Deep Ellum History & Art Walking Tour

Deep Ellum is the story of outcasts and the oppressed, of being open to all even as racial lines were drawn, of inventors and entrepreneurs, of pioneers and artisans, of saints and sinners.

 

This neighborhood is arguably the most culturally significant place we have in our city. From its humble beginnings as a Freedman’s town, to its development as a cultural and economic center for African-Americans and Eastern European Jews. 

It’s had many ups and downs, and multiple reinventions. Now it is experiencing an absolute boom of development and interest, with new restaurants, bars, music venues, retail stores, and apartments helping turn it into not only the premier nightlife district in the metro area, but also a great place to shopping and live.

 

With this boom comes change and gentrification, and new visitors to the neighborhood who are hopefully as curious about its past as its present and future. It is our hope that we can teach you some of the stories of this place, that you can share with your family and friends, and seek to preserve the spirit of this special place we call Deep Ellum.

 

 

About This Tour

This is a walking tour which takes you through the neighborhood, with selected stories at each stop. Content-wise this will be a bit dense. Plan on spending at least an hour walking around, reading, and exploring. If traveling in groups, we suggest taking turns reading the guide aloud to the group members. 

Also along the way are over 40 murals. These won’t be touched on specifically, but something you can enjoy along the way.

Important Note: We wish we were qualified to write about History, but we thought we woulds tick to producing events and simply compile the highlights of that which experts have written. We do not lay claim to this writing or information, and most of what follows is free and publicly available, or in a few rare cases in books. You may find full citations and credits at the bottom of this page.

Also thank you to Jay Brakefield who helped with fact-checking and editing.

 

Stop 1:
Trunk Avenue at Elm St.
 

The "Central Track" circa 1922

Dallas's economic growth began with the arrival of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad in 1872, followed by the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1873. From an early moment less reputable saloons began to operate around the H&TC station on the eastern edge of Dallas, which later became known as Central Track, and attracted a variety of cowboys, farm workers, and locals, perhaps including J. H. "Doc" Holliday, who seems to have augmented his dental practice with gambling during his Dallas years. (He was run out of town by a posse after shooting a prominent local citizen.) [01]

The H&TC brought cotton pickers to and from the fields of the Texas cotton belt at the same time that elite Dallas was making some of its first fortunes in the cotton trade; others came to work in Robert Munger's cotton gin factory [Continental Gin Company], or later the Ford factory [current Bomb Factory], both in the neighborhood, which also quickly established itself as the entertainment and shopping district of black Dallas, and thus also much of Texas and surrounding states. Both the musicians and their audience were frequently on the move between the farm and the city. [01]

As you stand here on Trunk Avenue, notice the rail spur that runs through it. It connected the Continental Gin Company’s manufacturing plant, as well as multiple factories along the corridor which have now been developed into lofts (Futura, Deep Ellum Lofts).

The Continental Gin Building

Look North (across the street) to spot the Continental Gin Lofts & Building.

Photo by Chas. Erwin Arnold (DeGolyer Lib., SMU) [02]

Built on Elm Street in 1888 for the production of cotton gins. At the time it was the foremost cotton gin manufacturer in the world, boasting several inventions and patents which increased efficiency for cotton farmers.

Cotton was big business; in 1933, the Southern States produced between fifty and sixty percent of the world’s cotton [03]. Much of this was driven by African-American slave labor, which we will touch on later.

Head East on Elm St two blocks to Sons of Hermann Hall


Stop 2:

Sons of Hermann Hall – 3414 Elm St. (at Exposition)

You have found the oldest free-standing wood structure in Dallas (built in 1911) and also the oldest bar!

Read the plaque outside for more in-depth information on the building.

Enter the building, and grab a beer or drink at the bar (PBRs & Lone Stars are $2 during the event!)

Read about its history here: http://sonsofhermannhall.com/our-history

Head East on Elm St, turn Left on Exposition Ave, continue straight for two blocks –

On your left is the Brake & Clutch Warehouse, with a spectacular elephant mural “Deep Ellumphants” by Adrian Torres.

On your left a couple blocks ahead is Exposition Plaza (flagpoles, columns/steps), built for the Texas Centennial Exposition (reason why the State Fair grounds were built).

— continuing along Exposition, take a right on Commerce St.

Stop 3:
Historic Gas Station at Commerce St and S 2nd Avenue

This is an interestingly-shaped old filling station. It’s history is mostly unknown, but more recently it was home to Bowls & Tacos, a restaurant started by Sam Wynne (of Braindead Brewing), which was simply ahead of his time. Wynne swears he heard the station had once been used to fill up the gas tank in Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker’s ride. [04]

(This was really an excuse to get us over to Commerce St.)

