By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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 The air of neighborly cooperation that built the District had been replaced by paranoia and suspicion, and the massive estates that were once home to the city's powerbrokers had become dens of bitter gossip.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."
Bryan Parkway resident Jim Schutze had been in situations like this before, neighborhood meetings gone awry because someone pooh-poohs someone else's idea. And his last tango with the Guild, a particularly mean dispute involving a promotional brochure, was still fresh in his memory.
Schutze says he tried to remain quiet like everyone else in the room, but this time the Guild had gone too far.
"I just couldn't keep my lip buttoned. I was shocked," he recalls. "I said I was really appalled at what looked to me to be a major end run."
Schutze, for one, doesn't believe moonlights and azaleas qualify as charity. So the veteran journalist publicly vowed that night to investigate the activities of the Guild. He also mentioned--some say quite loudly--something about getting a lawyer.
"I said it's really embarrassing to be from Bryan Parkway and being in this position of having to argue that we're being left out," Schutze recalls. "It just makes me feel like a dork."
Many of the residents shifted uncomfortably in their chairs as Schutze spoke out, hoping the meeting wouldn't turn into the sort of shouting match that occurred the last time the Guild had pushed its agenda on the Association. But Swiss Avenue bachelor and Guild antagonist Larry Johnson wasn't about to let his neighbors go home without at least giving them his assessment of the situation.
Like Schutze, Johnson believed the Guild could no longer be considered a harmless social club. Instead, it had become a political wedge, dividing the district along class lines. The Guild, he said, must be stopped.
"I said, 'I think we need to call a spade a spade,'" Johnson recalls. "'We're approaching civil war.'"
Not since the infamous Halloween Blackout of 1985 has so much controversy gripped the Swiss Avenue Historic District, a 22-block neighborhood of 170 homes that lies minutes from downtown in the heart of old East Dallas.
That year, the district's residents were ripped by scandal after Dallas Times Herald reporter David Fritze uncovered their secret plot to turn off their lights in an attempt to drive off the annual throng of trick-or-treaters who descend upon Swiss Avenue from the surrounding, mostly Hispanic neighborhoods.
When the first doorbell was rung that year, every television crew in town was on hand to cover the story as it unfolded. The embarrassing attention forced many lights back on that day, but it also put a nick in the neighborhood's smooth image.
It wasn't the debate over how many Snickers bars would be doled out that year that made front-page news, however. It was the implication that the city's first historic district--a testament to the virtues of inner-city living--had become home to elitist snobs who evidently placed more value on their manicured yards than on neighborly kindness.
Twelve years later, the same sort of accusations are flying around the District.
It's widely suspected that the Women's Guild is a clique of self-absorbed housewives--Highland Park wannabes who dress up in fancy gowns and play elaborate games of house, all the while thumbing their noses at the serfs who occupy the land surrounding their half-million-dollar homes.
Never mind that all of the homes in the District are pricey, making this, in essence, a battle of snob vs. snob.
The Guild members--it is alleged--have no appreciation for the District's role as an inner-city neighborhood. Instead, they're perceived as materialistic bargain hunters, people who haven't figured out that privacy fences and potholes big enough to swallow a bichon frise are the only things standing between their "castles on the cheap" and third-world poverty.
Worse, they stand accused of posing as the official representatives of the District, a duty historically entrusted to the all-inclusive neighborhood Association.
These are accusations that newly appointed Guild chairman Martha Novorr vehemently denies. The Guild, she says, is well aware of the district's location. And its status as a historic district is the very motivation behind many of the Guild's recent promotional activities, which she insists benefit the entire area.
"The next-door neighbors cannot move in and paint their houses pink because they just got back from the Caribbean," Novorr says. "And we're glad for that. We have everything to lose if the district suffers."
Just when, exactly, the district's residents started believing that their neighborhood had become a model of diversity is unclear.
After all, the district was created by cotton tycoon Robert S. Munger, who made his fortune in an industry that isn't exactly a textbook example of the American ideals of freedom and democracy. And neither was Munger's elaborate district, which, for about a half-century, was home to the city's banking, manufacturing, and political elite.
"Needless to say, for the times, white folks only," one historian comments about the neighborhood's turn-of-the-century demographics.
