by Rob Crain
I was first introduced to the Belo Mansion as a young lawyer. I assumed every major bar association across the country had a similar headquarters. I honestly did not give it further thought until joining the DBA Board of Directors and attending conferences with other bar associations. I learned the Belo is unlike any bar headquarters in the country. It is unique in architecture and location. It provides ample meeting spaces often hosting thousands of guests in a single day. It houses a branch of one of the world’s best food and beverage operations, Culinaire, who provides our meals and hospitality to the public. We are blessed.
On September 15, 1977, the Dallas Bar Association closed on the purchase of The Belo Mansion. A few days later the DBA closed on adjacent parcels of land; these parcels acted as a parking lot for many years and is now the site of the Pavilion and underground parking garage. This year we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the purchase of the Belo Mansion. You can see an 11-minute documentary on its history at www.dallasbar.org.
In preparation for this year, I had the privilege of interviewing Jerry Jordan, Harriet Miers, Nick LaBranche (Belo Engineer), Bob & Gail Thomas, and several others to learn the history of the Belo purchase. Cathy Maher, our recently retired Executive Director, continues to collect history on the Belo Family and Belo Mansion. A big thank you to all of them for helping us memorialize this history—and it is quite a story—much too involved to fit in this space, but here is a sampling.
The DBA was founded in 1873. The de facto headquarters of the Association were the offices of whoever was the current bar President. In 1937, the bar secured a 15-foot cubicle under the stairs of the Old Red Courthouse. In 1955, Henry Strasburger was President of the DBA. He believed lawyers should have a regular meeting place. Bob Thomas recalls Henry frequently quoting Shakespeare’s line in “Taming of the Shrew”, “…do as adversaries do in law, strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.” According to Bob, Henry felt so strongly about securing a location for lawyers to meet and socialize, he silenced those with concerns about costs by personally advancing the first year of rent for space in the Adolphus Hotel. He was right. Lawyers flocked to the new gathering place. Membership grew, and by the 1970s the Association had outgrown their space.
Chuck Storey, President of the DBA in 1975, was a particularly strong advocate for a move to larger space. After much deliberation, a tentative agreement was reached to develop meeting and dining space on the third floor of the new First National Bank Building. A fundraising campaign commenced but continuing cost escalations soured the Association on the bank building.
At the time, the Belo Mansion sat vacant. The Loudermilk-Sparkman Funeral Home had moved out of the mansion due to expansion of Pearl Street but remained obligated under a lease agreement with Helen Belo Morrison, Colonel A. H. Belo’s granddaughter. Mr. Sparkman hired the firm of Turner, Rodgers, Winn, Scurlock & Terry to help them find relief from the lease. Jerry Jordan was an attorney with the firm and also served as Vice President of the DBA.
Jerry believed the Belo could be an option for the new headquarters. In 1976, at the Inauguration of incoming DBA President Waller Collie, Jr., Jerry was seated next to Gail Thomas, wife of Bob Thomas. Gail is a person who gets things done. Jerry knew that if he could sell Gail on the idea of the Belo as the Bar’s headquarters, “the battle was more than half won.” When hearing the suggestion, Gail recalls, “sparks went off, and it just felt like dynamite.”
That year’s Board of Directors’ retreat was at Tanglewood Lodge on Lake Texoma. The idea of the Belo Mansion as a headquarters was discussed. A group of several, including Jerry, Bob, Gail, and Waller visited the mansion together; Jerry unlocking the door and Waller following him inside. All remember Waller taking his first looks inside the home and saying words to the effect of, “This is what a bar headquarters should look like!” Momentum quickly built behind the idea but several hurdles remained. First, they had to convince Helen Belo Morrison to sell them the house in which she was born. Then they had to get the money to buy and refurbish the old home.
Overcoming the first challenge was aided by good luck. Bob and Gail, along with Waller and Elaine Collie, organized a trip to North Carolina to meet with Ms. Morrison. The night before the trip, Bob and Gail dropped off their kids with Bob’s parents. When conversation turned to the reason for the trip, Bob’s Mother said to tell Ms. Morrison “hello” for her. Bob stopped and asked, “You know Helen Belo?” She answered, “Yes, of course I do, I went to her 12th birthday party at the Belo Mansion…she wore a blue velvet dress with a white rose point lace collar, prettiest dress I ever saw.” This came in handy as Ms. Morrison felt passionately about her childhood home. She wanted the home to go to caring people who would maintain its integrity for years to come.
When the DBA contingency met Ms. Morison in her North Carolina home, initially things did not go well. The atmosphere was frosty until Bob remembered to tell Ms. Morrison “hello” from his mother. He also retold her account of the beautiful blue dress. Whatever chill was in the air quickly disappeared. Turns out, the dress was Ms. Morrison’s “favorite dress of all time.” Her parents had bought it for her in Paris. She also remembered Bob’s mother. All of a sudden, the DBA was family.
Shortly thereafter, the DBA secured an option to buy the Belo Mansion, but financing remained a significant obstacle. Some money had been raised for the proposed move to the First National Bank Building, but much more was needed to purchase and remodel the mansion. Jerry and Bob made unique connections with Republic Bank who provided financing. DBA members got to work raising funds, including Jerry Buchmeyer, Harriet Miers, John Estes, Jerry, Bob, and many others. Many of the rooms at the Belo are named after firms who dug deep for the cause.
On the third Thursday in September, 1977, the DBA exercised their option and closed on the purchase of the new headquarters. Hard work followed. Members worked weekends, scraping layers of paint off the walls until the original colors were discovered. Detail was taken to return the home to its original condition. What is now Belo Hall, was a chapel erected by the funeral home for services. The DBA built an atrium to connect the home and chapel. If you go to the documentary on the website, you will hear a great story from Bob about workers discovering a certain illegal plant being grown where the atrium now exists.
On August 1, 1979, the Belo opened and Helen Belo Morrison was present. She proclaimed the home was just as she remembered. She was proud. She donated the portraits of Colonel Belo and Mr. Belo, Jr. which hang above the settees near the front door—benches where as young women, she and her sister would wait on their dates.
Membership of the DBA expanded rapidly, as did functions at the Association’s headquarters. Jerry Jordan’s daughter, Jill, was the first to be married at the Belo. After years of growth, the DBA set upon expanding the Belo, adding the Pavilion in 2003. The Belo Mansion now hosts approximately 400 CLE events every year, hundreds of social and charitable events, and remains an historical anchor in the Dallas Arts District. The structure is one of few Dallas landmarks listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
More importantly, as Gail Thomas reflected, “…people come here, they feel at home here. There’s a base here, it’s solid. It has integrity. It has honor. It has dignity.”
The Belo Mansion was completed 117 years ago to be a home, for people to gather, grow closer, and to help one another. Thanks to pioneers 40 years ago, a home it remains.