Murder Perch to Museum
By Jerry Organ


The Texas School Book Depository building still appears much as it did the day of the assassination, although the famous Hertz time-temperature sign on the roof and the northwest stairway -- used by Oswald after the shooting -- are in storage. There's little outward indication that an acclaimed world-class museum that draws a half-million visitors a year exists on the building's sixth-floor.

The site of the infamous structure was included in city founder John Neely Bryan's 1841 land claim. In 1849, Bryan sold the lot to George and Mary Braird, who built a house and quarters for their slaves. When the Brairds outgrew their home and moved, their primary house was operated as a boarding residence. Beginning 1882, most buildings and fences on the block were razed and fill added to level the grade for railroad lines.

In 1894, the 411 Elm property was sold for $9,000 to Phil L. Mitchell, President and Director of the Rock Island Plow Company, a farm equipment company headquartered in Rock Island, Illinois. Four years later, the company built a five-story brick structure. Struck by lightning and burnt on May 4, 1901, it was replaced the same year by the present-day structure, destined to become the most infamous commercial building in America.

Early photos of the area that later became Dealey Plaza

In 1909, title was turned over to the Southern Rock Island Plow Company, who continued to sell farm equipment out of the building. In 1937, it was sold to the Carraway Byrd Corporation. On July 4, 1939, oil tycoon Colonel D. Harold Byrd purchased the building at public auction.

Byrd's career included co-founding the Civil Air Patrol and funding his explorer cousin, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who named an Antarctic mountain range after the Colonel. The Admiral's Ford Trimotor airplane is now on exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, ironically not far from the Lincoln Continental custom limousine in which Kennedy was assassinated.

Sexton to Sixth-Floor

The building remained vacant until 1940, when the John Sexton Co. leased it. The grocery wholesaler, who catered primarily to restaurants and institutions, opened its first Dallas branch office and warehouse on January 1, 1941.

About every two weeks, bulk grocery supplies (usually canned goods) would come in by rail and be transferred to the building by carts and the two freight elevators at the building's rear. The building, which displayed the company's name in large letters just above the sixth floor, became familiar locally as the Sexton Building. The structure would be described that way in some early police reports, even though Sexton had left the building on November 1961 for a modern single-story facility.

After Sexton, renovations at the Depository included partitions, carpeting and air-conditioning for office suites up to the fourth, plus a new passenger elevator that went only as far as the fourth floor. The Texas School Book Depository, incorporated 1927, was a privately-owned company charged with fulfilling book orders from schools all over the Southwest. Stock was kept in the basement, first floor and fourth through seventh floors.

In 1963, the year the company consolidated most of its operation in the former Sexton Building, it employed 33 workers, including 19 warehouse men, of whom four remained at the old warehouse at 1917 N. Houston Street, a few blocks north. Most Depository workers used the parking lot of this smaller warehouse, and it was here that Lee Harvey Oswald and his "bulky package" arrived in a co-worker's car on the morning of the assassination.

After the move, it was noticed that the upper floors had become oil-soaked from items which Sexton had stored, and the oil threatened to penetrate the cardboard of the Depository's book cartons. To remedy, Roy S. Truly, Warehouse Manager, began a process to cover the upper floors with plywood sheets, which necessitated moving certain amounts of the cartons over one or two aisles to allow the floor-laying crew access.

Just before the President's visit, work had begun along the west side of the sixth floor, leaving the whole scene in disarray, with stock shifted as far as the east wall, and stacks in between piled unusually high. For a quarter-of-a-century, the plywood would eerily preserve the original floorboards used by the assassin.

Saved From Demolition

In 1970, the Texas School Book Depository vacated both its downtown warehouses, moving to a location in northwest Dallas. The Depository's owner, Colonel Byrd, then sold the building at auction to Aubrey Mayhew, a Nashville music promoter and Kennedy memorabilia collector.