Sure, a teacher or two may have lived within putting distance of Swiss Avenue, but real, live, breathing diversity never found its way onto Swiss Avenue until World War II, when the original homeowners fled north, and their estates were sold to absentee landlords or simply abandoned.
By the 1970s, the mansions were crumbling and Swiss Avenue was to be razed to make way for high-rise apartments. That's when a core of neighborhood stalwarts, led by Dallas' then-first lady Dorothy Savage, began a contentious battle against developers to get the area designated a 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.
Of course, there are also many eerily identical pictures of Guild women posing for the camera with large smiles planted on their faces as they sip tea or champagne at the various Guild teas. Instead of name tags, the women pin large color photographs of their homes to their chests.
But life in the Guild hasn't been all fun and games, the women say. With much sweat and toil, they've produced several items designed to promote Swiss Avenue.
"We're an inner-city neighborhood. When you drive a family through here that just showed up today and you drive them through the inner city to get here, which is the way you have to go to get here, many families think this is not a wonderful place to live," Novorr explains. "The only way to show that this is a wonderful place to live is to publicize yourself."
Last year, the Guild finished work on a glossy brochure that includes snapshots of various homes in the District and is distributed to real estate agents and businesses whose clients may be relocating to Dallas. The Guild also produced an audiotape tour of Swiss Avenue homes and has plans to complete a similar videotape tour, which WFAA-Channel 8 has agreed to produce, Novorr says.
In addition, the Guild has designed and manufactured refrigerator magnets and coffee mugs, each of which features one of a few select Swiss Avenue homes, which have an average value of $350,000. As a special touch, the mugs come with a packet of "Swiss Chocolate," the Guild's very own blend of coffee.
Only a Guild critic would point out that the items focus on Swiss Avenue homes and barely mention the more modest dwellings on Bryan Parkway and La Vista. But it is the exclusion of those "fringe" areas that is making the Guild a loathsome entity elsewhere in the District.
The giggling trio on Palmlund's back porch swears that they limited the Guild's membership to Swiss Avenue only because they needed to limit the size of the club, and not because they've got a bias against people who live in the smaller houses of Bryan Parkway and La Vista.
"Anybody who is upset about [us] excluding anybody, we excluded 100 percent of the men," Palmlund says, stopping as the three women laugh uncontrollably at the joke. "I mean, pleeaasse. You know? I mean, please!"
"Not only that, we drag them around and put them in tuxedos," Novorr adds. "And you know what? At first there was a little bit of resistance in the men. And now, they can't wait to go to parties."
Not everyone who lives in the Swiss Avenue Historic District loves a party, especially if it's thrown by the Guild.
One afternoon in late September, the residents of Bryan Parkway were stunned to discover that an unusual invitation had been placed in their mailboxes.
These were not authentic invitations, but mere photocopies of a real invitation, and they weren't addressed to specific residents. Instead, the Guild had just stuffed them in each mailbox like grocery-store flyers.
Nonetheless, if those people wanted to fork over $60 a head, they could still come to an October 4, 1997, party the Guild was throwing for itself at the Dallas Museum of Art. The invitations were the Guild's way of letting their neighbors know they were welcome after all.
Unfortunately, that's not quite how the invitations were received.
"My response to one of the [Guild] founders was, 'You expect me to give an evening of my time and $120 of my money for a group that won't allow my wife to join? I have a problem with that,'" says Bryan Parkway resident Gerald Ragsdale. "It seemed strange to me that they consider themselves very apart, yet wanted our money to help put dinner on."
One neighbor recalls that Ragsdale's response also included some nasty epithets, but Ragsdale guarded his words during a recent telephone conversation, insisting that he didn't want to engage in a "spitting contest." He did, however, comment that the Guild's exclusivity is counter-productive.
"If you slap a child every day before dinner," Ragsdale says, "they aren't going to come to the dinner table."
Katy Sauser, one of Ragsdale's neighbors, recalls how she couldn't believe her eyes when she found the invitation in her mailbox that sunny September afternoon. The computer programmer turned stay-at-home mom says she wandered outside to see if the other neighbors had gotten one too.
