Deep in downtown Dallas, Encore Park is silent.
508 Park, a white marble building with black and gold accents, looms on the street’s edge, with shut windows and padlocked doors. Outside, 508 Amphitheater, with a polished-wood arc ceiling and a soft grass lawn, is quiet, as though waiting for a symphony. The trees in the neighboring community garden stand still. And a wall mural, The Birth of a City, depicts Dallasites of the past frozen in time, with a paused railroad car and a cowboy mid-trot.
But this former epicenter of Southern blues and jazz is set for a revival.
The Encore Park project is the brainchild of Dallas’ First Presbyterian Church and its 40-year-old community ministry The Stewpot, which provides day services to homeless and at-risk individuals.
“We don’t give up on things here,” says Bruce Buchanan, director of The Stewpot and Reverend at First Presbyterian Church. “We serve second chances to people and to buildings, too.”
Encore Park’s dedication weekend was in October 2014. In the past year, renovations have been slow but steady, with consideration to how best preserve the block’s history.
The buildings of Encore Park were centers of creative release during the Depression. Warner Bros. Pictures opened the 508 Park facilities in the 1930s; the space held a motion picture theater, recording studio, and a fireproof film vault. It was also home to the Vitaphone Corporation, one of the first sound system companies for films.
The neighborhood itself was alive with music. Musician Robert Johnson, once homeless, recorded hits like Hellhound on My Tail in the building, and street musicians played the blues day and night.
“Dallas was once bigger than Nashville for music,” says Pat Bywaters, the executive director of Encore Park. “Not a lot of people know that.”
After Warner Bros. shut its doors and the surrounding neighborhood became unkempt, the facilities were left empty for years.
First Presbyterian Church saw an opportunity to create a revolutionary urban space. It would restore the 508 Park block to its former prestige, but also integrate and celebrate the surrounding homeless community as a part of the neighborhood’s past, present, and future. “We don’t give up on things here,” says Bruce Buchanan, director of The Stewpot and Reverend at First Presbyterian Church. “We serve second chances to people and to buildings, too.”
The church acquired the Encore Park land from the city of Dallas in 2011, with the intent of renovating the space to celebrate the neighborhood’s creative past.
Phase one, the outdoor amphitheater, is complete. Community movie nights, such as Casablanca, were a success last spring; Steven Johnson, Robert’s grandson, appeared in concert; and the 508 Park Fiddle Contest took place in November.
Though funding for phase two, the 508 Park building’s interior, isn’t complete, plans are drawn and ready. “If you have $7 million, we could finish [the rest] tomorrow,” says Rev. Buchanan.
Inside 508 Park, blank walls, black and white art deco tile flooring, an out-of-service vintage elevator, and glowing light bulbs are the only remnants of the past.
But the team has big plans for the space.
Floor one, Bywaters explains, will hold a coffeeshop, an open arts studio, a selection of art for sale created by Stewpot artists, and The Museum of Street Culture.
The Museum will represent both the artistic history of Encore Park and the culture of the surrounding homeless population. It will be the only one of its kind to celebrate the arts culture of the ‘20s and ‘30s. A 90-foot timeline will take visitors from present-day Dallas to the Civil War era.
The history of movies will be one focus, including the progression of modern-day film from silent pictures to the blockbusters of today.
Dallas’ music scene will also be depicted. Listening rooms with state-of-the-art sound systems will welcome guests as they enter, including both music recorded in the building and local music, including a Deep Ellum-specific section.
“The Museum of Culture’s core permanent exhibitions, educational activities, and public programs will link the early film history of 508 Park with the Blues, Western Swing, and Mexican music recorded there,” explains the Encore Park team.
The second floor will be spaces for woodshop classes, music performances, and a recording studio intended for both the arts programs and the general public.
The third floor, a tiny screening room, will open onto a rooftop venue, which can be rented out to benefit Encore Park. The view includes surrounding high-rises and the Dallas Farmers’ Market. The Church also intends to purchase 515 Park next door, creating space for collaborative partners such as Dallas Police, Dallas Winds, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, and others.
The Encore Park community garden, which is almost a year old, stands just under the 508 Park windows and is a verdant sight in the urban area. Fruit, such as peaches, hang on trees bordering the three-quarter-acre space. Other produce grows in 90 modern, dark wood planters; squash, cabbage, pumpkins, and beans are thriving. An advanced watering system in each planter monitors the weather, waters accordingly, and is controllable by smartphone. Off to the side are compost bins, a tool shed, and a habitat area complete with milkweed plants to attract monarchs.
The produce is used in meals at The Stewpot’s Second Chance Café, but garden workers occasionally hand some to passersby.
Some of the garden workers are participating in The Stewpot’s horticultural therapy program. Relaxation, responsibility, and dedication develop as the men and women plant and harvest. While horticultural therapy facilities are scattered throughout Dallas, most are geared toward children. Encore Park is groundbreaking as it lays within the very homeless population’s community it seeks to help.
Other gardeners are paid employees. Michael Bell is one such employee. He was promoted after The Stewpot staff noticed his dedication in the garden. He credits his work to helping him turn his life around.
Encore Park is groundbreaking as it lays within the very homeless population’s community it seeks to help.
When he arrived to Dallas from Tennessee a few years ago, he used to sell drugs in front of the spot where he now works.
When he learned of the Stewpot’s mission, he was inspired. His mother was always dedicated to improving his neighborhood when he was a child.
“We didn’t live in a good area,” he says. “Drugs, gangs… She wanted to make [our neighborhood] somewhere we were proud to live. Wanted to create a garden for everyone.”
Today, he strives towards similar goals. Three days a week, Bell hunts pests like green ladybugs; weeds the planters; checks for ripeness; and encourages tendrils of stalks to grow skywards. He dutifully waters plants for friends who also have plots. “It’s relaxing,” he says. “This is my favorite place.”
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