Oak Cliff Tower: Celebrating 50 years of change, business diversity

Michael McGee | 8/1/2014, 5:25 p.m.
“Promoting free enterprise and diversity under one roof” is the motto emblazoned on a lobby wall inside The Bank Tower ...
Ralph Isenberg, property manager for The Bank Tower at Oak Cliff, relaxes in his office amid his art collection. Photo by Mike McGee

The Dallas Examiner

“Promoting free enterprise and diversity under one roof” is the motto emblazoned on a lobby wall inside The Bank Tower at Oak Cliff. The building, located at 400 S. Zang Blvd., continues to represent that philosophy as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Sometimes referred to as “The Tower,” the structure represents success, potential and the blending of various cultures, property manager and principal owner Ralph Isenberg said.

“This building really is about a third, a third, a third, when it comes to the ethnic makeup,” he mentioned as he discussed the backgrounds of its tenants. The diversity within the building is said to be huge.

“Not only huge; it is wonderful,” Isenberg gushed. From the number of Black, White and Hispanic tenets who have offices within The Tower to the variety of businesses themselves – a bank, attorneys, accountants, a café, a dentist, a shoe shine stand; even the offices of a local newspaper – variety is key to the life of the building.

It was erected during the burgeoning modern Civil Rights Movement. Construction began in 1963. The “soft” opening was in October 1964 with the official opening January 1965.

“It originally was only going to be a 12-story building and it got pre-leased so fast that the bank decided to bring it up to 15,” Isenberg said.

He spoke about the uniqueness of the building, describing the extra florescent fixture installed into each window frame to create the nighttime lighting displays the building is known for, and the exclusiveness of the Top of the Cliff private club on the top floor.

“Like, the doors on it were from Antoine’s in New Orleans. They had, you know, one-of-a-kind goodies,” Isenberg said.

“I think my understanding’s correct – there were no Black folk. I mean, it was a White only club,” the property manager continued. “And some of the help actually worked there into their very senior years, and it was more a reminiscence of the old days when you had the …” Isenberg searched for the right words. “It was more institutional,” he said of the racial divide formerly taking place under the roof of the club.

“It really was like Driving Miss Daisy,” he laughed at the thought. “I couldn’t believe it.”

He voiced his bemusement when he first experienced the atmosphere of the Top of the Cliff Club for himself.

“I think times have changed a little bit.”

The space was revamped in 2011 and turned into the Orion Ballroom. The operation of the space is currently handled by Doug Brown, formerly executive chef at the Melrose Hotel and Nana at the Wyndham Anatole.

“He transformed that into an events facility that appeals primarily to the African American community. That’s not to say he doesn’t have bar mitzvahs from North Dallas and those Hispanic-type dances, but his primary customer is the African American customer.”

The change in the ballroom – from a privileged, old money space with dark wood paneling to a bright, mirrored site open as a rental space to all – represents a gradual change in social attitudes, Isenberg noted.