"I thought it was a joke. At the very least, it's extremely tacky," Sauser says. "My guess is, the people on Swiss Avenue got real invitations."
Sauser crosses her feet and pulls them onto the rose-trimmed wicker couch inside her Bryan Parkway home, built in 1922, which is a perfect example of the clean elegance of Prairie-style architecture. The house is also notable because it was the childhood home of Jerry Haynes, the one and only Mr. Peppermint.
If the Guild seriously expected non-Guild members to donate $60 a head for their party, Sauser says, the least they could have done was send out decent invitations. Although the gesture may have been well-intended, it came off like a cheap afterthought, and it's just the sort of slight that Sauser says the residents of Bryan Parkway are sick of getting from the Guild.
Sauser adopts a tiny, tight voice and turns her hands into little mouths as she slips into her imitation of a Guild lady.
"I have a big house, a fancy car, and a big hairdo, so I have to be the best, and I have to put other people down to make myself be better," Sauser mocks. "The Guild is like a little kid that says, 'I can jump higher than you can. My hair is longer than your hair.' It's the same thing."
Sauser stops flapping her hands and breaks out in laughter at the absurdity of the situation. Although she wouldn't join the Guild even if she could, Sauser says the recent criticisms of it, and especially of Palmlund, aren't helping the district.
"People sit back and say, 'Oh, she used to be a hairdresser and married well.' Well, I don't know her, and I don't care," Sauser says. "The biggest issue is not whether or not they're elitist, whether or not they like people who live in bigger houses, or whether they like people who drive fancy cars. The issue is the District."
Sauser refers to a recent article published in the Lakewood/East Dallas Advocate which boasted a large color photo of Guild members Palmlund, Victoria Wells, and Michelle Baus. The subject of the September article was the Guild's plans to market the Swiss Avenue Historic District.
"The people who saved Swiss Avenue in the 1970s worked about 10 years, and now it's our turn to take the next step," Palmlund told the Advocate, a glossy neighborhood monthly that's distributed free to 39,000 homes.
Sauser says the article is just the latest and most blatant example of the Guild's attempts to peddle itself as the official body of the District.
"When they come out in an article like this and say they are the representatives of the Swiss Avenue Historic District, they are at cross-purposes with the Swiss Avenue Historic District Association," Sauser says. "They cannot usurp the power of the Swiss Avenue Historic District Association."
It was for the District's sake that Sauser drafted a controversial letter two years ago, which numerous non-Guild sources say drove Palmlund away from the Association forever and helped transform the Guild into a meddling political machine.
During the 1995 annual budget meeting, held as usual in August, Palmlund informed the Association that the Guild had met privately with several real estate agents and decided that a brochure featuring Swiss Avenue homes would be a great publicity tool for the District. All she needed was $10,000 of the neighborhood's money.
Soon, the Association members discovered that several of the houses in the planned brochure just so happened to be for sale. At the time, Palmlund herself was asking $540,000 for her 5007 Swiss Avenue starter home--a Mediterranean-style house with four and a half baths, several "grand formal rooms," "intimate balconies," and a pool. (Her home, however, was not featured in the brochure.)
Sauser was in Cape Cod at the time of that meeting, but when she heard about Palmlund's request she promptly drafted a letter asking the Association to delay its vote on the matter.
Sauser says she didn't think it was right for the Association to spend its money on a brochure designed to help a few Swiss Avenue residents sell their houses. Especially at a time when the district's unpaved and pothole-riddled alleys are a hazard, and more lighting is needed throughout the District.
Moreover, Sauser and other Bryan Parkway residents didn't like the idea because Palmlund hadn't included any of the homes on their street. In explaining this exclusion, Palmlund is reported to have said, "Well, no one wants to see those little houses."
(Palmlund did not return the Observer's phone calls requesting comment on this.)
At a subsequent meeting, the Association agreed to give the Guild $5,000 for the brochure, but the compromise vote didn't please anyone. Earlier that year, Palmlund had raised a reported $60,000 for the neighborhood during a Christmas home tour she put on, and it didn't seem to her that $10,000 was too much to ask.
"To have people criticize [your work], you say, Hey! Where's the applause? Where's the pat on my back? My God," Palmlund says. "It hurts when you're put down and you're trying so hard."
