, the organization finally accomplished its goal of presenting a history of Texas Women. The result was a traveling museum that moved from place to place throughout the state. Texas Women: A Celebration of History lasted for two years and can be viewed at the Blagg-Huey Library in Denton.

Cathy came up with the idea for a permanent women's museum in 1996 as a result of a recurring dream. Wanting to make her dream a reality, she started to look for the place. She contacted an organization called the Friend of Fair Park, which provided a tour of the grounds. Bonner took a look at the artistic work known as Spirit of the Centennial and decided that the building would serve as the perfect host for the museum. With the help of the Texas Foundation for Women's Resources, she was able to raise thirty million dollars for the project.

Work on the exterior began in 1998 and included the restoration of the statue, mural, and pool. Stashka Star handled the centennial art while conservation expert John Dennis dealt with the fountain. Wendy Evans Joseph, who worked on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the nation's capital, designed the interior. However, the various exhibits themselves were done by Whirlwind Creative, a company located in Harrisburg, North Carolina. All the construction was performed by a local company called F & S Partners.

Fair Park Women's Museum  interior
Museum interior
Photo by Andreas Praefcker*

The Women's Museum opened as an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution on September 29, 2000. A significant portion of the first floor was composed of open, empty space used for special events, dinners, and meetings. In addition, the floor had areas dedicated to art galleries, visiting exhibits, and classrooms for various children's activities. The second floor hosted a series of historical exhibits which included displays paying tribute to influential females, a timeline combining text and memorabilia, and informational videos. The third floors devoted itself to health-related subjects.

Unfortunately for the museum, it faced a series of financial struggles caused by a lack of funding. According to records released in 2007, it had a deficit of 600,000 dollars which doubles the following year. This number increased to 1,300,000 in 2009. The continued failure to make a profit led to the decision to close the Women's Museum in 2011.

Since the closure of the museum, the building has remained empty and closed throughout the year, except during the state fair when it is used to host Mundo Latino.
It serves as a celebration of the Latin American cultures throughout Central and South America. The first floor host a variety of attractions. Along the perimeter, merchants sell products that are indicative of their home country and culture. Near the back area, a wooden stage allows a wide range of live entertainment to take place, most of it coming from local schools, singers, dancers, and musicians. The floor also displays historic exhibits that have the tendency to mirror the fair's theme for the year. The second floor, which is empty for the most part, hosts a pictorial tribute to those who have fought and died on the battlefield. The third floor also has a pictorial tribute, but it focuses on the memories of Little Mexico.

Little Mexico was a small community located in the downtown area, the first one to host a fully-Hispanic population. It was located south of Riverchon Park with McKinney Avenue running along the bottom border, Maple Avenue serving as the eastern barrier, and Stemmons Freeway traveling past the left side. Originally settled by Jewish immigrants from Poland during the 1800s, the neighborhood was flooded by people seeking refuge from the Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910 and lasted for ten years. During this time, the Jews left the neighborhood as the Hispanic population continued to grow.

Little Mexico received it name in 1919. The area was a poor, overpopulated neighborhood with substandard housing, unpaved roads, and no health care facilities. Some improvements occurred over the years and the 1950s were a time of redevelopment.

The beginning of the end arrived in 1966 with the construction of the Dallas North Tollway straight through the middle of the neighborhood. Compounded by Woodall Rodgers Freeway on the southern portion of the area, Little Mexico had an uphill climb if it wanted to expand. While this was going on, several businesses wanted to use the area. Many of the houses were bought and demolished for redevelopment and the construction of large buildings began. Very little of the neighborhood still exists, the two major remnants being Pike Park and the birthplace of nation's oldest Mexican restaurant chain.

El Fenix was started by Miguel Martinez, an immigrant who fled Mexico to escape from the revolution started by the removal of President Porfirio Diaz. Miguel opened a restaurant in 1916 and called it Martinez Café, resulting in the introduction of Tex-Mex cuisine. Two years later, he changed its name to El Fenix because he believed in the practice of trying to turn failures into successes. His restaurant became so successful, he bought the building next door and transformed it into the El Fenix Ballroom during the 1930s. It featured live music from an orchestra while patron could enjoy an evening of dancing. Martinez decided to retire in 1946 and gave the business to his four sons. Since that time, El Fenix has grown into a full-fledged chain of restaurants.

September 11, 2016
© Clint Skinner

*Author's Note:
All the pictures that are not mine are either public domain or creative commons. I provided the photographer's name.

FAIR PARK - Attractions:

1. Fair Park Station
2. Main Entrance
3. Founders Statue
4. Women's Museum
5. DAR House
6. The Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial
7. Sydney Smith Memorial Fountain
8. Music Hall
9. Fair Park Esplanade
10. Centennial Building
11. Automobile Building
12. Hall of State
13. Tower Building
14. Big Tex Circle
15. Grand Place
16. Old Mill Inn
17. Magnolia Lounge
18. Hall of Religion
19. African American Museum
20. Leonhardt Lagoon
21. Dallas Museum of Natural History
22. Science Place I
23. Children's Aquarium
24. Fair Park Bandshell
25. Texas Discovery Gardens
26. WRR Headquarters
27. Science Place II
28. The Texas Star
29. Cotton Bowl Stadium
30. The Texas Skyway
31. The Embarcadero
32. The Creative Arts Building
33. Food and Fiber Building
34. Pan American Arena
35. The Woofus
36. The Swine Building
37. Briscoe Carpenter Livestock Center
38. Livestock Pavilion and Arena
39. The Horse Barn
40. Fair Park Coliseum
41. Top of Texas Tower

3.Dallas Morning News Archives
5.Slate, John H. Historic Dallas Parks. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.
8.Winters, Willis Cecil. Fair Park. Arcadia Publishing, 2010.

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