Head West on Commerce St for several blocks. There are the following options to stop along the way:

Deep Ellum Art Co – 3200 Commerce St @ Murray St - This eclectic music venue and bar features an art gallery wall, and a huge outdoor patio. Almost every wall on the building is covered in murals. Worth exploring.

Deep Ellum Denim – 3107 Commerce St @ Hall St – A unique store which carries high-quality and hard-to-find denim brands and accessories.

Kirk Hopper Fine Art – 3008 Commerce St @ Walton St – A fantastically curated  modern gallery. (Only open Tues-Sat Noon-5pm).

Flea Style – 3009 Commerce St @ Walton St – Airy marketplace selling artisanal & vintage wares, clothing & home décor in a bright, chic setting.

Deep Vellum Books – 3000 Commerce St @ Walton St (corner) – Adorable bookstore and publishing house which specializes in translations and under-the-radar picks.

Stop 4:
Deep Vellum Books — Historical Placard - 3000 Commerce St @ Walton St (corner)

Take a Left on Walton St. On your left is a historical placard about the Blues in DE.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mance Lipscomb, and Blind Willie Johnson arrived from the cotton belt south of Dallas; Lead Belly from Louisiana and East Texas. The white singer Bill Neely remembered working in the fields north of the city in McKinney (now a booming suburb) in the 1920s and 30s and then heading down to Dallas to play in and around Deep Ellum. In fact, the "roots" music of the early twentieth century is about movement rather than rural stability; the railroad, not the farm, is the leitmotif of blues and country and western.

Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter later recalled meeting Blind Lemon Jefferson around 1912 in Dallas, and spending some time as his guide. The two worked Deep Ellum together, and sometimes also "serenaded" white neighborhoods for tips. [01]

More on Lead Belly:

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly (January 1888-December 6, 1949), was one of the most famous African American folk singers in American history. Born in Caddo Parish, Louisiana (near Shreveport), Leadbelly grew up on a small farm owned by his sharecropping parents. He left home as a young man, and by 1908 was living in East Texas, where he married his first wife, Aletta Henderson.

In late 1910, the couple moved to Dallas, and around 1912, Leadbelly met the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson in Deep Ellum, with whom he worked and traveled until 1917, when he was sentenced to life in prison for killing a man in a fight over a woman. He was pardoned in 1923 by the Governor of Texas after he improvised a song for him, called "Governor's Neff Blues," about his wife and family. Leadbelly moved back to Louisiana, where he was later arrested again. Folklorist John Lomax found Leadbelly in Angola State Prison and pleaded with the Governor of Louisiana for his release. In the late 1930s and '40s Leadbelly toured college campuses and participated in labor rallies and festivals.

Instruments: accordion, fiddle, 12-string guitar, mandolin, piano, violin, vocals. Recommended tracks: “Black Betty,” “Gallis Pole,” “Boll Weevil,” “New Orleans (Rising Sun Blues),” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “The Bourgeois Blues.”

Head the other way on S Walton St (North toward Main St), continue two blocks and take a Left on Elm St.

On your left just past Walton & Main is a really cool mural. Bonus points if you find Anthony Bourdain!

Stop 5:
The Mozzarella Company

Paula Lambert founded Mozzarella Company in 1982, and not much has changed since. Today her company has grown from making a few pounds of fresh mozzarella to producing over 30 artisanal cheeses, all of which Paula has created and developed. [05]

Stop inside their small storefront to watch cheese being made, or take home a slice yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for a sample and more about their story.

Continue next door.

Stop 6:
The Boyd Hotel (now LOCAL restaurant)

Built between 1908 and 1911, the Boyd Hotel is one of the oldest hotels still standing in Dallas, and one of the few remaining cast iron front buildings. Many of Deep Ellum’s early blues and jazz musicians stayed at the Boyd.

Check out what is possibly the original neon sign still on the front of the building.

Continue West on Elm 100ish feet.

Stop 7:
Rudolph’s Meat Market and Sausage Factory

In 1895, Austrian immigrant Martin Rudolph opened Rudolph's Meat Market in Deep Ellum. Almost 50 years later, Cyrill "Sid" Pokladnik, who was an employee, bought the butcher shop, and it has remained in his family since. The Pokladnik family now owns most of the block.

The inside hasn’t changed much over the years, including their massive classic butcher blocks. Get a taste of their homemade sausages or a slice of their deli meats. You won’t regret it.

More in this interview here:
https://www.dallasobserver.com/restaurants/as-deep-ellum-changes-the-122-year-old-rudolphs-market-vows-to-stay-the-same-9167868

Continue West on Elm 100ish feet to the intersection of Elm and Crowdus. On your right.

Stop 8:

Deep Ellum Hostel — 2801 Elm St at Crowdus St

“The building has been home to many businesses. It’s probably best recognized for the auto repair shop that inhabited the space from 1938 to 1996, the Long Machine Tool Company, whose signage remained on the building until its recent transformation into the Deep Ellum Hostel.

