Dallas building where legendary Robert Johnson recorded could face wrecking ball

Dallas building where legendary Robert Johnson recorded could face wrecking ball
February 6, 2009

For two incandescent days in June 1937, a fresh-faced man from Mississippi settled into a stuffy warehouse at 508 Park Ave. and laid down 13 tracks that would help to make him a legend.

This building at 508 Park Ave., in Dallas is thought to be where blues legend Robert Johnson recorded some of his songs.
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Of course, that fame wouldn't come till decades after Robert Johnson's death the next year at age 27. But those who heard his blazing guitar and haunting voice would never forget the way he possessed the blues and the way they possessed him.

When Johnson's old Vocalion 78s were repackaged in 1961 for an album titled King of the Delta Blues Singers, a new generation of fans – including the Rolling Stones, Cream and Led Zeppelin – discovered the propulsive power of his music and the heart-rending emotion of his words.

But even as Johnson's stature grew as blues legend and rock 'n' roll inspiration, his makeshift studio in downtown Dallas gradually slid into obscurity.

Empty now for 18 years, the old Warner Brothers Film Exchange is down at the heels and boarded up, caught between real estate reality and a city plan to clean up blighted corners of downtown. Demolition is a distinct possibility.

Unlike other structures on the city's code-enforcement target list, however, 508 Park packs both musical and architectural significance.

Johnson's visit is the crown jewel, only the second and last recording session of his short life.

Western swing artists the Light Crust Doughboys may have recorded there on the same weekend in 1937 – the late Marvin "Smokey" Montgomery recalled a sweltering warehouse, where two fans blowing across a big chunk of ice provided bare relief from the heat.

Jazz giant Charlie Parker could have recorded at 508 Park as well, on April 30, 1941, as a member of the Jay McShann Orchestra. It would have been one of Parker's earliest recording sessions, when he was only beginning to work out the sound that would become the heart of bebop.

But while those are possibilities, the Johnson recording session – where he cut "Love in Vain," "Hellhound on My Trail" and "Me and the Devil Blues" – is a certainty, and enough on its own to make 508 Park an important place in the history of the blues, said Brett Bonner, editor of Living Blues magazine.

"You have to understand that with most blues recordings from the 1920s and '30s, the places where those recordings were made are gone, and there isn't much of our past that we're able to hang on to," Bonner said. "Usually, the things that happen in life are eventually bulldozed over."

That may be the case with 508 Park, whose owners, Colby Properties, have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a building Colby has been unable to sell – many say because it sits across the street from The Stewpot, where the downtown homeless are fed.

"I really don't remember how much we've spent over the years," said Jack Westenborg of Colby, an affiliate of Glazer's Distributors, the building's last tenant, "but it has been expensive with the taxes and other maintenance issues.

"And there's been an enormous amount of theft. People have stolen the lights off it and a lot of the copper inside. People have broken in numerous times.

"Sometimes, just to enter the building, we have to bring in security to watch the vehicles. So it's a very difficult situation."

It has been a difficult situation for years, with no signs of resolution. And that's what property owners find so frustrating, and why some consider demolition the only answer.

"We haven't applied for a demolition permit," Westenborg said, "but our counsel has been in contact with the Dallas city attorney's office to try and do the right thing that is in everybody's interest.

"But when you're in a situation like this, no one knows which way to go. You just don't see an end."

City Attorney Tom Perkins agreed that Colby Properties has made "a number of repairs" to 508 Park but has more to do.

"We hope we're able to resolve all of those without having to resort to litigation," Perkins said. "But that always remains an option.

"At some point, there will be a decision: Either we've made substantial progress in resolving the code problems or the city will need to take further enforcement action, up to and including litigation."

But with that threat hanging, and the homeless clients of The Stewpot spending parts of their days on the sidewalk in front of 508 Park – despite recommendations in city studies that services for the homeless be moved away from downtown – no one seems eager to buy the property, no matter what its historic or architectural merit.

And despite its hard-working roots – 508 Park was built in 1929 as a distribution center where film spools were ferried to and from downtown movie houses – its architects didn't skimp on style. The striking front entry is done in dark marble and cream-colored blocks with cast-stone accents.

"Despite its diminutive size, this is one of the best remaining art deco buildings in Dallas," said Willis Winters, an assistant director of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, architect and co-author of The American Institute of Architects Guide to Dallas Architecture.

"What I particularly like is the zigzag moderne style. There are almost no zigzag buildings left."

It's a building with a lot of potential, too, Winters said, especially for studio businesses in art, architecture or design.

"The problem isn't the building itself – it's what's located across the street," Winters said. "And those poor owners are taking the full burden of that."

The Rev. Bruce Buchanan, executive director of The Stewpot, said the ministry "has historically tried to be a good neighbor" by providing the homeless with meals, jobs and a place sheltered from the weather.

"We do not encourage people to loiter outside," he said, "but this is a nonsmoking environment, and some of our clients do go out for a cigarette."

The Stewpot sweeps up litter left on neighboring properties and occasionally power-washes the front of 508 Park, Buchanan said.

While he sympathizes with the owners, he noted that the property's historic claim to fame is Robert Johnson.

"The irony is Robert Johnson had homeless roots," Buchanan said.

Preservation Dallas director Katherine Seale said Colby Properties responded quickly to the code-enforcement push by the city and made $200,000 in repairs, but the edifice faces an added huge expenditure after another inspection.

"They've really been forced into a corner," she said.

Joel B. Goldsteen, professor of city and regional planning at the University of Texas at Arlington, can only imagine the owner's frustrations.

"I'm a great believer that a city needs all the historic buildings it can get, and that any building that is old and has any design character whatsoever ought to be preserved," Goldsteen said. "In these financial times, everyone has to have patience."

On the one hand, the city has an obligation to ensure that buildings are safe and up to code. At the same time, officials need to understand the possible repercussions, Goldsteen said.

Author and historian Alan Govenar isn't so sure the city cares.

"The problem in Dallas is that aspects of the history are obscured by the push for redevelopment," he said, pointing to Deep Ellum as the most conspicuous example, where blues legends Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson performed on street corners.

"The property on Park raises bigger questions. At what point does the city of Dallas begin to recognize and celebrate its own history?" he wondered. "When is it perceived as an asset?"

•Colby Properties has made many of the improvements needed to bring 508 Park Ave. into compliance with city codes, but Dallas City Attorney Tom Perkins said some issues remain. The city wants full compliance, Perkins said.

•If the property owners don't meet the code requirements, the city could file suit, with the possibility of fines of up to $1,000 a day per violation.

•Colby Properties has mentioned the possibility of demolishing the building but hasn't submitted an application yet.

•Because the building is in the Harwood Historic District, the city's Landmark Commission would have to approve any demolition work.
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