In April 1972, the lobby served as a visitor's center, financed by one-dollar "deeds" for a square-inch of the ground where the building stood. The venture foundered after a small fire inside the building in early 1973, leading to Mayhew defaulting on the $650,000 loan. Despite breaking him financially, Mayhew claims his purchase saved the building from being razed. Following foreclosure, Colonel Byrd repurchased the building in 1973.

For a number of years in the 70s, the privately-run John F. Kennedy Museum operated out of the Dal-Tex Building across from the Depository. For $1.50, a papier-mache model of the city mimicked the parade route with electric lights while a narrator described the tragedy. All form of Kennedyana was offered, from ashtrays to velvet art.

In 1977, the Depository was purchased by Dallas County in recognition of its historic significance, and to prevent potential private exploitation of the tragedy. The building was renamed the Dallas County Administration Building, and today houses the seat of Dallas County government.

An old metal plaque on the front of the building reads, in part: "On Nov. 22, 1963, the building gained national notoriety when Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot and killed president John F. Kennedy from a sixth-floor window as the presidential motorcade passed the site." Through the years, the word "allegedly" has been underlined from repeated gouging, mute testimony to the controversy that still rages.

The Dealey Plaza area in the aftermath of the assassination

The Murder Perch Museum

The nation's official memorial to President Kennedy is the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. But in 1970, the city of Dallas dedicated the John F. Kennedy Memorial, a white-stone cenotaph meant to symbolize an open tomb. It sits on a quiet grassy lot next to the Old Red Courthouse, just out of sight of the Texas School Book Depository.

By the late Seventies, many Dallasites were expressing approval for a permanent exhibit that would address the tragedy and facts of the assassination. In 1983, a fundraising drive began for the $3.5 million museum and construction of access elevators on the building's north side. Opened in February 1989, the Sixth Floor Museum is operated by the non-profit Dallas County Historical Foundation.

Half-a-million people each year tour the tasteful interpretative exhibit, where artifacts and images of November 22, 1963 and the Kennedy Years are preserved. Visitors can view huge wall-mounted photographs of the President in Berlin, Washington, and in the tragic motorcade Dallas. Videos of the motorcade and Inaugural Address are shown. On-going exhibits are presented, such as 13 cameras in use on November 22, 1963, and the model of the assassination site prepared by the FBI for the Warren Commission in 1964. The atmosphere is one of quiet reflection, while avoiding the undue use of violent images.

And of course, the floor itself is eerily preserved, with Dealey Plaza visible through the south windows. The northwest corner staircase in now behind glass -- the staircase is an illusion, as its lower portion was removed during renovations.

After the assassination, Truly's reflooring project was completed on the sixth floor. The original floor surface at the Sniper's Nest in the southeast corner remained concealed for 25 years until the plywood was lifted to prepare a reconstruction. Floor markings were the same as in photos taken the assassination weekend, allowing JFK researcher Jim Moore to reposition schoolbook cardboard boxes with great precision. The southeast corner is now sealed off behind glass, where viewers can see Oswald's Sniper Nest.

The building's owner, Colonel Byrd, reportedly had the Sniper's Nest window removed six weeks after the assassination. Byrd exhibited it like a trophy in the banquet room of his Vassar Street mansion until his death in 1986. In 1994, son Caruth loaned the window to the Sixth Floor Museum where it has been displayed behind protective glass ever since. However there is some controversy that Byrd had the wrong window removed, and that the original sniper's nest windows were removed by one-time owner Aubrey Mayhew, who calls it "the ultimate piece of Kennedy memorabilia."

Read about it at the Dallas Observer Online.

In 1999, the Museum permitted a web-cam to broadcast images from the Sniper's Nest window showing live action in Dealey Plaza. In 2000, copyright of the Zapruder film was awarded to the Museum by the Zapruder family, who also gave them the last remaining copy in private hands of the Zapruder film made on November 22, 1963. The original and two other copies are stored at the National Archives.

copyright 2000 Jerry Organ. All rights reserved.


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