Source:Dallas Morning News
By Cheryl Hall
Reunion Tower, rising 50 stories at the southwestern edge of downtown, became an instant icon when it opened on April 15, 1978.
Even The New York Times gave an effusive review, saying the “slender, delicate column, topped by a spidery geodesic ball” promised to give Dallas “as distinct a focus as the Gateway Arch gives St. Louis.”
Thirty-five years later, nothing says Dallas around the world quite like The Ball and its gleaming-glass sister hotel, the Hyatt Regency Dallas.
But owner Ray Hunt says anniversary hindsight is for those with no foresight.
“I love the saying, ‘People should have more dreams than memories,’” the 70-year-old billionaire oilman says in his offices at Hunt Consolidated Inc. downtown. “If you have enough size and scale to do something of significance, you should constantly be thinking of the future. That holds true for Reunion.”
He and John Scovell, the 66-year-old president and chief executive of Woodbine Development Corp., are busy setting the next stage.
They’ve just finished a $50 million facelift of the 1,120-room Hyatt that has essentially created a new hotel.
The lights on the tower have been upgraded so that The Ball can give LED light shows in panoramic color.
The observation deck is being overhauled and should be ready for a public reveal in the fall.
“More than anything, I want it to be fun,” Hunt says. “The fact that we’re 500 feet in the air makes us totally unique. Who’s our competition?”
But the most intriguing aspect of the company’s plans is a recent property swap with the city that gives Hunt-Woodbine 25 acres in the Central Business District that’s big enough for a corporate campus.
“Most of the time people think of a site in downtown Dallas as 200-foot blocks,” says Scovell, sitting in a conference room at Woodbine. “Once you say campus, people normally cross downtown off the list. Now it’s on the list. We can effectively compete with any campus site in the suburbs.”
Hunt-Woodbine can also build on top of the Reunion parking garage, which is strong enough to support 40 stories.
So which comes first, a corporate campus or a high-rise?
“All of the above,” Scovell says.
Hunt and Scovell have been sticking their necks out together for four decades.
In 1972, Hunt invited Scovell to breakfast. Scovell figured it had something to do with their fraternity alumni club. Both had been presidents of Phi Delta Theta — Hunt at Southern Methodist University, Scovell at Texas Tech.
So Scovell, a CPA with Arthur Andersen, was stunned when Hunt asked him to head up his new real estate company. Scovell’s only exposure to real estate up till then was auditing Trammell Crow Co. and Lincoln Property Co.
Reunion was their first project.
Today Hunt and Scovell say they’re just glad they didn’t know what they didn’t know.
“Had we been older, wiser and smarter, Reunion wouldn’t exist,” Scovell says.
Hunt, the 29-year-old son of legendary oilman H.L. Hunt, and Scovell, the 25-year-old president of Hunt’s fledgling construction company, had no idea what they were going to do with a small piece of property on the wrong side of the tracks.
Hunt had bought 20 acres for next to nothing — $2.92 a square foot — in 1972. It wasn’t worth much because it wasn’t large enough to build anything on. The next year, when Scovell bought another tract nearby for $3.50 a square foot, Hunt groused that Scovell had grossly overpaid.
Even at those prices, most people thought Hunt and Scovell were young lunatics.
One who didn’t was George Schrader, who had just taken over as Dallas city manager. Hunt says Schrader is “the real hero” behind Reunion.
“There’s a picture taken 35 years ago of John and me in front of the tower and hotel when they opened,” Hunt says. “That was only half the story. John and I, with all our brilliance or ignorance, could not have done anything without George Schrader.”
The city had useless property that it got when it bought Union Station, which had closed to passenger traffic in 1969. There was talk of building a sports facility, but none of the land was big enough.
So Schrader came up with a plan for land swaps and cost-sharing for the combined 50 acres. That agreement led to the hotel, the tower, Reunion Arena and the renovation of Union Station.
The agreement, completed in early 1974, was the nation’s first public-private joint venture, and it became the blueprint for urban development throughout the country. “It was a classic one plus one equals five,” Hunt says.
Even with the land swaps, there were all sorts of economic reasons why nobody had built a hotel downtown in 10 years.
On Oct. 1, 1974, a construction claw dug the first bucket of earth for the $75 million Reunion project — nearly $300 million in today’s dollars.
A Sunday or two later, Hunt opened his newspaper to see a headline asking: “Is Downtown Dallas Dead?” He says the type was “the size of ‘Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor.’”
It gave Hunt pause — but only for a moment.
Schrader, the 82-year-old principal of Schrader & Cline LLC, still praises that courage. “When measured from what it was previously — a wasteland — Reunion has given Dallas’ west door many benefits. Only persons of the civic character of Ray Hunt and John Scovell could see it through.”
Robert W. Decherd, chairman, president and chief executive officer of A.H. Belo Corporation, parent of The Dallas Morning News and Union Station’s next-door neighbor, says the project did more than create an anchor for the southwest quadrant of downtown.
“As the city’s first public-private partnership, Reunion established a path that enabled virtually every major subsequent initiative in downtown, from the Arts District to Victory and American Airlines Center, to the redevelopment of historic buildings and construction of new parks,” Decherd says.
