A ‘tour’ of our neighborhood’s landmarks

Sonny the Steer atop the Charco Broiler. Photo by Randy Carlisle

All communities have landmarks, icons. London has Big Ben, Greece has the Parthenon, Rome has the Coliseum. And New York? The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and … Broadway!

Although Oak Cliff isn’t as prominent worldwide — depending on whose point of view one has — it does have its icons. For instance …

If there’s a specific place around that outsiders might recognize, it would probably be the Texas Theatre — the granddaddy of Oak Cliff icons. For old-time Cliffites, it was a place for ’30s and ’40s dating, and later a prime all-day-Saturday kiddie destination with serials, B movies and the always popular feature films. Aside from Howard Hughes being one of the original owners, the theater is most frequently noted as the place were Lee Harvey Oswald was captured after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The building does have a history.

Probably the oldest standing icon in Oak Cliff is the Houston Street Viaduct, opened in 1912 and touted (probably erroneously) as the longest reinforced concrete structure in the world. Although its original, ornate lighting has been replaced, the old bridge still retains a bit of its earlier romance. And its top-notch view of the downtown skyline never gets old — especially spectacular at late evening, when the setting sun reflects off the Hyatt Regency, and at nighttime, with the illuminated Omni Hotel and the ever-recognizable Reunion Tower “ball.” A trip into town via the viaduct remains a short but impressive trek — definitely a well-established Cliffite tradition.

Off the Oak Cliff end of the viaduct sits the vintage Cliff Towers building, a former “apartment hotel” that opened in 1929 and the original home of KLIF radio. The 14-story structure of southern European architecture is now a condominium complex with a perfect view of Lake Cliff Park and an even better view of Dallas’ southwestern skyline. After closing in the 1950s, it served as a nursing home facility before remaining vacant for a number of years — until the new owners began renovations. The edifice is, most certainly, Oak Cliff’s first official “skyscraper.”

Definitely “old-school” are Oak Cliff’s actual old high schools: W. H. Adamson High School and Sunset High School. Located 2-and-a-half miles apart at opposite ends of Jefferson Boulevard, the three-story brick structures with their steep outside front-entry steps could double as buildings from many of Hollywood’s period movies. And Adamson certainly fills the icon criteria format now with its city, state and national landmark designations (listed with the National Register of Historic Places) — a big battle for the alumni association and one that saved the old building from the wrecking ball.

The former Schell Grill eatery (where my dating parents used to share a 15-cent burger and a 10-cent Coke), at 1207 N. Zang Boulevard, has, in the past, probably served quality ice cream to more Cliffites than any other place around. As home base for Polar Bear Ice Cream from 1946 to 1985, the “ice castle” architecture is recognizable to almost anyone who lived in Oak Cliff from the ’30s on. I’m not sure how successful it would be to re-open the place as an ice cream parlor, but I know I’d be in line. And so would a slew of others. Never a fan of its Hawaiian delight flavor or plain vanilla, but oh, for a triple-dip lemon custard cone! And (in the ’50s) at 5 cents a dip. Yes!

Lone Star Donuts on North Beckley, Top Ten Records on Jefferson, Austin’s and Red Bryan’s barbecue restaurants, Kiest Park, and the well-recognized neon-lit Wynnewood sign have all been mentioned in previous columns, as has the bygone Wee St. Andrew’s mini golf course. But they all should be included on the “vintage” Oak Cliff icon list. Drop in the old Rocket Skating Palace on North Cockrell Hill Road, Lake Cliff Park, Wynnewood Lake (in the heart of the Wynnewood North sub-division), the Ravens Pharmacy “raven” signs, and the ever-popular Sonny the Steer atop the Charco Broiler on Jefferson, well, you’ve just gotta love the list.

I can just see sterling silver charms representing all these places attached to one of those then-popular 1960s charm bracelets. A hit, for sure.

Enjoying the Oak Cliff icon tour? Stay tuned. Next month it’ll continue, and who knows? Your personal favorite just might show up.