The Shopper’s Architect

Posted by    |    August 6th, 2010 at 3:56 pm

The great retail department stores of downtown Dallas had much more in common than their Jewish founders and luxurious merchandise.  Some of the most iconic and innovative buildings in downtown Dallas were all designed by the same architect.

George Leighton Dahl is known as the brains behind the design of the Neiman-Marcus Building (1927, 1618 Main St.); the Titche-Goettinger Building (1929, 1900 Elm St.); the Volk Brothers Buildings (1930); the Mayfair Department Store (1947, 141 Elm St.); and Philipson’s Fashions (1949, Elm at St. Paul).  He even designed 32 stores for Sears Roebuck.

Dahl was an adaptive architect.  According to the Handbook of Texas Online, “In contrast to contemporaries O’Neil Ford and Howard R. Meyer, who developed their own unique styles, Dahl, as critic David Dillon noted, remained a stylistic chameleon who produced works to suit the needs and tastes of his clients.”

Although trained in classical design, he was often asked to design at the whim of his clients.  While working for the Herbert M. Greene Company in Dallas, he was asked to work on a new downtown store for Tichte-Goettinger.  In an article in Legacies: A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas,

“Dahl recalled that the ‘wanted to do something a little more modern, more expressive of our civilization, but the client wanted a Florentine palace, so I gave him a good Florentine palace,’  He also gave Volk Brothers a good Second Empire facade and Neiman Marcus a passable example of commercial Renaissance Revival.”

Volk Brothers Building

His work on Dallas’ downtown retail buildings was seen as innovative, and many of the features incorporated in these stores were the first of their kind.  The Volk Brothers building, with six floors and a basement, was said to be the  first completely air conditioned retail store “whose system was designed as the building was planned.”  (Legacies)

Titche-Goettinger was in need of expansion in 1928 and called upon Dahl to design its new seven-story building with two basements to be located on St. Paul between Main and Elm.  The store was designed around luxury shopping and elegant decor.  It featured Italian classical elements in keeping with its Florentine influence.  The entry doors to the building featured travertine marble arches.  The building contained eight elevators and “pneumatic tubes that sped customers’ charge or cash tickets to cashiers in a central office.”  (Legacies) 

Titche Goettinger Building

And why oh why don’t stores these days have perfume fountains any more?

The Titche-Goettinger store even featured a 650-seat auditorium on the seventh floor for hosting weekly book reviews given by Evelyn Oppenheimer.  According to Legacies, “The space was needed, for women drove to Dallas from Tyler, Waco, Sherman, Denton and Fort Worth to hear her.”  (Rumor has it that Evelyn moved to Titche’s auditorium from the Sanger-Harris auditorium because the Titche auditorium was larger).

George Dahl did not design the original Neiman Marcus store.  The original store burned down in 1913.  Nor did Dahl design the replacement store:  Designed to be fireproof and accommodate additional floors as needed, the red brick and white stone building opened in 1914 with 4 floors at the corner of Main and Ervay. 

Neiman Marcus Flagship

Dahl did, however design a 1927 four-story addition to this store, doubling the retail space, replacing the exterior brick veneer with white terra cotta, and enlarging the store’s entrances. The design of the building was based on Renaissance Revival architecture, and the interior featured an impressive double staircase. 

Of course, Dahl was known for more than his retail buildngs.  Dahl is perhaps best known for heading up the team that designed the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition at Fair Park.  This feat entailed designing and building 26 Art Deco-style buildings designed by ten different firms.  Dahl oversaw the planning and construction of the entire fair and designed several of the buildings himself.  Now a national historic landmark, the complex of buildings is recognized as one of the best preserved assemblages of depression-era architecture.

1936 Texas Centennial Exposition

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  2. Jeff Hinson says:

    Great article. I would love to know what a perfume fountain looks like.