The Dallas Aquarium: The Building Emblazoned With Seahorses — 1936
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
Out of all the buildings at Fair Park, the one I have the fondest memories of is the Dallas Aquarium, one of the buildings built in 1936 for the Texas Centennial Exposition which was specifically intended to be a permanent structure which would be available year-round to the citizens of Dallas, well after the Centennial had ended (some of these other “civic buildings” included the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Natural History, the Hall of State, the bandshell, etc.). The Centennial buildings were designed by different architects, usually working in teams — the aquarium was designed by Fooshee & Cheek (best known for their previous triumph, Highland Park Village), Hal B. Thomson, and Flint & Broad. It ended up costing the city about $200,000 ($50,000 over the initial budget), and tussles with the Park Department and the City Council over its budget and space requirements meant that at various times it was suggested that the aquarium find a home at the Marsalis Park Zoo in Oak Cliff rather than at Fair Park, or that it just be shelved altogether.
But everything worked itself out in the end, and its popularity at the Centennial was huge. HUGE. Most people in our part of the country had never been to an aquarium and had never seen fish outside of a lake or river or hatchery. According to reports in the newspapers during its construction in early 1936, not only was the Dallas Aquarium the first aquarium in Texas, it was also only the 12th aquarium in the entire United States — and it was the only one in the country in a “strictly inland city.” So unless visitors to the Centennial that year had traveled extensively, chances were slim that they’d ever seen anything like this.
At the time that plans were being discussed for the Fair Park facility, there was something of a tropical fish fad going on around the country. The Dallas Aquarium Society — a small group of “tropical fish fanciers” — was organized in June, 1935, and in September of that year, they had enough pull to put on an exhibition of their personal collections in small tanks on an upper floor of the Dallas Gas Company. People who had never before seen anything but a goldfish in a fish bowl were fascinated, and there were several “gee-whiz” articles in the papers describing the fishy wonders that could be found that fall at the gas company. The president of the Dallas Aquarium Society was Pierre Fontaine — an advertising man and “authority on marine life” — and he must have made quite an impression with the Centennial board, because in February of 1936, he was chosen to be the head of the already-under-construction Dallas Aquarium. (Though apparently a hobbyist when appointed, Fontaine served for decades as the respected director of the Dallas Aquarium — and later the Dallas Zoo.)
The fish on display during the Centennial were almost exclusively freshwater fish. Not only would it have been prohibitively expensive to ship the thousands and thousands of gallons of salt water that would have been needed, it would also have been extremely costly to purchase and maintain the special non-corroding equipment necessary to equip such tanks. But Fontaine must have pushed, because the city gave the go-ahead for a paltry 500 gallons of salt water from the Gulf to be shipped up for the opening of the Exposition, so at least a few exotic saltwater-dwelling creatures and plants were able to share their DeMille-moment in the Centennial spotlight with their freshwater brethren. (At the time, “artificial” salt water was not yet an option as it now is, and only natural salt water could be used.)
The 1936 Centennial aquarium building still stands. After extensive renovation, it now houses the “Children’s Aquarium,” which I haven’t visited, but which I’m confident is entertaining and educational. I’m pretty sure, though, that it is a completely different aquarium from the one of my childhood memories (when museums were basically designed for adults and were rarely “interactive”). I loved going to the aquarium. I remember it being dark and cool and kind of dreamy inside. Mysterious and exotic. I loved the little neon fish that playfully (or nervously) darted all around the tanks, the big, slow-moving fish that looked back at me like nonchalant cud-chewing cows in a field, the tiny skittering crabs, the turtles, the undulating plants … I loved all of it.
But what I really remember are the seahorses on the side of the building — whichever architect came up with that perfect little detail deserves a special place in heaven. I loved them as a child, and I love them now. The acres and acres of art deco fabulousness created for the Texas Centennial are absolutely thrilling, but those solemn and quietly elegant seahorses all in a row on the side of the Dallas Aquarium will always be my personal favorite little nostalgic detail in the whole of beautiful, beautiful Fair Park.
UPDATE — Oct. 2020: It has been announced that the Children’s Aquarium will be closing permanently. This news is almost as upsetting as seeing Big Tex in flames.
Sources & Notes
Top two images are postcards based on the original architectural drawings, issued before the aquarium was built, found somewhere on the internet.
The third color image is a postcard from a photograph taken after the Centennial was underway.
Photo of the exterior of the present-day aquarium was taken by me in 2013.
The website for the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park is here.
For an absolutely FANTASTIC well-illustrated article titled “The Metamorphosis of the Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park Into the Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park, With Historical Annotations” by Barrett L. Christie, Aquarium Supervisor, see p. 5 of the “Drum & Croaker” PDF, here. I really loved this article — especially the “Annotations of Historical Interest” at the end (p. 14). Seriously — this is a great read. I’m as layman as you’re gonna get regarding this topic, and I was fascinated by all of this. I’m going to have to write about that mysterious severed human leg found on the roof in 1954!
Copyright © 2015 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.