Grateful Dead

Holly Mullen explains how a massive paupers' graveyard barely survived greedy landowners and a stealth real-estate deal

The word went out quietly in August. A choice little wedge of land in Uptown Dallas, the trendy neighborhood around McKinney Avenue where real estate speculation is in high fever, was being made available to the highest bidder. Only a handful of the city's wealthiest developers were invited to tender offers.

The 6.1 acres were being sold by the 122-year-old Greenwood Cemetery. The second-oldest graveyard in Dallas was strapped for cash, and the grounds where some of Dallas' earliest movers and shakers are interred were falling into embarrassing disrepair. Greenwood's sprinkler system leaked. Headstones were tumbling over. An entire fence was listing.

Selling off land seemed the simplest solution to the nagging financial problems, says John McClellan Marshall, chairman of the Greenwood Cemetery Association board of directors.

The proffered land sat on the cemetery's southwest side, bordering the fenced-in graveyard but not part of the formal cemetery. No markers indicated that bodies might be buried there. In fact, the area had become a neighborhood eyesore, clogged with garbage and overgrown with weeds. Brush was choking out several majestic oaks, and packs of dogs roamed the site, chasing after early-morning joggers.

The cemetery board decided to "advertise" the land's availability, though not in the conventional sense. "We sent out packets to the developers we felt could make the best use of the property, and let the market set the price," Marshall says.

Five real estate heavyweights, including the Trammell Crow and Lincoln Property companies, jumped into the bidding. In the end, the winner was Columbus Realty Trust, a major retail and housing developer in Uptown headed by 40-year-old Robert Shaw, a former Dallas Cowboys center and protege of Cowboys quarterback-cum-dealmaker Roger Staubach.

By late August, Columbus and Greenwood struck a $5-million deal which was announced publicly two months later. Shaw's company agreed to pay a premium price--$19.50 a square foot--for the land. Shaw envisioned shops as well as luxury apartments with rents averaging about $1,000 a month, the going rate for other Columbus properties in the area.

It looked to be one more happy real estate deal, cut the way Dallas businessmen like them--no muss, no fuss, no pesky intrusions from neighbors or tree-huggers who might want actually to discuss the future of one of the few green spaces left in Uptown.

But as Columbus and Greenwood raced to close the deal by December 31, they made a grave miscalculation.

Before the land could be developed, Greenwood needed a judge's signature on an order declaring that the 6.1 acres was "decertified," meaning it was no longer legally considered part of a cemetery.

To get that all-important order, Marshall--who is himself a state district judge--and the Greenwood board of directors were required by state law to attest that no bodies were buried on the land. If any dead had been interred on the property, the cemetery was obligated by law to move the graves before asking that the land be decertified.

An abundance of historical records--many of them easily found at the Central Public Library--demonstrate that the seemingly vacant plot had been used as a paupers' field. The rich folks from Dallas' early days--Gastons, Akards, and the like--might be buried in the formal Greenwood cemetery. But beneath the land where Shaw envisioned his new development lay the bodies of hundreds of Dallas' less affluent early citizens.

Whether out of greed or haste, Greenwood and Columbus chose not to look very hard for evidence of graves on the land. The deal was humming, and there was no time, it seems, for such niggling details.

Instead, Marshall and Greenwood's attorneys went to state District Judge Candace Tyson, attested that they had no knowledge of any graves on the site, and obtained a decertification order on November 1. Almost at once, the backhoes moved in, clearing out scrubby brush, trash, and sickly trees.

Only after the land was decertified did Columbus Realty hire anyone to poke about for unmarked graves. What archaeologist Alan Skinner found should have surprised no one who had conducted a simple review of available public records. Within days, Skinner and his crew found the rotting caskets and broken headstones of at least 40 graves. The count grew to 55, then 101, and ultimately Skinner concluded that at least 1,000 bodies are buried on the land where Greenwood said it had no knowledge of any graves.

As word of the find spread around the neighborhood--and among the exceedingly small group of preservationists who specialize in saving cemeteries--the quietly crafted real estate deal blew up. Facing outcries from several quarters, Columbus and Greenwood hastily backed off of plans to build on the paupers' field. Instead, Shaw decided to build on just 2.5 acres of the property where it is reasonably certain no bodies are buried.

Those associated with Greenwood and Columbus still vehemently protest that they had never heard--had not an inkling--of the paupers' graveyard. Although some of Dallas' finest real estate lawyers were on hand to shepherd the deal through the courts and the city zoning process, none of that high-priced legal help felt compelled to research the history of the graveyard.

"We had no records to prove any potter's field," says Marshall. "We relied on our caretaker's research, and he knows a lot about the cemetery."

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