The Old Red Courthouse is a Dallas icon. Located on the corner of Houston and Main Streets, it is one of the first things you see as you enter downtown Dallas from I35. Old Red was recently restored and renovated, and it reopened to the public in 2007. Visitors have the opportunity to visit one of the beautifully restored courtrooms on the fourth floor, as well as the new Old Red Museum of Dallas County History and Culture.
Recently, I toured the Old Red Museum with some friends visiting from out of town. We had thought it would be a quick stop after touring Dealey Plaza, the JFK Memorial, the Sixth Floor Museum and the West End Historic District, all of which are located nearby. If nothing else, we figured it would be nice to take a break from the Texas heat. When we left the Old Red Museum two and a half enjoyable hours later, we were all impressed with design of the building and the wealth of fascinating historical items located within. Don’t do like we did and park on Commerce on a weekday afternoon, because you will get a ticket if you don’t move your car from the metered parking by 4:00pm.
The Old Red Museum is well worth the price of admission, even with the added expense of the parking ticket — which we could have easily avoided by parking in the underground garage across the street and paying an extra $2.00 for our museum ticket.
The museum tells the history of Dallas from the days of the woolly mammoths, to the Kennedy assassination and beyond. When you first enter the Old Red Museum, the first thing you see the is the famous neon Pegasus that used to fly over a Mobil station just east of downtown Dallas. In addition, the first floor houses a well appointed gift shop with a notably helpful staff.
The first floor also houses a space for temporary historical exhibits. I can’t wait to go back to see the next special exhibit at the Old Red Museum: it contrasts and compares Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and runs from June 12 to August 11, 2009.
After you’ve explored the first floor, take the grand staircase up to the second floor, where the Old Red Museums four main galleries are located. Each Gallery covers a different time period, and each gallery has a small theater. We thought the films were well done and quite interesting. They run continuously, so you never have to wait very long for a showing.
In addition to the audio visual presentations, there are dozens of interactive kiosks, photographs and other artifacts. The items on display run from the serious (the handcuffs Lee Harvey Oswald was wearing when he was shot by Jack Ruby in the basement of the Dallas Police HQ) to the kitchy (the specially commissioned Stetson hat worn by JR Ewing on the TV series “Dallas”), but almost all of them are interesting. Did you know that Slurpees, ATMs, the frozen margarita and Doritos were all invented in Dallas?
I especially enjoyed the exhibit on blues musicians in Deep Ellum, complete with original recordings dating from the 1920s and 1930s. There are benches nearby so you can sit and listen. Fans of the Dallas Cowboys will enjoy seeing some of the sports memorabilia, including Tom Landry’s fedora.
As fascinating as a famous hat can be, in some ways the real star of the Old Red Museum is the Old Red Courthouse that houses it. Built in 1892, it is a lovely building, and the restoration work done on it is impressive. Tours of the Old Red Courthouse are free with admission to the Old Red Museum, and I highly recommend taking one. Also, ask an employee in the Gift Shop to let you have a look at the restored vault. It’s pretty nifty.
If you have children, don’t miss the interactive children’s center on the upper floor, especially since there aren’t very many hands on history centers in the USA. A school group was there when we visited, and all the kids seemed to be having a blast!
The Old Red Museum is open every day from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.