George E. Kessler is often credited as one of the most important figures in shaping Dallas as we know it today. Kessler was born on July 16, 1862 in Frankenhousen, Germany and emigrated with his family to Dallas when he was three years old. Following the death of his father at age 16, Kessler and his mother returned to Europe where he studied civic design in Germany, France, and Russia. A student of the City Beautiful movement, Kessler’s first commission in Dallas was for the World’s Fair grounds in Fair Park in 1904.
The population in Dallas at the turn-of-the century was exploding. Issues such as disorganized street patterns, flooding, dangerous railroad crossings, inadequate public transportation, and lack of recreational facilities plagued the city. The great Trinity River flood of 1908 devastated West Dallas and placed yet another strain on the booming population. Dallas City officials were already familiar with Kessler because of his work in Fair Park, so they hired him to develop a water management and long-range growth plan for Dallas. “A City Plan for Dallas,” also known as the Kessler Plan, was completed in 1911 and included long-range civic improvements to address the growing pains that Dallas was experiencing.
The Kessler Plan was not implemented right away. At the time, Dallas officials considered the plan to be too extravagant and impractical. Concerns over tax rates and individual property rights were a factor, as well as the sudden popularity of the automobile after 1908 which changed the way that people moved around the city. The population of Dallas grew another 72% in the decade after the plan was created, however, and it became increasingly clear to city leaders that implementing portions of the plan was essential to quality of life and livability in Dallas. Support for the plan grew, and Kessler returned to Dallas in 1918 as a consulting engineer for the Dallas Property Owner’s Association and later the Dallas Chamber of Commerce.
Several parts of the plan eventually were implemented over the next several decades, including the following major projects:
Trinity River Improvements – The Trinity River levees and floodplain were completed in the 1930s after being delayed by World War I and other financial issues. The levees have been improved several times since their initial construction.
Central Expressway – Kessler originally intended Central to be a tree-lined boulevard that replaced the rail lines for the Southern Pacific railroad company. Implementation began in the 1920s, but opposition from the Southern Pacific delayed the project for decades. Portions of the freeway opened in 1950 and construction continued north until the late 1960s.
Boulevards – the Kessler Plan originally called for boulevard loops around the city to connect city parks, green spaces, and reservoirs. The tree-lined boulevards were to have wide, grassy medians that would double as recreation space for residents. Only portions of these boulevards were built, and you can still see remnants of them today along roads such as Turtle Creek, South Oak Cliff, and Burlington Boulevards.
Union Station – Railroads in Dallas were a confusing tangle of separate lines running in and around downtown, making travel unsafe and cumbersome for pedestrians and drivers. Kessler’s plan called for the consolidation of rail lines through a central terminal. Union Station, dubbed the “front door” of Dallas, was completed in 1916 and quickly became a major hub in the Southwest. Read more about Union Station here.
Unfortunately, Kessler did not live to see his plan in Dallas realized and he passed away in 1923 while overseeing a project in Indianapolis. Kessler played a key role in introducing cities in the American heartland to landscape-oriented urban design, and his impact on early city planning in Dallas cannot be overstated.
A City Plan for Dallas by George E. Kessler – A Portal to Texas History