DALLAS — Dealey Plaza was just a city park, a stretch of grass on the edge of downtown Dallas. Texas Theatre showed first-run movies under a ceiling with twinkling stars. And at the corner of Houston and Elm streets, the red-brick Texas School Book Depository held nothing more compelling than textbooks.
The assassination of the nations 35th president shattered the calm. In November 1963, John F. Kennedys sudden, violent death made mundane spaces suddenly memorable. In the two cities where he spent his final hours, ordinary buildings, streets and sidewalks transformed officially or not into memorials to Kennedy and the era he represented, makeshift repositories for public grief and private dismay.
Even now, 50 years later, visitors arrive from all over the world retrace the footsteps of both Kennedy and his assassin, to pay their respects or investigate a theory.
There will always be interest in this subject, said Nicola Longford, executive director of the Sixth Floor Museum. The museum, dedicated to Kennedys administration and assassination, opened in 1989 inside the old Texas School Book Depository building, where Lee Harvey Oswald is believed to have fired the shots that changed history.
That interest, Longford believes, will long outlive those who were alive in 1963. The Sixth Floor exhibits, she said, originally were designed for visitors who had personal memories of the day. Today, about 60 percent of visitors are too young to remember the assassination.
Dave Fulton sometimes runs into people on Kennedy pilgrimages.
Theyre kind of taking the trail of what transpired that day, said Fulton, general manager of the downtown Fort Worth Hilton, which was the Hotel Texas when Kennedy spent his last night there.
A steady stream of visitors, he said, explores the JFK Tribute, a memorial and larger-than-life bronze statue of Kennedy across the street. Some stop by the Hilton to see photos from Kennedys final speech.
The sites thrust into history 50 years ago dont all look the same today. Remodeling, new construction and taller trees changed the landscape. Most remain public spaces, used every day for the everyday. In these unintended landmarks, though, Kennedys assassination and the three awful days that followed still can seem fresh. A solemn feeling lingers. These places havent been ordinary for a half-century.
815 Main, Fort Worth
After leaving Houston late on Nov. 21, the president and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy spent the night in downtown Fort Worths Hotel Texas surrounded by world-class works of art. Earlier, the Secret Service had determined the hotels presidential suite wasnt secure, and the hotel prepared Suite 850, a smaller suite on a lower floor. As word spread that the Kennedys would spend the night in a plain room with commercial art and dreary décor, the citys art lovers sprang into action. In just five days, they gathered 16 paintings and sculptures from local museums and private collectors works by Van Gogh and Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley and Pablo Picasso and placed them throughout the suites three rooms.
On Nov. 22, Kennedy stepped outside to address the crowd of 5,000 that had braved the rain to greet him, then made the last speech of his life to more than 2,000 people at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast in the hotel ballroom.
The Hotel Texas is now the downtown Hilton, and the 1921 building has been remodeled so many times that Suite 850 no longer exists. But photos from Kennedys Fort Worth visit decorate the lobby and mezzanine, and the hotel gift shop sells a pin that commemorates the event.
Across the street, the JFK Tribute was dedicated last year in the spot where Kennedy greeted the public. The granite plaza includes Kennedy quotations, photos and a water wall.
Thirteen of the artworks that graced the Kennedys suite have been reunited for a 50th-anniversary exhibit at Fort Worths Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Hotel Texas is open through Jan. 12; admission is free.
Elm and Houston Streets, Dallas
Abraham Zapruder, whose Super 8 images of the assassination are burned into our memories, stood with his camera on one of Dealey Plazas concrete columns. This small stretch of grass split by sidewalks and a busy street served as the backdrop for other enduring images from those tragic seconds the presidential limousine speeding toward the underpass, witnesses cowering on the ground.
The official John F. Kennedy Memorial, a concrete open tomb designed by Philip Johnson, is a couple of blocks from the famous grassy knoll. In the heart of Dealey Plaza, though, only a couple of markers document the assassination. Two white Xs painted on Elm Street mark the position of the presidential limousine when the shots hit Kennedy.
