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Dallas Museum Preserves Flash of Uncertainty

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The oak trees along Elm Street have grown. A few lampposts have been added. But from the sixth floor of the old Texas School Book Depository, the view is essentially as it was in 1963, when a sniper peered through the telescopic sights of a mail-order rifle and squeezed the trigger of history.

The sixth floor is now a museum. And as you stand there by the window where Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have taken aim and shot John Kennedy, you look down on Dealey Plaza with its infamous grassy knoll and can’t help but wonder, “What really happened?”

Americans have pondered the question for 28 years, with opinion polls showing that the vast majority today believe Oswald did not act alone. The mystery, no doubt, will be debated with renewed fervor as the movie “JFK,” director Oliver Stone’s conspiratorial view of the assassination, hits the theaters this weekend. (Stone was allowed to actually film on the sixth floor after he donated $50,000 to the organization that manages the exhibit.)

During a Thanksgiving trip to Dallas, I visited the Sixth Floor--the name given the exhibit run by the Dallas County Historical Foundation--looking for insights to bolster my own amateur theories about what happened here on Nov. 22, 1963.

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I came away with no answers. In all truth, the only conspiracy I found was one in which my eyes and imagination were implicated: Gazing down on the spot where the 35th President of the United States lost his life, I could not escape the terrible image of what his head must have looked like through the cross hairs.

Still, a visit to the Sixth Floor, which was opened to the public with a visitors center and small bookstorenearly three years ago, is worthwhile--if for no other reason than to ponder the spot where the course of 20th-Century America was inexorably turned. It is a quiet place, where visitors speak in hushed tones.

A brochure describes the Sixth Floor as “a permanent educational exhibition examining the life, death and legacy of John F. Kennedy.” Carpeted and softly lighted, the exhibit more resembles a trendy loft office than the cavernous warehouse it was in 1963. There are poster-size photographs, 40 minutes of documentary films and other “interpretive displays” to “help those who remember come to grips with a powerful memory, and educate younger audiences about the meaning of an unforgettable chapter in American history.”

A self-guided tour of the 9,000-square-foot exhibit, which takes about 75 minutes, provides visitors glimpses of the political climate in Dallas in 1963, Kennedy’s trip through the city on that day in November, the assassination itself and its subsequent investigations.

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Unfortunately, no original pieces of evidence are displayed. The only genuine artifact--if it can be called that--is television newsman Ike Pappas’ hastily typed script detailing his eyewitness account of Jack Ruby’s murder of Oswald in the basement of Dallas police headquarters two days after the assassination.

All of the displays on the Sixth Floor are billed as “suitable for family viewing"--meaning that the actual murder has been largely sanitized. The film taken by amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder, for example, shows Kennedy desperately clutching his throat with both hands after being hit by the first bullet fired from the Depository. But the film abruptly ends before Kennedy’s head is blown apart in a spray of gore from a second shot--which some are convinced came from a second gunman on the grassy knoll.

That, however, doesn’t mean the exhibition has been cleansed of the controversies that continue to dog the Kennedy assassination. Conspiracy theories addressing the potential involvement of the CIA, FBI, KGB, Fidel Castro, right-wing extremists and organized crime, among others, are outlined on large murals. The various investigations stemming from the slaying, along with assessments of the forensic evidence, are likewise examined in succinct, almost clinical fashion.

The exhibit, its directors say, is not intended to convey one theory or another. It is left to the visitor to judge whether Oswald acted alone or in concert in killing the President.

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“We are not showing you everything so you can solve the crime,” said exhibit spokeswoman V’Ann Giuffre. “We admit we don’t know what happened.”

If only the walls could speak.

What may be known for all time simply as “the Depository” was built in 1901 as a warehouse for farm plows on property deeded to the founder of Dallas, John Neely Bryan, in the 1840s. At the time of the assassination, the seven-story, red-brick building was under lease to a private textbook brokerage firm, the Texas School Book Depository Co.

Seconds after the President was shot, a Dallas motorcycle officer riding in the motorcade, Marrion L. Baker, recognized gunshots, saw pigeons fly from the roof and ran inside, revolver drawn.

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The depository’s freight elevators were stopped on the upper floors and so Baker, now joined by building superintendent Roy Truly, climbed the stairs.

At 12:32 p.m., two minutes after the President was shot, Baker stopped a man entering the Depository’s second-floor employee lunchroom. Truly identified the man as a newly hired clerk and Baker let him go.

The man was Lee Harvey Oswald. He would be arrested that afternoon after killing patrolman J.D. Tippit in a nearby Dallas neighborhood.

At 1:12 p.m., police discovered a barricade of book cartons at a half-open, sixth-floor window on the Depository’s southeast corner. Several witnesses would later report having seen a rifle barrel protruding from the same window moments before Kennedy was shot.

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Among the boxes of books, investigators found three spent bullet casings, finger and palm prints later identified as Oswald’s, and an empty paper sack long enough to have concealed a rifle.

