CallisonRTKL reimagines Philip Johnson’s Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas with pedestrian improvements

Extended Thanks

CallisonRTKL reimagines Philip Johnson’s Thanks-Giving Square in Dallas with pedestrian improvements

(Courtesy CallisonRTKL)

As far as privately owned public spaces go, Thanks-Giving Square, in the heart of downtown Dallas, is a singular, yet quite literally multi-layered, affair.

Dedicated in 1976, the “top” layer of the site consists of a postmodernist sunken quasi-park-slash-spirituality hub (a pointedly interfaith one) complete with a landscaped meditation garden, spiraling white chapel, and bell tower. The obvious center is the so-called Great Fountain, a water feature that drowns out city noise while suffusing the space with peaceful vibes that the Thanks-Giving Foundation, the nonprofit that owns and operates the Philip Johnson-designed space, hopes will prompt visitors to pause and “stand together on common ground, reflect on gratitude, and appreciate the diversity of our community.” Situated roughly 15-feet below street-level, the immersed nature of the pie-shaped, 1.7-acre space is made more striking by the fact that it sits wedged, cloistered and island-like, beneath the shadow of some of the city’s tallest skyscrapers.

Situated directly under the square, one level down is a major node of the Dallas Pedestrian Network, a largely subterranean pedway system from the same French Canadian urban planner, Vincent Ponte, who conceived Montreal’s famed Underground City. (This particular stretch of the network is owned by the City of Dallas.) Further down, 50-feet below ground at the bottom layer, is the Bullington Truck Terminal, a cavernous space constructed to help alleviate downtown traffic congestion caused by delivery trucks.

Rendering of a park with revitalized streetscape
Currently somewhat closed off at its perimeters, the new Thanks-Giving Square would be opened up to the surrounding streetscape. (Courtesy CallisonRTKL)

The top layer of Thanks-Giving Square—that is, the idyllic, inclusive, and introspection-minded public space and its iconic chapel—is now in the early conceptual stages of a major design refresh that will help it serve a city that’s larger, more diverse, and maybe even a bit more thankful than it was over 40 years ago when it first opened to the public. (Estimated costs, timelines, and other particulars have yet to be ironed out as the Foundation prepares for a forthcoming capital campaign.) Perhaps most crucially, Thanks-Giving Square, retooled and refreshed for a post-pandemic era, will be more seamlessly fused with the city all the while still serving as a place of respite and reflection.

In exploring the possibilities of a reimagined Thanks-Giving Square, the Foundation teamed with the Dallas-based arm of global architecture firm CallisonRTKL, which has maintained offices at the Republic Center, one of the aforementioned skyscrapers flanking Thanks-Giving Square, for nearly 20 years. In the spirit of neighborly giving, the firm is providing its design services pro-bono.

As explained by Noel Aveton, a vice-president at CallisonRTKL who leads the Dallas office’s landscape architecture and urban planning studio, the relationship between the firm and Kyle Ogden, the foundation’s president and CEO, didn’t kick off with talks of a full-blown site overhaul but, rather, conversations about more basic fixes “to help spruce up curb appeal” at the square.

“It was really simple,” Aveton told AN of these initial improvements. “It was through landscape, plantings, some other basic things. And we just had a really good relationship that started from that—we became kind of his [Ogden’s] go-to architectural, planning, and landscape team.”

rendering of a public space in downtown dallas
In addition to stitching Thanks-Giving Square together with the urban landscape, many of the proposed changes revolve around improved access for visitors of all abilities. (Courtesy CallisonRTKL)

Since 2018, when talks about (and the implementation of) basic improvements at Thanks-Giving Square first commenced between Ogden and the CallisonRTKL team, the scope of what’s possible has progressed from minor tweaks here and there to a major proposed transformation. “Then came a more serious conversation Ogden and his board were having about a ‘rejuvenation.’ And it was clearly much larger than adding some ground cover or power-washing walls,” said Aveton. “From there, the conversations became more involved and, to be honest, more interesting—and what we culminated those conversations into was a charette.”

Potential improvements that came about from the day-long design charette, which was held earlier this year and was organized by CallisonRTKL senior associates Michael Friebele (also an AN contributor) and Collin Koonce, included: A small multi-use pavilion that will provide a new link to the underground pedestrian tunnels and and ADA-compliant upgrades including a revamp of a steel-rail bridge leading to the chapel and a new glass-encased elevator. Most dramatically, the plan sees Thanks-Giving Square expanding outside of its walls and transforming adjacent former traffic lanes into a vibrant pedestrian space akin to a linear park with trees, seating, and opportunities for active programming including space for pop-up retail and dining storefronts. “It’s all about the opportunity for the streetscape to become an extension of the mission of Thanks-Giving Square,” said Koonce.

aerial illustration of a pie-shaped park in downtown dallas
Pie from the sky: An aerial view of Thanks-Giving Square’s revamped and expanded triangular site. (Courtesy CallisonRTKL)

The plan also envisions an overlook on Pacific Avenue that Friebele described as a “hood that covers up the entrance to the tunnel system and puts you into the square a bit but doesn’t necessarily disrupt the pedestrian experience or the contemplative experience once you’re inside.”

As Friebele explained, the significant growth that’s taken hold of downtown Dallas over the past decade has prompted a larger reconsideration of how Thanks-Giving Square, which was initially envisioned as a sort of “different take on Rockefeller Center” centered around unifying the city in the years following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, can best be utilized. (And as evidenced by nearby Klyde Warren Park, multi-faceted green spaces are thriving—and expanding—in downtown Dallas.)

“This idea that not having enough parks downtown also meant that places that are public spaces, like Thanks-Giving Square, were interpreted in a way that residents saw fitting their needs,” said Friebele. “So now that all these parts have come online, it’s really become about focusing back on what the Square’s intentions were from the outset.”

a spiraling chapel ceiling with stained glass
Interior view of the stained glass of the Chapel of Thanksgiving, a structure inspired by the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq. (ryan chamberlain/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

“A square that was built for contemplation seems to just not make sense anymore in its current standing,” added Friebele. “It needs to actually outreach. And that’s what the Foundation really sees as an opportunity within this plan: How do you keep the contemplation aspect in place but how do you start to stitch this thing further into the actual action of thanksgiving in the city?”

As detailed by Koonce, much of the charette was spent trying to pin down the identity of Thanks-Giving Square and whether or not it fits into a contemporary definition of a park—that is, “a place for active programming like what you might see being built today,” he said. And the consensus was that the Thanks-Giving Square, as originally intended, doesn’t fit into that definition. “And that’s what the foundation wants now—is to be somehow different and unique and also be that place of contemplation that has a higher purpose than a park,” Koonce added.

As mentioned, the transformation of Thanks-Giving Square is in the early conceptual stages and the plan envisioned by the team at CallisonRTKL is likely to change as more feedback comes in down the line and budget considerations are made. Friebele referred to the charette process as a “chance for the Foundation to build excitement about the project. It’s an opportunity for them to unveil the next step of where they really want to go.”