Other residents didn't think the Guild should get a penny.
"It was a stupid idea. These people are fascinated with publicity brochures," says Jim Schutze, who is certain that the Guild is motivated by the desire to boost the property values of its homes. Schutze, the Dallas bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, reports that no one left the meeting happy, particularly Palmlund's entourage.
"They were furious. They screamed at the meeting. These are people that can't handle any kind of debate or compromise," Schutze says. "They fucking can't stand any opposition."
Eventually, the six-page glossy brochure came out, and one home from Bryan Parkway was included in it. Its cover features a photo of a smiling Guild member strolling down Swiss Avenue with her Izod-clad children. "Swiss Avenue Historic District. A Great Place For Family Living," the brochure declares.
Larry Johnson thinks it's symbolic that the Guild's first speaker was a plastic surgeon. A tall man with a deep laugh and country-boy mannerisms, Johnson is feared within the district for his unwillingness to mince words--and his willingness to openly criticize the Guild, especially Palmlund.
"Suzanne will never give up until she gets shot dead. And when she gets shot dead, she'll be terribly sad and hurt. But she has to be stopped," Johnson says. "It's gonna be war until it's over."
On this balmy fall evening, Johnson is joined by Bryan Parkway resident Jean Naczi, who had the unfortunate pleasure of serving as the Association's president during the year of the brochure. Besides the spat over funding the brochure, Naczi caught hell because she made the faux pas of putting up the median's Christmas lights before Thanksgiving.
Two years later, Naczi says she's still filled with regrets about her tumultuous tenure.
"I feel like, man, I should have done something better. We should have first listened to Suzanne's ideas about the lights in the bushes and the trees," Naczi says. "We've never had anything like this before."
Johnson, as usual, has sharper words. "What if they do all these elaborate things that we have no say in and then they move? Then you've got 20,000 azaleas with no money or means to take care of them," he says. "It's scary."
The sound of a nearby gunshot pierces the air as the pair sit on the front steps of Johnson's two-story estate--modest by Swiss Avenue standards--and contemplate how life has changed in the District.
Back in the old days--in the '70s, when the houses were still being renovated--Johnson says, the neighborhood had an air of mellow cooperation about it.
"Someone would walk up and say, 'Hey, are you working on this house?' You'd say, 'Yeah, want a joint?' And you'd go inside and smoke a joint," Johnson says.
Naczi slaps her naughty neighbor on the arm and offers some more-wholesome recollections.
"When I moved in, I was welcomed. People brought cheesecake over. That isn't being done now," she says. "Now the solution is get out the checkbook. It's a different way of thinking."
Both Naczi and Johnson stress that the Guild is motivated by good intentions, and agree that Palmlund is about the hardest worker they've ever seen.
The problem, they say, is that she and her friends have a tendency to make snooty comments that inadvertently insult the people who are barred from joining the Guild.
"She's a good leader. I have a lot of respect for her. She sometimes sticks her foot in her mouth and says things the wrong way, but she doesn't mean to," Naczi says.
Johnson is less charitable.
"A lot of the new people don't like diversity, and they live here because they can't afford to live in Highland Park," claims Johnson, who refers to the Guild as the Swiss Avenue Women's Gild because of its perceived lust for wealth.
"Some of the people on Swiss seriously don't think they have to deal with the people on Bryan Parkway. And it isn't even who has the most money--it's who has the best mortgage," Johnson continues. "I mean, gawwwwwleee. Is it ridiculous or is it ridiculous?"
Although Naczi tries to restrain herself when talking about Palmlund, she does offer up one anecdote, which she believes speaks volumes about Palmlund's personality and the nature of the Guild.
One Christmas, Palmlund invited Naczi to her house to participate in what Naczi thought would be a ceremony to usher in the holiday season. Then-Dallas Mayor Steve Bartlett was supposed to show up, and a choir was on hand to sing. Palmlund gave Naczi a candle and directed her to a stairwell, where she stood with several other neighbors.
Naczi recalls how she stood on the stairwell with her unlit candle, wondering when the ceremony would begin. When someone started taking pictures, it finally dawned on her that there wasn't going to be a ceremony.
