By Andy Rhodes, Managing Editor The Medallion
It wasn’t long ago that most people had a ready answer for the notorious question, “Where were you on November 22, 1963?”
Now, 60 years later, there’s only a portion of the population with a definitive response. In 1970s Dallas, however, the question was still on everyone’s mind. And it certainly was a provocative query for the Dallas County Historical Foundation.
The county cautiously approached the imposing prospect of acquiring the former Texas School Book Depository Building at Dealey Plaza and opening a temporary exhibit about the shocking assassination of President John F. Kennedy that occurred there.
“I think it was done with great reluctance, but with the understanding that it was the right thing to do,” says Nicola Longford, CEO of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. “So many people were coming here, and there was no historical interpretation or any official tour or guidelines to help people understand what had happened.”
After moving into the building and occupying the first five floors with administrative offices and a courtroom, the county spent nearly a decade carefully planning the permanent institution that became the Sixth Floor Museum. It officially opened on February 20, 1989—President’s Day—and proved to be a nerve-wracking experience for everyone involved.
“Dallas had been in a difficult position for many years as it managed the aftermath of being the place where the president was killed. It was labeled the City of Hate, and it still carried all those stigmas,” Longford says. “But Dallas rallied together, and moved onward. There may still be a little residual feeling here, but it’s a great city and all the pioneers who contributed to the founding of
the museum should be recognized.”
She adds that the museum has been following its original mission to present facts and allow visitors to decide for themselves about the motives and consequences of the events of November 1963. Although the museum acknowledges conspiracy theories “and other tangential parts of this very complicated story,” administrators take pride in their extensive collection of oral histories, artifacts, documents, and photos that allow the public to form a deeper understanding of a very complex history.
“With the passage of time, a city, a community, a nation, and a world still come back and revisit the assassination—especially when another decade goes by,” Longford says. “So, the 60th anniversary is really critical for us because it may be the last time that some of the key people who are still alive can come together and remember and reflect. Those are important connections to younger audiences today.”
According to Longford, the museum draws both traditional visitors and an unconventional audience, including some who question facts with a determination that wasn’t prevalent decades ago.
“Because it’s a really polarizing topic, we try and stay in the middle by sticking to what we know about the assassination and avoiding speculation,” she says, adding that there are “people who don’t approve or like or appreciate how we present the history” while others express gratitude for helping them find answers to long-burning questions.
Longford feels strongly that regardless of the motivation of visitors, the museum continues to encourage further research and discussion about Kennedy’s death, an event that shaped history from a local to international level.
“It’s still relevant—Kennedy is quoted almost every day or referenced in some fashion,” she says. “Our visitors don’t have to personally like Kennedy, but this museum is about his presidency, his life, and his legacy. We want people to leave here knowing that it’s OK to have questions, but we are not deviating from the historical facts.”
EXPERIENCE THE SIXTH
The Sixth Floor Museum is currently commemorating the 60th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination with a temporary exhibit revisiting his November 1963 Texas trip. “Two Days in Texas” traces the president’s itinerary through each city on his last presidential tour, featuring original film footage, photographs, news articles, personal items, and new acquisitions. The exhibit is open through June 16, 2024.
Kennedy began his Texas visit on November 21 with appearances in San Antonio and Houston, followed by what would be his final speech at a breakfast hosted by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. After the assassination, two speeches planned for audiences in Dallas and Austin were left undelivered.
According to Longford, “Two Days in Texas” addresses the assassination’s impact on everyday Texans and how it still resonates with them 60 years later. The exhibit features artifacts and first-hand accounts from San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin.
While there, visitors can also experience the museum’s permanent exhibit, which remains a compelling and fascinating chronological journey through Kennedy’s legacy.
Many people quickly flock to the spine-chilling sniper’s nest in the actual sixth-floor window where Lee Harvey Oswald fired his bolt-action rifle. But visitors should take time to view all the exhibits, featuring context-providing and insightful newspaper articles, grainy black-and-white TV newsreels, and stunning large-scale photos.
