Swiss Misses

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

The preservationists were motivated by the ideal of "in-town living," which embraces the economic, social, and racial diversity of inner-city life.

In July 1973, the Dallas City Council approved creation of the Swiss Avenue Historic District, the first of its kind in Dallas. The following March, the district was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, the mansions of Swiss Avenue and the homes on its fringe streets have been painstakingly restored to their turn-of-the-century beauty. Many of the residents who fought the battle can still recall the many long hours of activism and sweat equity they invested together to make it all happen.

"When we became a historic district, the National Trust strongly encouraged us to include Bryan Parkway, Gaston, and La Vista rather than having us be our own little island," says Savage, who adds that the "fringe" houses are just as architecturally significant as the mansions of Swiss Avenue.

Savage still lives in her 1918 home in the 5700 block of Swiss Avenue, but the reigning queen of the District has declined to join the Guild because of its exclusivity.

"We've had a lot of strong personalities who created the District, and we didn't always agree," Savage says. "But we always agreed that we were working on the whole area."

On the eve of the District's 25th anniversary, however, no one's talking togetherness anymore.

Jose, the help, quietly tends the hybrid pink and red roses that line the back porch of Suzanne Palmlund's second Swiss Avenue Home, an expansive estate built in 1914 by noted architect Hal Thompson for Dallas oil pioneer F. J. Tholl.

Since Palmlund bought the house in 1993, when she moved up the Avenue from her first home on Swiss, she has invested quite a chunk of money perfecting it, according to a letter on file at Preservation Dallas, which keeps records on each of the 170 homes in the Swiss Avenue Historic District.

Several rows of flowers spill out from the porch, their vivid hues accenting the yard's vast greenness. A children's wing and family room has been constructed, while crews of carpenters have reworked the home's guts and replaced its marble floors. All of this has cost more than $180,000.

It is said that Palmlund always insists on ushering visitors--reporters especially--on an extensive tour of her home. But on this cloudy Tuesday morning, the Guild's founder restricts an interview to her back porch and limits her availability to 30 minutes.

Palmlund has evidently figured out that the interview will involve questions about the Guild's exclusivity and its ongoing skirmish with the Association. Her response is to repeatedly wonder aloud just what the story is.

"I guess our problem is, we only have good things to say," Palmlund says, prompting giggles from her two companions. "I mean, we love the District. We love the Guild. We love the Avenue. We love the city. It's like, eeeeewwwww, I wish we had some controversy for you, but we don't."

To assist her during the interview, Palmlund has enlisted the emotional support of Vanessa Hoffman, the Guild's new president, and Martha Novorr, its chairman. The ladies, seated at Palmlund's patio table, say their primary goal is to create friendships and bring cohesiveness to the 106 households within the Guild's territory.

"Our first priority is to get to know our neighbors and to be able to feel that we really are a real neighborhood," Palmlund says.

Novorr nods her head in agreement and, in the most sincere of voices, adds that the Avenue's once-distant neighbors are now friends who can depend upon each other in times of need. "When bad things happen, we're there. And when good things happen, we're there."

Good things do indeed define the activities of the Guild, which has adopted the magnolia as its emblem because it is a "symbol of Southern beauty and strength."

In its two years of existence, the Guild has entertained numerous prominent personalities, one of the first of whom was Dr. Fritz E. Barton, Jr., a professor of plastic surgery.

The Guild's 67 members were also invited to a "Holiday High Tea" at the Adolphus Hotel in 1995 and a subsequent book signing party at Barbara McDaniel's house, where the Guild entertained the Beverly Drive Book Club of Highland Park.

Of course, few could forget the private cooking class with Baroness Anna Mosesson, "The Swedish Chef" who has catered many a big-time wingding, including Placido Domingo's 40th birthday party and a gala ballet reception with Princess Diana.

Although men are strictly prohibited from joining the Guild, its social activities inevitably include the husbands. Throughout the year, the Guild families gather to celebrate holidays and special occasions.

There's the annual Fourth of July barbecue and the getaway at Ed and Nan Creel's Longhorn ranch. The Guild has gone to considerable lengths to document the fun had by all at these family-like events in its newsletter, the Guild Gazette.

In one issue of the Gazette, color snapshots captured Guild children gnawing on ears of corn in Palmlund's back yard on the Fourth. Men and women dressed in full cowboy gear, right down to the fringes on their vests, are also pictured hoisting bottles of Shiner Bock at the Creel ranch.

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