The building was first home to a saloon in 1911 before shifting to a syrup manufacturer in 1922. The change was likely due to prohibition. Rumor has it that the syrup manufacturer was a front to cover the then-illegal production and service of alcohol.”

[Source: The Deep Ellum Foundation]

Head South on Crowdus (to Main St), take a Left on Main St (South side).

Stop 9:

Emporium Pies — 2708 Elm @ Crowdus St

Here’s a cool old photo of what was here before it was a pie shop.


Cross the street and continue West (left) on Main St.
On your right is Rocket Fizz, a throwback candy and soda store.
Continue the same direction and take a right into Radiator Alley (beside Merit Coffee Co) which takes you to Elm St.

Across the street and to your slight right is Trees.

Stop 10:

Trees – 2709 Elm St

Not long after the venue opened in May 1990, it played host to an incident that would live in infamy:

On October 19, 1991, Nirvana played an infamous set at Trees to a completely sold out crowd. As the show was booked before the band released their breakout hit album, Nevermind, the venue was not large enough to accommodate the number of fans that came. Nirvana's tour manager demanded last minute that Trees hire heightened security, as there was no barrier between the stage and the crowd.

Turner Van Blarcum was one of the security guards assigned to keep fans off of the stage, but once Nirvana's set began, fans began to bombard them. Kurt Cobain motioned for the fans to move toward the band as security tried to push the crowd away. Cobain then dove into the crowd, jumping off Van Blarcum's back. As Van Blarcum and other security tried to pull Cobain back onto the stage, Cobain struck Van Blarcum in the head with his guitar. Van Blarcum then punched Cobain in the jaw, and the other two bandmates confronted Blarcum.

The audience erupted into madness, while Cobain stayed onstage, making noises with his guitar for a minute before throwing it into the band's drum set. Trees' staff approached drummer Dave Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic backstage, asking them to return to the stage. They agreed but had to find Cobain, who was hiding in a broom closet. Trees' staff brought him to the stage to finish the show. Once the show was over and the band were in a cab, a heated Van Blarcum punched the cab's window, shattering the glass all over the band. Ultimately, the band paid for both Van Blarcum's medical bills and for damage done to the venue. [06] [07]


Head West and continue to the end of the block at Good Latimer Expy

Stop 11:
Pythian Temple / Union Bankers Building – 2551 Elm St @ Good Latimer Expy

The Knights of Pythias Temple is one of the most significant buildings in Deep Ellum, located at 2551 Elm Street (Elm @ Good Latimer). Also known as the Union Bankers Building for a later owner, it was designed by African-American architect William Sidney Pittman (son-in-law of Booker T. Washington) and opened in 1916.

The primary tenant was the state headquarters of the Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias. The building was designed for multiple purposes: There were storefronts for a barber shop and a drug store, second floor offices serving African-American physicians and other professionals, with life insurance companies and other institutions filling out the space on the third floor. The fourth floor featured a ballroom and other public space. The overall design was neoclassical, but with red brick cladding, and tall arched windows looking out from the top floor.

The Knights of Pythias Temple was the first major commercial structure in Dallas built for African-Americans, by African-Americans, and with African-American money. From 1916 to 1939 it served as the social, professional and cultural center of the center of the city's African-American community. The ballroom hosted the performing arts and lectures, with some notable appearances by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Marcus Garvey, and George Washington Carver.

Due to financial difficulties, the Knights of Pythias were forced to sell the temple to Ben Ackerman in 1946. A lawsuit forced Ackerman to sell the temple for $100,000 in 1956. In 1959 the building was purchased by the Union Bankers Insurance Company, which turned it into a standard office building.

The old lettering for the Knights of Pythias still adorned the building into the early 1980s, when Union Bankers obscured the old name. Local preservationists secured an injunction to force Union Bankers to uncover the old name displayed on the facade. The city designated the site as a Dallas Landmark in 1989. Union Bankers abandoned the site in the 1990s. It was unoccupied through 2017, when a consortium of developers announced a plan to redevelop the block as The Epic Dallas, including a restoration of the red brick cladding. The restored building will become a hotel, and looks to open soon.

The Harlem Theatre

Look West toward the highway for perspective on this photo:

Interesting photo via Dallas Historical Society of The Harlem Theatre on Elm St. This was on the North side of Elm St under where Central Expressway is now. The Goodwill building in the lower right would have been around where The Epic development is now.

These buildings, along with much of the Deep Ellum Freedman’s Town was razed when I-30 and Central Expressway was constructed, named for the Central Railway (“Central Track”) it replaced. With it we lost unrecoverable historic landmarks and some of the foundational venues where The Blues were developed. We also lost one of the most significant areas for African Americans in the South. But alas, all in the name of development, and surely not racially motivated (note sarcasm).

