The History Of Deep Ellum

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Early Days

Deep Ellum developed in the late 1800s as a residential and commercial neighborhood on the east side of downtown Dallas. The area was originally called Deep Elm, but the pronunciation “Deep Ellum” by early residents led to its current and historically accepted name. Because of its proximity to the Houston and Texas Central railroad, the area was also referred to as Central Track.

As one of Dallas’ first commercial districts for African-Americans and European immigrants, Deep Ellum is one of the most historically significant neighborhoods in the city. The district boasts the city’s largest collection of commercial storefronts from the early 20th century and includes many individual structures significant in their own right.

Industrial Development

Robert S. Munger built his first cotton gin factory, the Continental Gin Company, in a series of brick warehouses along Elm Street and Trunk Avenue in Deep Ellum in 1888. As the business grew to become the largest manufacturer of cotton-processing equipment in the United States, Munger expanded the factory by adding additional structures along Trunk and Elm in 1912 and 1914, respectively. A Dallas Landmark District, the industrial complex was converted to loft apartments in 1997.

In 1914, Henry Ford selected Deep Ellum as the site for one of his earliest automobile plants. Designed by architect John Graham, who designed many regional facilities for Ford during the early 1900s, the building was constructed as an assembly plant for Ford’s famous Model T. The plant remained in this location at 2700 Canton Street until the mid-1930s; Adam Hats moved into the four-story brick and terra cotta structure in 1959. The Dallas Landmark was converted to loft apartments in 1997, giving new life—and adding yet another layer of history to the building.

Union Bankers Trust Building, located at 2551 Elm Street, is one of the better known Landmarks in Deep Ellum. Constructed in 1916 as the Grand Temple of the Knights of Pythias, the building was designed by African-American architect William Sydney Pittman, the state’s first black architect and the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington. In addition to serving as the state headquarters for the Knights,the temple housed some of the city’s earliest offices for black doctors, dentists and lawyers and served as the social and cultural center for the African- American community until the late 1930s. The building was Pittman’s largest built work. Other Dallas Landmarks within Deep Ellum include The Palace Shop at 2814 Main Street (ca. 1913) and Parks Brothers Warehouse at 2639 Elm Street (ca. 1923).

The Music Scene

Deep Ellum’s real claim to fame, however, was found in its music. By the 1920s, the neighborhood had become a hotbed for early jazz and blues musicians, hosting the likes of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Texas Bill Day and Bessie Smith. From 1920 to 1950, the number of nightclubs, cafes and domino parlors in Deep Ellum jumped from 12 to 20.

Following World War II, the success of Deep Ellum started to fade. The ever-growing availability and use of the automobile led to the removal of the Houston and Texas Central railroad tracks—to make way for the Central Expressway—and by 1956 the streetcar line had been removed. Businesses closed, residents moved to the suburbs and the music all but stopped. In 1969, a new elevation of Central Expressway truncated Deep Ellum, completely obliterating the 2400 block of Elm Street, viewed by many as the center of the neighborhood. By the 1970s, few original businesses remained.

Thanks to an army of young musicians and artists, Deep Ellum enjoyed a brief resurgence in the mid 1980s and 1990s, but in recent years, infrastructure issues, zoning restrictions and a perception of crime has led to abandonment and decline once again. Deep Ellum, however, remains. Though empty streets and vacant buildings dot the landscape, there is life in Deep Ellum. And soon there will be even more.

The Future of Deep Elum

In 2009, a new light rail station will connect Deep Ellum to downtown and other parts of the city, alleviating parking issues and bringing more visitors to the area. There is also talk of a large new development planned for the center of the district which could bring additional housing, retail and restaurants to the neighborhood. Throughout its rich history—during the crescendos and during the diminuendos—the character of Deep Ellum has, for the most part, survived: the historic buildings, the pedestrian scale, the live music and the unique, locally- owned business. These are the things that make Deep Ellum Deep Ellum. These are the things that made it so vibrant and successful in the past and these are the things that must remain if it is to be vibrant and successful once again.

by: Leslie T. Carey

Information provided by: Preservation Dallas, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of Dallas’ buildings, neighborhoods and other historical, architectural and cultural resources. Founded in 1972, Preservation Dallas has a successful history of saving some of our community’s finest landmarks.