Volk Focuses His Lens on Dallas

Leonard Volk has loved photography since Jan. 3, 1950.

Leonard Volk

That day, he bought his first “good” camera – a Leica IIIc – in Limburg, Germany, during 14-months he spent traveling after graduating from Yale in 1949.

Through the years, he has photographed sights in Europe, Japan, and all over Dallas.

But along the way, he somehow missed out on shooting a few landmarks of particular personal importance: the Volk Brothers stores, including the George Dahl-designed, six-story downtown store in the 1800 block of Elm Street.

“To me they were permanent, and I didn’t have to save that memory, because they would always be there,” he said, recalling how the downtown building was torn down without warning in 1980, the year after his father’s death.

Volk, now 91 and retired from his careers in architecture and volunteering, talked during a Dallas Historical Society “An Evening With!” program this spring at Dallas Fair Park about his experiences as well as those of his namesake grandfather and father, Harold.

His grandfather moved here from Baltimore in 1889, when Dallas was “a tough frontier town of perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 [and] still a destination for cattle drives,” and went to work for an Elm Street shoe store.

Grandfather bought the store the next year and started Volk Bros. with older brother George.

“Art, like flying, is freedom. We are all artists if we allow ourselves that freedom.” -Leonard Volk

After the opening of the six-story George Dahl-designed main building in 1930, Volk’s Bros. became a retail specialty store selling a variety of products including women’s apparel and hats, men’s furnishings, and gifts as well as shoes.

In the early 1930s, Harold became president of the company, and with the opening of a Highland Park Village store in 1935, Volk’s became the first downtown Dallas retailer to open a suburban location.

“His retailer friends all told him he was crazy to do this, that he would just take sales away from his downtown store, but Highland Park became a national record-setter for sales per square foot of store space and was enlarged twice in the ‘30s,” Leonard said.

Leonard, like his father Harold, went to Terrill Preparatory School in Dallas, and later to Yale University but didn’t share his father’s passion for retail, so studied architecture at MIT.

Harold retired in 1965 and Volk’s was sold to Colbert in 1970.

Leonard worked in architecture for 30 years, designing a hangar and industrial building for Texas Instruments, commercial remodeling at Highland Park Village, staff housing at McDonald Observatory, public-housing modernization in West Dallas, and many other projects.

His volunteer work included Goals for Dallas, organizing a Community Design Center for neighborhood improvement, and leading the Dallas American Institute of Architects’ Affordable Housing Committee.

In retirement, he has continued to focus on his photography and published Everyday, a book of essays and photographs available at Interabang Books.

He considers it an open letter of encouragement to all photographers, professional and amateur, to explore the subjects they strongly care about.

“Art, like flying, is freedom,” he said. “We are all artists if we allow ourselves that freedom.”

William Taylor

William Taylor, editor of Park Cities People and Preston Hollow People, shares a name and a birthday with his dad and a love for community journalism with his colleagues at People Newspapers. He joined the staff in 2016 after more than 25 years working for daily newspapers in such places as Alexandria, Louisiana; Baton Rouge; McKinney; San Angelo; and Sherman, though not in anywhere near that order. A city manager once told him that “city government is the best government” because of its potential to improve the lives of its residents. William still enjoys covering municipal government and many other topics. Follow him on Twitter @Seminarydropout. He apologizes in advance to the Joneses for any angry Tweets that might slip out about the Dallas Cowboys during the NFL season. You also can reach him at [email protected]. For the latest news, click here to sign up for our newsletter.

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