"They never sang. They never lit the candles. They never had a ceremony. All it was was a photo op, this false thing that fizzled because the mayor didn't show up," Naczi says. "It felt weird. I thought people came to take pictures of an event that was actually occurring."
The telephone in Gary Ahr's Mercedes rings. It's Gary's wife, Sarah, calling to say she's going to the gym to work out and won't return to their Swiss Avenue home until about nine. Sarah Ahr is not a member of the Guild, but Gary won't say why as he gives a rolling tour of the Swiss Avenue median.
Ahr is the Bhoutros Bhoutros Ghali of the median, its chairman and point man, responsible for ensuring that the delicate mowing arrangement between the city and the Association is carried out. As part of the pact, the city mows the median every other week. In exchange, residents use the proceeds from their annual home tour to pay for mowers and tree trimmers during the alternate weeks.
The task costs the neighborhood an average of $10,000 a year, which may seem like a lot of money, but is just barely enough to keep the median presentable.
Ahr is so paralyzed by the fear of worsening relations between the Guild and the Association that the normally opinionated financial advisor declines to make even neutral comments about the skirmish.
He will, however, confirm that representatives of the Guild and the Association's median committee recently met to discuss the issue.
"All five of us agreed that we weren't going to put in azaleas or any other plants that would be high-maintenance," says Ahr, who stresses that any final decisions on the median must be approved by the Association.
The sensitive negotiations were called after the Guild presented its "vision" for the median during the meeting inside the Aldredge house--the same meeting in which Johnson bluntly predicted civil war.
On that fateful evening, the neighborhood spat came to a head as the Guild women unveiled their plan to plant flowers in the median and install moonlights, which hang from trees like over-priced Christmas lights.
Exactly who presented what idea at the meeting is a bit cloudy. When reached by telephone, Association President Al Tatum declined to pass on a copy of the minutes from the meeting.
For now, the question of whether azaleas will be taking root in the median cannot be answered with any certainty, but Ahr says the two factions have identified some basic priorities.
First, the plan is to finish the edging work and install additional turf and shrubbery. The committee agreed that the moonlights are a good idea if and only if the Guild can raise enough money to pay for them.
"The goal is for us all to work together," Ahr says. "We can't have a bunch of people freelancing in the median."
Ahr won't say it, but the agreement reflects a victory for the Association, which thought long and hard about landscaping back in the early 1990s. The Association wanted professional advice at the time, so it hired Texas gardening guru Neil Sperry to assess the median.
"His opinion was, less was more: Let the landscaping of the houses take the focus," Ahr says.
Ahr's negotiated cease-fire is in effect for now, but it is likely that the Guild will soon be gunning for its azaleas.
Palmlund concedes as much. "We're gonna take that on later," she says.
"It needs to be completed. It needs to look like Armstrong Parkway," adds Novorr, who's referring to the azalea-lined median in Highland Park. "It doesn't need to look like our yards, but it needs to look well-maintained. It needs to look like we love it."
The residents of Bryan Parkway didn't bother to RSVP the Guild for its hoity-toity, $60-a-head awards ceremony on October 4.
And the Guild, in turn, didn't let their absence spoil the party.
At 7:30 that Saturday evening, pairs of tuxedo-clad men and their elaborately costumed wives promenaded into the DMA for the long-awaited soiree.
Museum guests who didn't know the Guild is a social club might have mistakenly thought it was the official body of the Swiss Avenue Historic District, given the Guild's display of promotional materials. Indeed, an oversized scrapbook was placed in the museum's entryway--dangerously close to the District brochures. Like a family photo album, one of the book's first entries is a full-page dedication to Dr. Barton, the plastic surgeon.
"Some of us wondered what plastic surgery would be like," says Novorr, who breaks out into an extended giggle and adds, "Don't print that."
Wrapped in a black gown cut to accentuate her fit 38-year-old frame, Novorr's face lights up in surprise as she exchanges air kisses with a blonde woman named Roxanne.
"We don't just know each other as neighbors. We worked in the trenches together," Roxanne says, apologizing for missing some of the Guild's recent teas. She pauses for a moment to prevent a teardrop from smearing her mascara and, after some hesitation, spontaneously flings her arms around Novorr. "I missed you, Martha. I really did."