Since its inception, the Reunion district has brought in more than $300 million in taxes, Scovell says. “Not bad for property on the wrong side of the tracks.”
No wonder Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings is willing to plug the location. “Any corporation looking to build a headquarters will find this area very attractive because of the connectivity provided by DART, easy freeway access and especially the opportunity to build a campus from the ground up,” Rawlings says.
Tale of the tower
In 1990, Hunt visited Laos, where he was drilling for oil. The only art at the tiny airport at Vientiane was a Lufthansa poster featuring Dallas and Reunion Tower.
That’s when Hunt understood that he’d hit a different kind of pay dirt. The TV show Dallas, then in its 13th season and hugely popular internationally, featured Reunion in its opening.
“The fact that Reunion Tower came to symbolize Dallas came as a surprise to us,” Hunt says. “It wasn’t because we planned it or that it was our objective. It just happened.”
Originally, the revolving restaurant was going to sit on the hotel roof like a flying saucer, similar to the “spinners” atop Hyatt hotels in Atlanta, New Orleans and San Francisco.
Hunt thought the other hotels looked weird.
“I said, ‘You know, if we wanted to, we could take the spinner off the hotel, put it in front of the atrium and up in the air.’”
Hunt’s directive was simple: “‘John, it better be pretty,’” Scovell says.
Hunt explains: “You can drill a very expensive oil well, and if it’s a failure, you pour 500 sacks of cement in the top, weld a metal plate on, weeds cover it up and six months later, nobody knows that you made a mistake. You take the same amount of money and you build an ugly building in your hometown, and it reminds you every day that you drive by it of the mistake you made.”
When the construction bids turned out to be as sky high as the tower, Gary Coffman, the project’s construction chief, found a company in Arizona that specialized in building grain silos, smokestacks and underground missile silos.
“Guess what?” Hunt says. “If you really look at it, we’ve got four silos.”
The fact that you can see the dome and its lights from every direction as you enter downtown is serendipity. Most of Dallas’ major thoroughfares are built on abandoned railroad rights of way that converge on Union Station.
There have been two upgrades to Reunion’s lighting. The first lights were all on or off, giving rise to the nickname the Dandelion. Next came the ability to have each of the 259 lights burn separately and create patterns.
Two years ago, color entered the equation. This has caused such a frenzy of requests for special shows that Hunt reviews the proposals himself.
He turns down almost all of them, but he did agree to special light shows for the opening of Klyde Warren Park and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science.
Last year, he started a new tradition, “Take the Tower.”
Before the Texas-OU football game, light time is split equally in orange and red. After the game, the winner takes all color rights for the rest of the day.
“When we do something special,” Hunt says, “it has to be special.”
As for the future, one thing’s certain. Nothing will ever be built that compromises the tower or the hotel’s visibility, Hunt says. “We will always have the best view of Dallas from every direction.”
Some fun facts you may not know
Reunion Tower may be Dallas’ most recognized structure, but its 35-year history is packed with fun facts that aren’t widely known. Here are some of the favorite hidden tower tidbits from owner Ray Hunt and Woodbine Development Corp. president John Scovell:
Most people think the dome became world-renowned thanks to the opening scenes of Dallas. But the original panoramic intro to the TV show was filmed before the tower was finished. Only the base is highlighted in the first seven seasons. The scene-stealer is actually its gleaming-glass hotel sister.
The dome is not geodesic but an eight-frequency icosahedron that creates 259 intersections for individual lights.
The tower cost $8 million to build, equip and furnish.
To keep anyone from getting a sneak preview of Reunion Tower, a 16-foot exact-scale mock-up was built on the Henry C. Beck farm at Audelia Road and Forest Lane, back when it was a working farm.
Because the tower is in tornado alley, a structural model was built at Texas A&M University’s wind-testing facility in College Station to make certain it could withstand winds of up to 125 miles an hour.
The tower was built by pouring concrete into a slip-form that moved up 1 foot an hour. The most important guy on the site was the one sitting in the middle of the slip-form making sure that the pour was laser-precise so that Dallas didn’t get a Leaning Tower of Pisa.
There are 64, 60-foot “legs” under the concrete “tabletop” that serves as the tower’s foundation. It’s a really big tabletop:10 feet deep and 90 feet in diameter.
John Scovell thought consultants were crazy when they said The Ball could attract a million customers a year. But after touring Seattle’s Space Needle and San Antonio’s HemisFair Tower, the president of Woodbine Development thought the potential was so great that he might start a tower subsidiary and start franchising the concept. Turned out one 50-story tower was plenty.
Ray Hunt paid $2.92 a square foot for the first 20-acre tract in 1972. Today the going rate for property anywhere in downtown is $100-plus.
Reunion would have been named Esplanade if consultants had had their way. But Scovell nixed it. Scovell, a history buff, learned about La Réunion, a socialist utopian community formed in 1855 in West Dallas, and liked the tie-in. A week later, the project was named Reunion. “We had a very short chain of command,” Scovell says.
In 1975, Scovell negotiated the $35 million construction contract with Henry C. Beck Co. to build Reunion. He took it to Ray Hunt, who refused to review it. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. I’ve never signed a construction contract in my life, and you’re not even going to read the damn thing?’ That was my very first introduction to Ray’s belief in accountability. And nothing’s changed since then.”