To learn more about the museum and to access its impressive online collection of photos and videos, visit jfk.org.
JFK: DEALEY AND DOWNTOWN
After browsing through the Sixth Floor Museum, visitors usually head to Dealey Plaza and stroll among several infamous landmarks—the grassy knoll, triple underpass, and an x-marked spot on Elm Street where Kennedy was shot (the location is unofficial and reportedly placed by local vendors). A Texas Historical Commission (THC) Recorded Texas Historic Landmark (RTHL) marker details the Book Depository’s history.
A block south is the handsome brick 1915 Dallas County Criminal Courts Building with terra cotta and Renaissance Revival detailing. Its RTHL marker notes it was the location of the trial for nightclub owner Jack Ruby, who killed Oswald on November 24, 1963.
Oswald was in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters (nine blocks east) when Ruby appeared from the shadows and shot him with a .38-caliber Colt revolver. The 1914 Beaux Arts structure, also an RTHL, is now the Dallas Municipal Building.
Back near Dealey Plaza, the somber yet impactful John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza consists of a massive concrete cenotaph—a roofless square room with 30-foot-tall stark walls designed by noted architect Philip Johnson. He claimed the monument was a quiet refuge symbolizing the freedom of Kennedy’s spirit.
A few miles away, Kennedy’s legacy is also honored at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where he was rushed to Trauma Room 1 after being shot and officially pronounced dead by medical staff. A memorial park on campus honors Kennedy’s legacy with a reflective and peaceful space.
For those interested in exploring beyond the traditional Kennedy-related travel destinations, the Oak Cliff area south of downtown offers several sites appealing to visitors intrigued by Oswald’s provocative story.
A good place to start is the Oswald Rooming House Museum (1026 Beckley Ave.). The site is operated by Patricia Puckett-Hall, who lived in the home (her grandmother’s) when Oswald rented a room there in November 1963. Her first-hand accounts of cohabitating with him at age 11 are admittedly surreal.
“I have very fond memories of him—he was always kind, sweet, and considerate,” Puckett-Hall says. “I never saw him cooking, but that man loved his sandwiches. He ate more sandwiches than you could shake a stick at.”
She adds that people from across the world visit the home in search of answers to specific questions about conspiracies or express curiosity about the man responsible for impacting the course of history. The interior of the house appears much as it did in 1963, with personal touches like Puckett family photos, midcentury modern furnishings, and Kennedy-related documents.
“People want to know what Oswald was like as a person and what I think his motivations were. I’ll talk to everyone, whatever their level of interest in his story,” Puckett-Hall says, adding that she provides tours with advance notification (firstname.lastname@example.org, 469-261-7806).
Just down the street is a THC marker chronicling the location where Oswald allegedly murdered police officer J.D. Tippit shortly after Kennedy’s assassination.He then fled several blocks west to Jefferson Avenue and the Texas Theatre, where an employee called police. Oswald was soonapprehended in the theater’s auditorium. The theater is still active.
Nearby is a more obscure location appealing to visitors interested in the finer details of Oswald’s background. The Neely Street Boarding House (214 Neely St.) is where he reportedly lived in 1963 with his wife Marina, who snapped a now-infamous photo of her husband in the backyard holding the bolt-action rifle.
Head northwest to Irving for a more-sanctioned historic site—the Ruth Paine House. Now serving as a city-operated museum, the home is where Oswald spent the night on November 21, 1963. Marina was staying here after recently separating from Oswald, and the rifle he used was reportedly stored in the garage. The museum is meticulously rehabilitated to the home’s 1963 appearance,
and features artifacts and projected vignettes. The site’s address is kept secret, but visitors can arrange tours via irvingarchivesandmuseum.org or calling 972-721-3700.
To learn about other heritage tourism destinations in the Dallas area, visit Texas Time Travel.