The Model Tailors

“Many of the Jewish European immigrants who settled and worked in Deep Ellum were known for owning nearly every pawn shop in the area. However, many were handymen, cabinetmakers, and tailors as well. Among the most famous of the Jewish-owned Deep Ellum businesses was the prestigious clothing shop The Model Tailors. It was founded in 1912 and located where Elm and Central Expressway meet.

Leo Fite and Esir Aronofsky opened the shop and at their peak had over 50 employees making, most prominently, custom suits. Among their clientele were underworld leaders and mafia bosses such as Benny Binion, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Joe Civello. As well as Blind Lemon Jefferson and civil rights leader A. Mceo Smith. Because of this mixture, The Model Tailors was known for being where the black and white worlds of Dallas, intersected. Owning a tailor-made suit from The Model Tailors was a status symbol in Deep Ellum and across Dallas.

This ad appeared in the 1920s in The Dallas Express, the local African-american newspaper.”

[Source: The Deep Ellum Foundation]

The Gypsy Tea Room & Central Track

One of the most famous pictures from Deep Ellum’s history has a story that unfortunately there aren’t many answers about.

Paula Bosse of Flashback Dallas (flashbackdallas.com) offers the best insight:

“I’ve seen this photograph of Deep Ellum for years, and I’ve always loved it. But for some reason, I always thought this showed Elm Street — across from the Knights of Pythias Temple, just west of Good-Latimer (probably because that’s where a recent club with the same name was located). In fact, this scene was captured a couple of blocks west, just north of Elm, on Central Avenue, sometimes referred to as Central Track, along the Houston & Texas Central railroad tracks — a part of Deep Ellum that’s been gone for more than 60 years.

This area — which many have described as being the very heart of Deep Ellum in the 1920s through the 1940s (and which was somewhat ironically referred to as “the gay white way of the Negro in Dallas” by an uncredited WPA writer) — was demolished to make way for the construction of North Central Expressway (which closely followed the H&TC Railway tracks). This photo was taken in the 200 block of North Central Avenue, looking south toward Elm (the building farthest in the background, jutting out to the left, is across Elm, on the south side of the street).”

The cafe and jazz club got its name from a song called “In a Little Gypsy Tea Room” by Bob Crosby, which was a hit in 1935. After which, lots of clubs popped up calling themselves The Gypsy Tea Room or The Little Gypsy Tea Room, the most famous of which being in New Orleans’ Treme district.

By all accounts, it didn’t last long, and was likely gone by 1940. But yet we are left with this iconic picture which lives on forever. In the 90s, a large concert venue in Deep Ellum was named The Gypsy Tea Room at 2513 Main St, which closed in 2007 and became The Door. Unfortunately, that venue has very recently closed permanently and its future seems likely to be retail.

If still at Elm and Good Latimer, head South on Good Latimer 2 blocks to Commerce St. Cross Commerce and take a Left (East) up Commerce St.

On your right are Adair’s and The Free Man, two historic music venues.

Take a right on Henry St, then a Left on Canton St.

Stop 12:
The Bomb Factory

In the early 1900s, the building was used to manufacture Ford automobiles. During WWII, the building was used to manufacture bombs and ammunitions for armed forces, hence the name, “Bomb Factory”. In the mid 1990’s, the building was converted to a music/event venue and hosted bands such as PHISH, Radiohead, Dave Matthews Band, Sonic Youth, The Ramones, INXS, Nine Inch Nails, and Fugazi at their peak. Utilizing only the existing foundation and walls, the complete multimillion dollar redesign has made Bomb Factory Dallas’ premier Live Music Venue.

[Source: The Bomb Factory Website - https://www.thebombfactory.com/venue-details/]

Right across the street

Stop 13:

Adam Hats Building

Also originally built in 1914 by Henry Ford as a production plant for the Model T, the property then became a hat factory for Adam Hats from 1955 to 1986. The building has now been converted into chic loft spaces.

North Dallas Freedmans Town Map:

You did it!

Sources
[01] Deep Ellum Blues by Kevin Pask; Concordia University (October 30, 2007) — https://southernspaces.org/2007/deep-ellum-blues/
[02] https://flashbackdallas.com/2015/02/24/the-continental-gin-complex-1914/
[03] Continental Gin Company and its fifty-two years of Service; Edited by James F. Sulzby, Jr (1952) via University of California — https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b4503689&view=1up&seq=19
[04] https://www.centraltrack.com/first-look-bowls-tacos-in-deep-ellum/
[05] https://www.mozzco.com/paula-lambert-biography
[06] https://www.dallasobserver.com/music/the-night-nirvana-played-trees-6425928
[07] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trees_Dallas

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