To help ring in the New Year, I took a time machine back to the psychedelic ’70s.
I viewed this opportunity as a redo. I can’t say I enjoyed the early part of the decade while I was living in it. I didn’t appreciate Zeppelin or the Guess Who until I was an adult. Add to that, I was dressed in horrific clothes — the result of having immigrant parents who neither understood American fashion nor had the extra income to outfit me in groovy threads so I could channel who I really wanted to be: Marcia Brady.
I finally had my chance. Wearing a bell-sleeved pink hallucinogenic top and bell-bottomed white jeans, I celebrated a friend’s 50th birthday with 100 other people in the Filter Building at White Rock Lake.
As the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” pumped through the speakers, I slow danced in my chunky gold platform sandals with my husband, John, in his mirrored shirt and tight white pants, and admired the beautiful Filter Building. Having taken rowing lessons several years ago at the White Rock Boathouse, I had seen it many times from the outside. I was aware it was an events venue and knew it once filtered water a long time ago. But that was about it.
I made a mental note while grooving to Cheryl Lynn’s one-hit-wonder, “Got to Be Real,” to look into this unique space and understand its significance. The Filter Building, like many hidden gems around our city, has been updated and repurposed. Its history is beautifully preserved and summarized online.
Its website, thefilterbuilding.com, informed me that soon after the turn of the last century, White Rock Lake was dammed and developed to be the city’s source of drinking water. The water was pristine enough that it didn’t require filtration or chlorination when pumped into the city’s water mains.
But you can’t keep a good secret for too long. Just a few years after the city started sourcing water from White Rock Lake, Dallasites discovered the other benefits of a body of water in an otherwise landlocked city. Soon, fishing and duck hunting became popular lake activities, as was swimming — all of which resulted in polluting our fresh water.
Dallas Water Utilities constructed the Filter Building in 1922 to address the contamination. It’s fascinating to read the Filter Building website and learn how the water entered the facility and then was filtered, chlorinated and pumped. This is an engineering marvel built almost 100 years ago without the aid of computer technology or calculators. Instead, it was built with imagination, drafting pencils, old-school math and solid engineering.
When bigger man-made lakes, such as Lake Lewisville and Lake Ray Hubbard, were constructed to be sources of water, the city ceased utilizing White Rock Lake as a water source and the Filter Building as a means of purification in the 1950s. The building was boarded up and abandoned. Thankfully, it wasn’t torn down.
Even luckier, the White Rock Boathouse, a charitable 501(c)3 organization, was founded by local coaches John Mullen and Sam Leake in 2003 to provide crew and rowing opportunities to all of us. They and others raised millions of private dollars to renovate the Filter Building, ensuring it stayed true to its historic roots. Today, proceeds from renting the venue are directed to the White Rock Boathouse so it may continue its mission to “change lives by putting oars and opportunities in the hands of Dallas-area youth by fostering teamwork and preparing our athletes for success in sport and in life.”
I left the ’70s and the Filter Building that night and returned home to 2020 via an Uber. Reflecting on the evening, it turned out that disco didn’t die and, fortunately, neither did this historic structure. They both had lain dormant until full appreciation of their cultural significance could be experienced.
Parties are fun. Celebrating friends, even more so. But being in a place with worth creates its own brand of history. Happy birthday to Helene, and thank you to John Mullen, Sam Leake and all who had the vision to repurpose an abandoned building and turn it into something incredibly special.
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