Thousands of cars drive over those Xs every day; Elm Street still is a major artery out of downtown.
More than 1 million people visit Dealey Plaza every year. At almost any time of day, in any weather, tourists wander through the triangular park, an old Works Progress Administration project that, when it was finished in the 30s, the locals called the Front Door of Dallas. Today, visitors gaze from the street to the infamous sixth-floor window and back. Conspiracy theorists spin their explanations or hand out pamphlets. On an October afternoon, historian David McCullough paced the sidewalks. Hell be the featured speaker at the Nov. 22 ceremony in Dealey Plaza marking the 50th anniversary. Organizers describe the event as tasteful, and its 5,000 attendees are being vetted by security well in advance.
Texas School Book Depository
411 Elm, Dallas
In October 1963, Oswald took a job in the warehouse at the Texas School Book Depository in downtown Dallas. Investigators concluded that from a window on the buildings sixth floor, he shot Kennedy with a mail-order Carcano rifle hed brought to work that morning.
For years, Dallas didnt know what to do with the building. The textbook company moved out in 1970, and local business leaders were among those who wanted to demolish the building. Dallas County bought it in 1977 and opened county administrative offices in the first five floors.
The Sixth Floor Museum opened in 1989 and now owns more than 40,000 artifacts, documents and images from the assassination and Kennedys administration. Two corners of the sixth floor look just the way they did in 1963: The northwest corner, where a rifle was found on the staircase, and the corner window where three spent cartridges were found among the stacks of cardboard boxes.
Zapruder, the accidental historian, worked across the street at 501 Elm; it now houses the museums gift shop on its ground floor.
231 W. Jefferson Blvd., Dallas
Oswald slipped into a matinee that Friday afternoon without buying a ticket. The manager of a nearby shoe store, whod noticed Oswalds suspicious behavior on the street, urged a theater employee to call the police. A little after 1:45 p.m., 15 Dallas officers rushed in to surround Oswald and arrest him.
The 1931 theater in Oak Cliff, about 3 miles southwest of downtown, was the first air-conditioned movie house in Dallas. In the years after Oswalds arrest, the theater has been closed and reopened, saved from the wrecking ball, nearly wiped out by fire and added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the same bright T-E-X-A-S sign lights up the night along West Jefferson Boulevard. Inside, the elaborate Italian Renaissance design was covered over with stucco in a mid-1960s renovation. Since 2010, its single screen has shown art films and sci-fi, modern-day classics and documentaries. Theres a full-service bar and lounge in the lobby, a small art gallery upstairs.
The owners have embraced the theaters role in history, though not always with the sort of solemnity expected. A couple of years ago, the theater sold T-shirts that featured a large mug shot of Oswald. The shirts upset many longtime Dallas residents but they also sold out in five hours.
5201 Harry Hines Blvd.
The Secret Service rushed Kennedy 3 miles to Dallas Countys public hospital, where he was pronounced dead a few minutes later in Trauma Room 1.
Just two days later, Dallas club owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald in the Dallas Municipal Building downtown, which is now being renovated to house the University of North Texas law school. Oswald, too, was rushed to Parkland, where he died about an hour later.
Trauma Room 1 disappeared in a hospital renovation in the early 1970s, but a bronze plaque in the radiology waiting room marks its location.
Lee Harvey Oswalds grave
Shannon Rose Hill Cemetery, 7301 E. Lancaster Ave.,
Oswald was buried Nov. 25, the same day as Kennedy. At Rose Hill Cemetery, on the eastern edge of Fort Worth, the graveside service had only family members and reporters as witnesses in fact, reporters were asked to serve as pallbearers because no one else was present.
His plot is marked with a simple stone engraved only with his last name.
Shannon Rose Hill employees will not direct visitors to Oswalds grave. A basic Web search, however, will reveal its location.
And people do search it out. On Oswalds birthday last month, the gravestone was covered with a fresh red floral wreath and a note scrawled on a scrap of paper: To be great is to be misunderstood.