Swiss Misses

A tempest in a teacup over azaleas erupts into a class war in Dallas' Swiss Avenue Historic District

The August meeting of the Swiss Avenue Historic District Association took place, as usual, inside the quaint "garden room" of the Aldredge House, a 17-room mansion well known for its exclusive black-tie receptions and ball-gown affairs.MMMXNormally, the sound of clinking champagne glasses and carefree laughter would have filled the estate's French-brick walls. But this Tuesday evening was different.

The former residence of Texaco magnate George Aldredge instead played host to what some observers describe as a brazen power play: an attempted coup d'etat of the Association, a quirky democratic body that has governed the city's first historic district for a quarter-century.

The alleged putsch shouldn't have been a surprise to the 50 residents who turned out for the neighborhood meeting. For months, trouble in the District had been burbling like an unmanned fondue pot.

Many a cold shoulder had been turned in recent weeks. The air of neighborly cooperation that built the District had been replaced by paranoia and suspicion, and the massive estates that were once home to the city's powerbrokers had become dens of bitter gossip.

Neighbor was pitted against neighbor, with the owners of Swiss Avenue's mansions turning up their noses at the yuppies who occupy humbler abodes on side streets. Indeed, this battle for control of the Swiss Avenue Historic District was beginning to take on the trappings of an all-out class war. Behind the brittle smiles were men and women who'd just as soon pelt each other with biscotti and wedges of brie than pretend they'd come to unite for a common cause.

The scrap even has its pamphleteers. "We as a neighborhood and an association are facing the single most serious threat to our area's future well being in its 25 year history," screams one flyer circulating throughout the District.

Its title perfectly sums up the simmering feud: "OUR neighborhood or THEIRS?"

By all accounts, the instigator of this nasty skirmish is a petite, 60-year-old housewife named Suzanne Palmlund, whose preternaturally youthful face defies her age. Two years ago this fall, Palmlund had founded the Swiss Avenue Women's Guild--a social club that lures women into its ranks by hosting afternoon tea parties and entertaining prominent speakers.

Within the Swiss Avenue Historic District, the 67-member club is unique for its exclusivity: Membership is strictly limited to women who live in the 106 turn-of-the-century estates on Swiss Avenue.

Those who may not join the Guild are women who live on the district's "fringe" streets, namely Live Oak, La Vista, and Bryan Parkway. Many residents--both on and off Swiss Avenue--see it as no coincidence that the Guild's boundaries end where the size of homes becomes frighteningly middle-class, and where neighborhood parties are likely to involve sweaty pots of pork and beans.

In the beginning, the Guild was easy enough to ignore. Its early events--centered around such themes as the "Joy of Entertaining" and the "Secrets of Not Aging"--seemed harmless enough. If these Swiss Misses wanted to exchange recipes and chatter about facelifts, their critics say, that's just fine. They weren't going to join their club, anyway.

Now, attitudes have changed. Because some of the Guild women have been active in the Association for many years, it's difficult to determine exactly when their social activities took on a political hue. But the era of sniffing tolerance had certainly come to an end by the August meeting at Aldredge House, when Palmlund, surrounded by her top lieutenants and a few reluctant husbands, made a show of force.

Clearly, the women had not come merely to sip tea and exchange pleasantries.
The primary purpose of the meeting had been to negotiate how the neighborhood association should spend its $20,000 budget, a meager pot raised during the annual Mother's Day Home Tour. Typically, the biggest chunk of that money is spent on mowing the Swiss Avenue median, a seven-block strip that attracts joggers, cyclists, and dogs from all over Dallas.

With its thick, canine-fortified green turf and lazy live oaks, the city-owned median has always been elegant in its simplicity.

Which is why jaws dropped inside the Aldredge House when the Guild members presented their plan for the median: Moonlights hung from the median's trees; flowers bedded in its grassy turf. (Azaleas, it turns out.)

What's more, the Association members learned, the women had asked the IRS to give the Guild nonprofit status so it could apply for grants and receive tax-deductible donations. The Guild would be--in the words of one of its members--"completing the vision of the median."

These moonlights and azaleas were no penny-ante affair. The moonlights alone would cost an estimated $300,000--which equates to 15 years' worth of Home Tour proceeds. And azaleas, which aren't even native to Texas, are notorious for their ravenous thirst--requiring even more bucks to quench it.

Many of the 50 or so neighborhood volunteers immediately interpreted the proposal as a Guild plot to give the median an exorbitantly expensive makeover, draining the Association of its meager resources and thereby robbing it of its power.

Indeed, the anonymous flyer lays out just such a conspiracy theory: "If the financial means of our neighborhood association are allowed to be subverted and put under the control of only certain qualifying residents (you are disqualified if you live on Live Oak, Bryan Parkway, or La Vista, NO KIDDING!) the ability of the district as a whole to survive is greatly jeopardized."

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