Unfortunately, George Kessler’s vision for Dallas was never realized

A number of things stood out to me in Sunday’s DMN article on George Kessler, a famous Dallas planner who was highlighted as part of the newspaper’s 125th anniversary series:

• The piece was written by the paper’s longtime architecture critic, David Dillon, who died just three days before the story was published;

• Dallas has been working on — and forgoing — master plans for more than a century;

• If the city had implemented Kessler’s vision — “a bold plan for boulevards, parks, plazas and gateways that would give it some of the elegance and refinement of London and Paris” — we would be living in a very different Dallas today, one that sounds much more appealing to me.

Kessler (who is well-known among Cliffites because of Kessler Park, named for him) was an advocate of the City Beautiful movement, but as Dillon writes, “Kessler presented [his plan] just as the City Beautiful was contracting into the City Efficient, in which economy, utility and next year’s tax rate trumped concern for the big picture and the long view. Ideas that had been welcomed as enlightened a few years earlier were now dismissed as impractical and extravagant. Sweeping change became mere expediency.”

This is one of several of Dillon’s profound reflections in the piece that paint a picture of Dallas’ missed opportunity, how it shaped the city’s current state, and how this foreshadowed the city’s behavior into the next century. Other insights:

“[Kessler] urged Dallas leaders to look beyond the crises of the moment to imagine what their city could be 25 or 50 years in the future. “There is not a single thing in this city that you cannot do if you make up your mind that you need it and will have it,” he told them. … A walk in the city should not be an ordeal, a kind of penance, but an education in art, architecture, history, nature and citizenship.”

“The failure to implement most of Kessler’s recommendations foreshadowed a century of hit-and-miss planning in which Dallas commissioned half a dozen master plans and officially adopted none. … Dallas — then and now — cared far more about individual property rights, leading eventually to a city with hundreds of special-interest planned developments but no overall vision of what it wants to be.”

The Trinity levees, Union Station and Turtle Creek Boulevard were all part of Kessler’s plan, but none of them turned out how he had envisioned them — Dillon’s article denotes how Turtle Creek, for example, should have stretched longer and been one of four boulevards circling downtown.

I’m all for basic city services — stocked libraries, even roads, reliable garbage pick-up — but it seems like Dallas is a place that could use a little more foresight, planning that is visionary rather than reactionary. And we, its residents, could buck up with a little more patience and long-suffering in order to see a great vision implemented.

Something like the Trinity River Corridor Project? Dillon mentions that when talking about what Kessler would think about Dallas today: “He would surely decry the shortage of parks and public space, yet likely endorse efforts to reclaim the Trinity River — minus the tollway.”


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  • Keri Mitchell

    Thanks for correcting me, Jan. Upon a quick reread of the Kessler Neighbors United website, I found this statement: “The four additions that comprise the Kessler Park Historic District were named for him; however, research has failed to establish a direct connection between Kessler and the development.” I changed this post accordingly.

  • Jan Doherty

    Keri: thanks for the link to the DMN article on George Kessler. I would have missed it in the paper without your mention of it. However, I think you got a couple of things wrong in your summary. George Kessler was not a developer; he was a landscape architect and planner. And he had nothing to do with the development of Kessler Park or any of the neighborhoods carrying the Kessler name. The actual developers just used his name as a tribute to his plans for a beautiful Dallas, and tried to incorporate some of his ideas in the winding, wooded streets and parkways. At least, this is my understanding. If you have any information that ties George Kessler to Kessler Park, please let me know. Thanks for all your great work. I really love the Advocate. J