Past, present and future of Old City Park in Dallas, Texas

The dallas Parks and Recreation Department will temporarily take over operations of the park in May.

DALLAS — The future of Old City Park, Dallas’ oldest park, remains in flux as the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department prepares to temporarily take over operations of the park in May. Here’s a look at the park's history, what got it to this point, and where things stand in planning its future.

The history of Old City Park

Old City Park started on land in what’s now known as the Cedars neighborhood, which was also the site of a series of natural springs. The springs became known as Browder Springs after Edward C. Browder acquired the property in 1845. The springs figured into legislation that made Dallas the intersection of the Texas & Pacific and Houston & Texas Central Railroads in 1871 and helped spur the town’s growth. On July 4, 1876, 10 acres near the springs were set aside as Dallas’ first municipal park. “City Park” was also known as “Eakins Park” because J.J. Eakin originally owned the land. By 1885 nine more acres, including the Browder Springs property, were added.

The springs supplied water to the city, and the park served as the site of the city’s first zoo. Later, it featured fountains, greenhouses, tennis courts, a playground, and more. The neighborhood, now known as the Cedars, grew up around the park.

The site was renamed “Sullivan Park” for former Dallas Water Commissioner Dan L. Sullivan in 1936, but it remained popularly known as Old City Park.

A group of women sought to save the Millermore house, which was built by William Miller between 1855 and 1862 and inherited by one of his children, Minerva, who lived in it with her husband, Barry Miller, a former lieutenant governor of Texas.

A group that sought to preserve the Millermore home came up with the idea of reconstructing it in what was then known as City Park, and it became the first of 21 buildings transported to the park to become a village. It opened as a living history museum in the ‘60s, and the museum was called Old City Park.

It’s now home to what’s known as the state’s largest collection of 19th-century pioneer and Victorian homes and commercial buildings in Texas.

The Dallas Parks Board agreed to allow the Dallas County Heritage Society to revitalize the park as a “heritage center” of restored buildings/structures in 1966 and the Dallas County Heritage Society has managed it since 1967, per city officials.

“Through the years, Dallas County Heritage Society would put up all the money in order to bring in all of these buildings to restore them, and then once they were on the grounds, then the Parks Department would accept these buildings, and they would become the city’s property,’ Michael Meadows, interim CEO of the Dallas County Heritage Society, said. “Likewise, as the park started needing more land for parking and was trying to expand the amount of green space it had, which was paid for by a combination of private donations and bond dollars – that was kind of how the park expanded.”

“If you go back and look through all the paperwork, one of the things that was very clear was that the Parks Department and the administration of Dallas County Heritage Society, which is the organization that was put in place to manage all of this and bring all of this to Old City Park – it was very collegial and you could tell that they were working together to try and make all of this very successful,” Meadows said.

What brought Old City Park to this point?

Meadows first joined the Dallas County Heritage Society as a consultant in 2021 and said the park struggled with lagging attendance amid changes in how people consume parks and cultural attractions in recent years.

In response, the board made changes, including making admission free, changing the name back to Old City Park from Dallas Heritage Village, and more.

“Ultimately, the revenues and the attendance still weren’t sufficient to be self-sustaining and so with our contract coming to an end, I think the city has decided that they want to spend a little bit of time doing some master planning, figuring out how they want to use the park in the future, and then having another competition for a management contract…and then see who’s going to run the park in the future,” Meadows said.

Meadows, who also serves as chair of the board of The Arts Community Alliance (TACA), said Old City Park's issues are a cautionary tale for other cultural organizations in the city.

“Part of the reason why this is all happening is because we didn’t have enough attendance. We didn’t have enough contributors, and we didn’t have enough support from the city in order to be profitable – not profitable, but just even break even,” Meadows said. “There’s a lot of organizations in this town that are struggling right now, and if people don’t go to the performances if they don’t contribute to these organizations…what we’re going through at Old City Park can be an experience that they all have.”

The Future of Old City Park

Dallas County Heritage Society’s (which is rebranding to the Old City Park Conservancy) management contract for the park ends May 26, and the Dallas Park and Recreation Department will take over management of the park on May 27.

 Ahead of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department taking over operations of the park, nearly 22,000 historic antiques and artifacts – everything from furnishings to quilts, documents and more -- will be part of an estate sale beginning April 29 and running through May 4. For more on the estate sale, visit the Jewel Box website.

In September 2023, the city contracted with the landscape architecture firm SWA to create a master plan for Old City Park before considering accepting proposals for a different private partner to manage the park.

“This is inclusive of a facility condition assessment and public engagement meetings. The public will be very involved in the future park plans. It will remain a park!” Dallas Parks and Recreation Department spokesperson Andrea Hawkins said of the master planning process.

The Old City Park Conservancy, meanwhile, will remain involved in advocating for and supporting the park.

“It has been our honor and privilege to manage Old City Park for over 50 years”, said Dustin Bullard, the Society’s board chair in a statement.  “Although the Society will no longer manage the daily operations of this historic park, we remain committed to supporting Old City Park well into the future.” 

Robert Kent, the associate vice president, and Texas state director for Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit dedicated to acquiring land for parks, preserves, and trails since 2014, is a direct descendant of Edward Browder, whose former land Old City Park sits on.

Now, Kent is passionate about ensuring people in Dallas and beyond have easy access to parks.

“I think that we are proud to trace our roots to some of the earliest settlers of the city while also recognizing that there are systems of inequality, perpetrated through 100-plus years,” he said. “I’m extremely proud to be able to work for an organization like Trust for Public Land, where we can really try to make good on those promises so that everyone in Dallas is able to benefit from parks, which my family’s had a long history of being involved in…now we can really make sure that everyone is able to enjoy those benefits equally and equitably. “

Kent said he’s hopeful the park will be able to chart a new course for the future.

“I think everyone recognizes there’s a need for a change and a new path forward. What that path is more than anything should be driven by what the community wants,” Kent said. “The city is going to be doing the master plan for the park, which will hopefully chart that path forward that will carry it through the next hundred and something years of its history.”

Both Meadows and Kent are hopeful the 2024 bond package proposition related to parks will lead to more investment in Dallas’ oldest park and parks throughout the city.

The $1.25 billion bond package up for a vote on May 4 includes $345.2 million+ for parks and recreation. Early voting runs through April 30.

“That money will be invaluable to the future of the park because if the city won’t invest in it, it’s really hard to get private philanthropists to invest in it,” Meadows said.  “I think this park could really be like Southfork is for Plano, but it’s just going to require some investment, and hopefully that starts with the city,” Meadows said.

“This is one of the best opportunities that Dallas has to really make sure that everyone’s able to enjoy a park close to home,” Kent said of the bond package.


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