At 1:22 p.m., police discovered a World War II-era rifle stashed in the northwest corner of the building, next to a stairway leading to the second-floor lunchroom where Officer Baker had encountered Oswald. Investigators would find Oswald’s palm print on the stock of the Italian-made, telescope-equipped rifle. They would find a receipt for the weapon in Oswald’s personal papers.

Other eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza, meanwhile, had led authorities to the grassy knoll, west of the Depository. Some, including 57-year-old railroad supervisor Sam Holland, thought they had heard gunshots from the knoll and reported seeing what appeared to be gun smoke.

Police found footprints and cigarette butts behind the stockade fence which still stands above the knoll, but called off their search of the area when Oswald’s 6.5-millimeter rifle was found inside the Depository.

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The misfit ex-Marine, investigators would conclude, had acted alone. After firing on the motorcade from the southeast corner window, he had run to the northwest corner, hurriedly stashed his gun in a crevice formed by two stacks of cartons and descended the stairs to the lunchroom where he was confronted by Baker and abruptly let go.

Twenty-eight years later, the corner where the rifle was discovered has been made to look exactly as it did on the day of the assassination. Reproduced cardboard book cartons bearing the name “Scott Foresman and Co. of Chicago” are stacked atop each other on the original timbered floor as they were in 1963. The crevice between the boxes where the murder weapon was discovered is there to be seen, as is the large black and white “Stairs” sign a few feet away that Oswald apparently followed to the lunchroom four floors below. (Much of the lunchroom, which was dismantled during remodeling to make way for a courtroom, has been retained, in pieces, for posterity.)

Also in its original condition is the corner surrounding the window where Oswald is believed to have fired. You can’t actually stand in the so-called “sniper’s perch"--the area is enclosed by Plexiglas to protect against souvenir-hungry vandals--but you can study it from close quarters.

At first glance, the perch seems little more than a jumble of Manila-colored book cartons stacked on the bare floor close to a sash window of eight panes that is left partially opened but glassed from the outside to protect it from weather. Upon closer inspection, however, you notice that about four feet in front of the window is a loose wall of stacked cartons--a shield to protect the sniper’s back, perhaps? Other cartons positioned closer to the wall form what some have construed to be a shooting platform, upon which Oswald may have leaned while firing down at the presidential motorcade.

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The spot remains electric. If you let yourself, you can hear the pop of gunfire, smell the sulfurous gun smoke and envision Oswald running for the stairs. Curiously, though, when I visited the Sixth Floor, few other tourists seemed inclined to linger beside the sniper’s perch. Many barely gave it a glance as they moved from display to display.

“Oh,” one woman said to herself as she realized its significance. She paused for a few seconds and shuddered involuntarily.

“So painful,” she said before moving on.

Given such sentiment, converting part of the old warehouse into a historical exhibit proved to be no easy task.

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The Book Depository Co., its name ignominiously linked to the demise of Camelot, moved out during the early 1970s, and an ambitious promoter from Nashville, Tenn., stepped in, announcing plans to develop the building as a big-time tourist attraction.

Residents and city officials balked. Many regarded the Depository as a scar, an ever-present reminder of a painful time best forgotten.

In 1972, an arsonist attempted to torch the building. Firefighters managed to save it. Soon after, the promoter cleared out and the old Depository reverted to a Dallas family that had owned it since the 1930s. Potential buyers lobbied to raze the structure, but city officials refused to grant the necessary demolition permits.

In 1977, voters approved a bond issue to convert the building into office space for county government employees. The first five floors were renovated and the facility opened five years later as the new seat of Dallas County government.

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The sixth floor, meanwhile, remained padlocked.

As time passed and wounds healed, pressure mounted to reopen the floor.

The county received funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a team was assembled to determine how best to use the space. By 1983, a private, nonprofit educational organization, the Dallas County Historical Foundation, was incorporated to plan and manage a permanent exhibition. Private donors raised $3.5 million and the county put up another $2.2 million to construct an outside elevator and small visitors center at its base.

On Feb. 20, 1989--President’s Day--the Sixth Floor opened its doors.

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More than 600,000 people have since toured the exhibit, officials say.

No one from the Kennedy family has ever visited.

Three blocks away, meanwhile, another museum--the JFK Assassination Information Center--has also opened to the public. Officials at the 2 1/2-year-old center keep a substantial repository of information while attempting to document the theory that John Kennedy’s death was the result of a conspiracy.

“We offer an alternative view,” said Robert T. Johnson, a researcher at the 3,000-square-foot assassination center. “Unlike the Sixth Floor, we’re still trying to find the answers.”

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GUIDEBOOK

The Sixth Floor

Where it is: The Sixth Floor Visitors Center is at 411 Elm St., directly behind the old Texas School Book Depository (now the Dallas County Administration Building); telephone (214) 653-6666.

The exhibit: Open Sunday-Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Closed Christmas Day. Tickets for self-guided tours can be purchased at the Visitors Center: adults $4, seniors $3; children under 6 free, under 19, $2.

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