For $60 a head, the Guild's guests were treated to hors d'oeuvres, two drinks, and a private viewing of the DMA's Egypt exhibit. The guests were also encouraged to participate in a silent auction to raise money for the Guild.
The items on sale included a Road Warrior 2000 Extreme Cigar Protection Device, a bottle of Chateaulafite Rothschild 1984 Bordeaux Wine, and a wine-tasting class for 30 people at Tony's Wine Warehouse & Bistro.
(Generally speaking, Tony's Michel Monzain does not recommend the 1984 Bordeaux because the French territory suffered its wettest and coldest May in 25 years. Besides, the region's pro-Nazi leaders were responsible for sending 1,690 Jews, including 223 children, to their deaths during World War II.)
But the real purpose of the soiree was to give the Guild members an opportunity to honor themselves and their corporate sponsors, which included WFAA-Channel 8 and Mary Kay cosmetics, with Magnolia awards.
Much to the Guild's delight, Mary Kay President Tim Wentworth was there in person to collect his porcelain Magnolia, which he did graciously, but with little comment.
But there was one very special Magnolia award recipient whose name did not appear on the program, because the presentation was meant to be a surprise.
As the ceremony neared its conclusion, Vanessa Hoffman solemnly announced that she was going to depart from the evening's schedule. The chatter in the room dropped to whispers, then silence, as Hoffman explained that the Guild wanted to honor a woman who can be depended on "as surely as the sun rises."
A woman, Hoffman said, who brought the Guild to life and is responsible for its many achievements--including the neighborhood's Sunday brunches and monthly teas.
"For all of her hard work," Hoffman said, pausing briefly for effect, "the Gala Committee gives the Magnolia Award to Suzanne Palmlund!"
The crowd rose to its feet and applauded as Palmlund shuffled to the podium, lifting her flowing brown gown from the floor as she walked. Visibly overwhelmed, Palmlund wiped a tear from her eye.
"This is an unbelievable surprise," Palmlund said. "[Swiss Avenue] is something to live for, especially in the '90s. We do tend to forget to slow down and realize what's important. My home to me is very important."
After regaining her composure, Palmlund in turn thanked all of the women who had helped make the Guild what it is today.
"These past 12 years, I've had the most incredible friendships," she said. "And the most that I've ever had anyone ask of me has been, 'What carpenter have you had?' Mine's in the audience tonight!"
When the Association puts on its annual Mother's Day Home Tour this spring, it will celebrate its 25th anniversary by emphasizing the District's role in renovating old East Dallas.
The Guild, meanwhile, has its own plans.
In December, it's hoping to raise some money by opening up Palmlund's house for a separate version of the home tour, one that isn't an official Association event.
"I personally don't care if they [the Association] never do a tour. That's part of what they do, and they have fun and they raise money," Palmlund says.
While some of the District's other residents may be leery of the Guild's fundraising methods, Hoffman says it wouldn't hurt them to consider the possibility that the ladies might know a thing or two about fundraising.
"We need to move forward, and I think we have provided a vehicle that enables the District, working hand-in-hand with them, to move forward," Hoffman says, lowering her voice to a whisper. "And people are resistant to change. For some people, change is like, 'Oh no!'"
As the discussion on Palmlund's porch veers toward the subject of the Guild's critics, the frequency of the three women's nervous giggles increases. They are not, they insist, trying to undermine the Association's power.
"We haven't shut ourselves off from the District," Novorr protests. "We've had the entire District over for an Easter egg hunt. I do the vintage Santa Claus, and they're all invited to our home, and Santa's there, and the children sit on Santa's knee."
By the time the allotted 30 minutes is up, Palmlund has grown inpatient with the questions. No longer able to hold her tongue, Palmlund throws a barb at her childish critics. In order to be in the Guild, Palmlund says, you have to at least act like you're in the first grade.
"If I don't want to join something, I just don't join," she says. "I don't make trouble for them. Go interview their employers and find out if they cause the same trouble in their jobs and their churches and their schools.
"We're very high-energy women," she adds. "We're not little book-club women, you know.